What does it take to be an actor?

All it takes to create a great performance is method acting, audience empathy and a pursuit of the fantasy world.

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An actress covered in blood with arms open yells at the sky
Credit: Manuel Harlan

On the surface, the question seems impossible to answer. Firstly, the method one actor employs may seem anathema to another actor. Take method acting: while hailed as the ‘Holy Grail’ by the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Al Pacino, the method is decried by none other than Meryl Streep, the most Oscar-nominated actress in history. What works for one may not work for another.

Secondly, the interpretation and perception of a character are undeniably subjective. Actors disagree with directors. Different auditionees give vastly divergent readings. The audience don’t see eye to eye with the cast. When Ian McKellen, at his most expressive, took King Lear’s deluded words literally – ”I am every inch a king” – on the London stage, his own feeling of unprecedented liberation was juxtaposed by the tangible discomfort in the eyes of some of the audience.

Answering this question leads us to a tangled web of seemingly unresolvable differences. To give a single clear, unifying answer would be to commit the cardinal sin of thinking that one can put the inexplicably nuanced desires and fears, love and hatred, tenderness and stubbornness, goodness and evil of billions into one box. It would be to make the ego-satisfying declaration that all of us, by virtue of being human, can be reduced to the same analysable psyches.

The point of a great performance is to create a believable alternative world to reality – we know it’s fictional, but still want to believe in it. We may even fantasise about the unseen moments of the characters’ lives and become emotionally invested. From on-screen fantasies such as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter to works which aim to convey realism such as The Bicycle Thief and 400 Blows, no matter how outrageously imaginary and other-worldly or authentic and harrowing, the audience are drawn to emote with the characters. The actors, while physically embodying the character they portray, convey a different personal history, psyche and life to their own.

The setting of the performance matters, but is not of paramount importance – as shown by modern interpretations of Shakespearean plays. Take the recent adaption of Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre whereby Agrippa is played by a woman in a business suit. We know that an Agrippa in Antony And Cleopatra in the historic period of ancient Egypt would not be wearing something akin to a modern-day police uniform. Nevertheless, the spirit and soul of the character come alive; the stern facial expression and upright stance convey her military background, whilst her tender moment of embrace with Anthony’s aide reveals her affection for an old friend. One may not relate to all her emotions or agree with all her decisions, but one believes that she is Agrippa in the same world as Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra. One believes in their universe.

Does the actor also believe in the same thing as us, the captivated audience? Does the actor have to? A great actor’s power lies in their ability to transform themselves, adapting convincingly to their role. Daniel Day-Lewis famously (or infamously depending on your perspective) spent time in a wheelchair for his Oscar-winning role in My Left Foot. Similarly, when preparing to play a blind character in the Oscar-winning The Scent of A Woman, Al Pacino pretended not to see anyone. Putting aside the potential detrimental effect on the actors and potential inconvenience to those around them, method acting seems to have its own merits.

However, staying in character throughout the rehearsal process is not necessary. When Laurence Olivier played Oedipus, for example, he did not have to believe himself to be the ancient Greek King who accidentally murdered his father and bedded his mother. He did not actually feel the urge to blind himself after the shocking discovery. But the audience believed him. In fact, in attempting to define Greek tragedy, Aristotle made the case that the point of tragedy was for the audience to experience collective pathos for the hubristic characters as a form of spiritual cleansing. So, what did the actor actually believe in in that space and time? The raw emotions? Or was he able to convey emotional devastation without actually experiencing it?

The audience reads emotions from a variety of sources: the flicker of an eyelid can convey uncertainty; a slightly bent back reveals insecurity; a smile sparks joy. Brain waves and stimulations in the nervous system may hardly resemble the emotional feelings that go through our heads and hearts; nevertheless, they are the scientific cause of them.

On the other hand, a famous saying runs in the acting world: ‘less is more’. It could be that the actor simply has to be a blank canvas, as it were, to let the audience project their ideas upon. An example would be Kristin Scott Thomas’ towering performance in the second run of Peter Morgan’s The Audience. She barely moves from her original position at the start of each scene. The audience can detect minimal facial expressions apart from the measured, stately one that puts her Queen Elizabeth II above the political ploy of her ministers. Despite this understated performance, the audience cannot help but magnify her every minute emotion and thought. In minimising movement, she maximises the emotional impact of what would otherwise be an unrelatable, untouchable, and incomprehensible character.

As well as the presence of actor and character in a single body, there must be a dialogue between the various figures sharing a stage. Acting is, at its core, the manifest expression of empathy, between fellow performers as well as character and interpreter. Each night, at the start of the 2016 Barbican production of Dr Faustus. The two rival leads would alternate playing Faustus and Mephistophilis depending on whose match burnt out first. Playing off each other and tesselating as performers was a novel challenge each rendition.

It is undeniable that acting is a holistic experience, encompassing everything from the physique to the psyche. But does an actor’s own personality impact the performance? Is confidence on stage a prerequisite or does neurosis itself provide a form of motivation? Does openness in life translate into expressiveness on stage? What about shy actors, or alcoholic actors who still manage to function on stage?

Ralph Fiennes admitted to being reserved in real life, yet has managed to deliver exceedingly charismatic performances on stage with unparalleled vocal ability: for example, his memorable delivery of Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’, presented with his back to the audience.

What is it that drives actors? Is it the desire to entertain, to explore or to provoke? Tom Hiddleston, winner of the Evening Standard Best actor award, told ‘The Guardian’ that private vulnerabilities fascinate him. Is it a situation of each to his own?

Perhaps the answer to these questions lies in accepting its very unattainable nature. One does not give up on the effort to deliver a good performance; one simply accepts all the weird and wonderful elements that come from different actors, which enrich each performance. “The world is your stage” – there is a bit of an actor in each of us.

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