“There are no small parts, only small actors.” – Laurence Olivier.
Have you ever been watching a play or movie and said to someone, “wow, that actor really stole the scene!” This is what Olivier was talking about: how a great actor can own a scene, no matter how small their part in it. To commit to your acting to this degree requires seriousness, skill and real passion.
I want to talk about what I call the “three deadly sins” of acting. These sins are what holds an actor back from greatness, and from commitment. These sins are indecision, doubt, and fear: feelings that plague so many people that half the self-help book industry addresses them. In an actor, however, they’re particularly cumbersome. When your job is to be confident, even one of these three sins could be a problem.
The Three Deadly Sins
Fear is a problem because it holds you back from making bold choices in your acting. Fear is the little voice inside your head that asks, “what if this doesn’t work? What will the other actors think?”
You must remember that you have control over this voice. Think of it as a dog that’s taking you for a walk instead of the other way around: tell it to stop. You could even train that voice, so that every time you feel it niggling at your self-esteem you pay yourself a compliment: “you are brave! That’s a novel choice!”
Once you allow yourself fearless self-expression, your creativity can flourish. Just as importantly, it allows your scene partners’ creativity to flourish too – if they know they can be experimental and honest in their rehearsals with you, you can build on each others’ portrayals.
This could never happen if you were crippled by fear.
Indecision is the leading cause of reviews containing the word “lacklustre”. Without strong and decisive creative choices, a character’s portrayal can seem vague and weak.
If you commit to a decision then you are taking a creative stand – so, yes, it can be hard to do. However, your decisiveness means that you will never be seen as a “weak” actor. Perhaps, at worst, someone might call your choice an “odd interpretation,” but this, at least, is subjective.
Moreover, casting directors like actors with strong and clear opinions about their characters. Decisive choices about the character you’re auditioning for will make it clear that you’re familiar with the character and the context, as well as showing that you can produce a powerful embodiment.
Otherwise known as indecision’s little sister, doubt is a sin after the fact. It’s the little voice that waits until you’ve quietened those of fear and indecision, and then asks: “did I make the right choice?”
Remember the catchphrases of the Instagram generation: “no regrets,” “you only live once”. Commit yourself to the choice you’ve made, and continue on positively. You can’t take it back, and doubt does nothing to help you.
Doubt will only weaken your acting, as you spend your time mulling over previous choices instead of focusing on owning your next ones.
Case Studies In Commitment
Her work seems effortless, but it is far from. A student of Meisner’s Technique, she is well trained in method and, in particular, physical acting techniques. This is where her commitment comes from.
You’ll notice that even without dialogue, she can convey multiple emotions. She seems so “natural,” and all because she’s an expert study of human nature. During filming of The Iron Lady, a fellow cast member recalls a speech that attests to Streep’s commitment to a role’s small details:
“I’m Meryl. Please do forgive me if I talk in this accent all day, but if I don’t keep it up between takes I’ll lose the bloody thing and not get it back.”
Meryl was confident in her choice to commit to the accent, and her fellow actors were charmed by it.
Nicholson is one of two actors, and the the only American, to have been nominated for an Oscar in every decade since the sixties. He’s worked hard, yes, but more importantly he committed himself to every role, no matter how small.
He got his first screen role in an episode of Matinee Theatre, in 1960. He had a small role, “Musician’s Son,” with a total of four words. He performed these four words so well that his next role was as the lead in a film. He did this by committing to every second of his character’s screen time.
The man’s a film legend, and an acting as well as an action hero for many. Something you might not know about McQueen is that whenever he got a new script, he would look for ways to reduce the lines. This gave him less to remember, but what he’d tell directors is what every great director wants to hear: that they can cut a couple of paragraphs because the actor can speak them with just a look.
So you want to be the next Nicholson or Streep? Acting doesn’t just happen when you open your mouth. Acting is committing to an embodiment; that means your whole body. The next time you’re reading through a scene, take a moment to dissect the thoughts of your character in every second of it.
What are you thinking when you’re speaking your lines?
When you’re reacting to someone else’s lines?
When you’re watching an event unfold?
Now try to adapt these “lines of thought” into a physical act. For example, when your character is thinking “This person’s story doesn’t add up,” they might convey this in the face, the hands, or the stance. How would you interpret it?
I challenge you to be bold in your next rehearsal. Be confident, decisive, and have no regrets. See how liberating it feels, and how it liberates your scene partners too; confidence is not selfish.
If you find you enjoy it, you might have what it takes to be a great actor. I encourage those of you who are ready to truly commit to your acting career to apply for my Ultimate Acting Programme, which takes only the most committed actors.