Your passport to good acting

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When I was young I thought acting was my passport to getting to be someone else – and I couldn’t wait!  So you can imagine my surprise, frustration and terror when I discovered that  good acting is actually a no-holds barred ticket to discovering yourself, a journey that can take you to places you never expected to go.

In 2010 I had the honor of working with Penny Templeton on her book “ACTING LIONS.”  Below is a small excerpt that addresses this need for actors to know, be, and accept who they are.

Creating You

“There is vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and he lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.” —Martha Graham

Take off the mask

A vital part of the artist’s journey is the path to finding yourself

To discover and embrace who you really are.

To connect to your power by taking off your mask.

To let your core essence shine through to illuminate every part of your work.

How liberating to take the risk to be you!

Embrace your vulnerability

            Often actors are embarrassed about what makes them unique. Many actors are afraid that they are not enough. They think they are “too nice” or “not nice enough” and try to hide themselves behind a “confident” cover or a “nice” cover or an “attitude” cover of what they think they should show, when in fact what they need to show is their truth. Insecurity, pain, sexuality, shyness, remorse can be the actor’s most effective tools. The things we regret or embarrass us most in our lives are often the most powerful and useful experiences we can draw on as actors.

Dare to bare your true self

            One of my actors was cast as the lead in a huge feature film. The director chose him over well- known stars because he had an unbeatable combination of elegance and fierceness. When I went to see the film, I realized this actor had not revealed the powerful, unrelenting side of himself essential to the character he had been cast to play. The reviews were not good. The actor wanted to know what I honestly thought. I shared my wish that he had shown his fierceness in the role.  He then revealed that his family didn’t like that wild and out of control side of him. He had decided to change his original choices from his audition. He wanted the audience to “like” him. But the simple truth was that if he had auditioned with the performance that wound up in the film, he would never have been cast in the first place.

            The embarrassing or uncomfortable qualities of actors are often what audiences connect with. When you bring the essence of you to a character, the audience thinks, “Wow! You’re brave to show what you’re really like! Fantastic!” Audiences love to see real behavior on the stage or screen—the craziness of Jack Nicholson, the self-deprecation of Ben Stiller, the painful shyness of Diane Keaton, the quirky intelligence of Sandra Bullock, the haunting quality of Benicio Del Toro, the private painful side of William H. Macy. These actors have great range, but they are cast repeatedly because they bring their uniqueness to every role.

Who am I?

            How do you put your finger on the pulse of who you really are? Take the time to step outside yourself, search your soul, and examine this “character” you play in real life the same way you would a character you play on stage or screen. Go on the hunt! Ask your closest friends to be brutally honest—“How would you describe ‘me’ in three words?” Be even braver and ask your family. Dig into yourself to ask, “Is there anything secret that I’m afraid to reveal?”

            Here’s a great exercise that I learned from casting director, Karen Kayser. Get together with other actors and record interviews with each other on a video camera. In the replay, stop tape as each person appears on the screen. Ask everyone’s first thought when that person is seen on camera. What kinds of professions could that person be cast as? Nurse? Farmer? Doctor? Construction worker? Businessman? Mother? What about age range? What kind of person does this actor look like? The nice friend? The bad guy? The abused wife? The young heroine? Don’t be afraid of being brutally honest. We categorize and evaluate people every day in real life, audiences do it from their seats and casting directors do it from behind the table.

            In an interview in Screen Actor’s Guild Magazine, Karl Malden illustrated the importance of knowing your type. He said, “The biggest lesson I learned was that I wasn’t a leading man, that I was a character actor… So I said, ‘If I am going to stay in this thing, I’d better be the best character actor I can be.”‘

Develop your unique qualities

“You’ve gotta be original, because if you’re like someone else, what do they need you for?” – Bernadette Peters

            Training to be your own best creation is an ongoing project. Look for teachers who not only work on strengthening your acting skills, but who help you to discover the individuality that makes you “You.”

            My Method teacher, Pat Grantham, used to make observations about the actors in our class; how we looked and what was special and singular about each of us. Even if it were a beginning actor, she would find something, but I observed it was always truthful. When we walked into a room or performed, we knew who we were and what was unique about each of us.


Wishing you much joy on your journey of discovery!  ~ Staci Swedeen


Excerpted from ACTING LIONS:  Unleashing your craft in today’s lightning fast world of Film, Television and Theatre. Published by Penny Templeton Studio, Inc, New York, NY.

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