A film actor’s “talent” comes in different forms. As a teacher of Acting for the Camera, I see talent emerge in the most unexpected ways, and I am constantly redefining for myself what it is we mean when we speak of “talent.” Sometimes I am impressed by subtlety and at other times I want the actor to bring more to the table. As a film actor trains and learns the medium, she can harness her talents and bring them to every role she plays – with economy. Every actor is an individual with a unique set of characteristics (or assets), and some actors never get the role that allows them to fully express their talent. But if it can be broken down into separate components – a list of things that get us closer to a full definition involve intelligence, emotional access, sense of story, empathy, compassion, sensitivity, physical ability, physical gifts, instincts, focus, and drive.
Did I mention courage?
Charlize Theron’s portrayal of Aileen, the unattractive and murderous prostitute, in Monster (2003), demonstrates clearly many of the above characteristics. Theron’s courage drove her to pursue the project and fully commit herself to its success every step of the way (she was also a producer). Her tenacity and focus made it all happen, from production to a brilliant performance. Her convincing physical embodiment of the role, her fluid emotional access, and her compassion for the needs of the character all contributed to what we might label as her “talent.” Of course, with the help of extensive makeup, a great script, and a technically well-shot film, she had help in completely removing herself from her South African boarding school roots. In other projects, Theron injured her vocal cords screaming in childbirth for a scene in The Road (2005) and suffered a herniated neck disc while filming back handsprings for the movie AEon Flux (2005). Learning your limits is wise, but testing those limits is a necessary part of exploring your talent.
Film performances are crafted as a byproduct of filmmaker and actor collaboration. Different actor/director combinations will yield different chemistries and tap different talents. Actors come in as many different shapes and sizes as snowflakes, they adhere to different acting schools, and all have different ways of working. Successful directors are keen at identifying what actors do best and can help them bring those qualities to the forefront of a performance on set. Successful film actors allow those qualities to emerge and always do it with economy. Her are three great examples:
Mandy Patinkin is finding new fans from his current turn in the Showtime series Homeland, but the 60-year-old actor has a long history working on both stage and screen. With a grounded voice, he finds a very natural, honest and completely filled performance that is both sparing and unrelenting. The understatement of his character (Saul Berenson, a CIA agent) is the product of his long career in films, TV, and theater, most of which demonstrates a brilliant execution of the qualities that make him compelling to watch.
Michael Shannon, in his role as Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, plays his role as a religious, Prohibition-era federal agent in a restrained and brutal manner. Period setting and costumes surely help channel a powerful performance with minimal movement.
Aubry Plaza’s character, April Ludgate, on the NBC-TV series Parks and Recreation, delivers a deadpan performance that is often emotionless, which is characteristic of much (but not all) of her other work, and also at the heart of her comic genius. She knows what to do with a scarcity of lines (and manages to steal the show).
Talent varies from actor to actor. In all cases, craft and skill are paramount to a film actor’s ability to realize a compelling performance for the camera. Knowledge of self and knowledge of medium might sum it up. The marketability of an actor’s talent is rarely in proportion to the talent itself, which is why it behooves the actor to embrace what might make you professionally viable. It simply is the nature of the industry – and it tells us there are many talented actors out there who have yet to find that role that brings them to our attention.
Written by Glenn Kalison, Chair of Acting Department, New York Film Academy.
Glenn Kalison received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Irvine and has since worked as an actor on films that include Clutter (with Carol Kane and Natasha Lyonne), The Good Shepherd (directed by Robert De Niro), Mystery Team (with Donald Glover and Bobby Moynihan), a Sundance Film Festival hit; and on television productions that include Elementary, Smash, Law and Order: SVU, Law and Order, Law and Order: CI, Lights Out, As the World Turns among others; and many off-Broadway and regional stage productions. He is the Chair of the Acting Department at the New York Film Academy.
Top image: Aileen Wuornos (real life character played by Charlize Theron in “Monster,” 2003)