The only people who say that acting is easy are people who don’t act.
Once you’re on-camera or out on the stage, it quickly becomes clear just how much actors need to manage, from their emotional buildup to facial expression during each moment to body language and how their character will react to every other character and every line of dialogue.
Learning how to do all this and more can be crucial when trying to earn work as a professional actor, but where can these skills be learned and internalized?
There are acting classes of course, and working on amateur productions can be a great way to dip a toe in the water, but these experiences end much more quickly than you’d think.
Musicians can practice their instruments any hour of the day, and visual artists can spend their free time sketching or painting. But is it possible for actors to improve their craft while at home?
Jeannine Friedrich believes they can.
“I think that you could practice acting in almost any situation. So much of acting goes into listening to the person you are speaking to. Really being aware and present in the moment is vital for a good performance and luckily you can practice this skill anywhere.”
Friedrich has been a performing artist for many years, noted for working directors and choreographers who have staged productions in Broadway and London’s West End.
Lately, she has been acting in short films that have been nominated for inclusion in the Zurich Film Festival and the Winterhurer Kurzfilmtage.
Friedrich’s talents and accomplishments as an actress make her a premier source when it comes to learning acting skills at home, where the only input that truly matters is your own.
So let’s start with a few concrete examples of acting exercises you can try on your own. Keep in mind that during and after these exercises, you’ll need to be your own worst critic. Sure, you can ask for input from others later on, but you should know your own strengths and weaknesses better than anyone.
Friedrich also suggested recording yourself during these exercises, which, thanks to smartphones, should be very easy.
Just make sure you’re fully in the frame and let it roll. Being able to review this footage later on will help you be more honest about your performances and can help track how you improve over time.
Everybody ready? Let’s take a look at a couple of exercises that you can try out just about anywhere.
“Playing out three phone calls to three different people is a great one to start with. The people you choose can be anyone in your life. Try to do different emotional states based on your attitude and relationship toward these people. Additionally, you can do them one after another while you are doing other things like getting ready for bed or doing chores.”
The real advantage of this acting exercise is how it inspires reactions and emotions that are completely genuine and simply part of who you are.
Chances are you’ll feel at least slightly differently about each of the people you choose. You won’t have to ask yourself how you feel, you’ll know immediately. It’s all informed by your life.
During the exercise, it’s natural to access these feelings, and the act of accessing those feelings is exactly what you’ll be doing during a job.
When you’re able to use real emotions, your performances will immediately be more believable and it will be easier for audience members to connect with your character.
The imitation station
“Another exercise is miming what you see on screen and repeating it in front of the mirror. This way you can really get to know all your expressions and how it looks. You can even try to imitate certain sounds and accents by watching scenes and repeating them right afterward.”
This second exercise is all about learning from example, and when it comes to acting, what better examples do we have than the incredible work that has already been done.
The streaming era has offered all of us an unprecedented amount of access to the great movies and shows of all time.
Actors should start to think of this access not only as entertainment but as a vital resource that can teach them many different things about their craft.
The asterisk to this exercise is that doing a direct imitation of another actor in the context of a real performance can lead to problems. Worst of all, it may prevent you from finding your own voice as an actor.
But when it comes to practicing as an actor, it can be both helpful and fun to slip into a well-known performance and try it on for size.
We’re sure that you already have a list of your favorite actors, movies, and performances. From there, choose a scene you feel would be especially challenging.
You can do a one-for-one imitation or you can use the performance as a starting point and make your own tweaks.
There’s a lot to be learned from the greats, and it’s something you can do completely on your own as well.
Running lines: how helpful is it?
Now we’ll be moving on to more general subjects surrounding acting and how to prepare yourself for a role. Among these, running lines is one of the first topics that comes to mind.
We’ve seen it a million and a half times in media, the scene where an actor runs lines with a close friend or family member, only for the conversation to turn to something more personal.
While running lines is a great way to practice, is it as helpful as everyone says?
Short answer: yes it is, if you know what to focus on. Many actors think of running lines as a way to familiarize themselves with the dialogue and get a sense of how a scene is going to play out, and both of these are true.
But running your lines with someone else, according to Friedrich, also has a lot to do with learning how to listen.
“It’s very helpful to have someone to run lines with. You can pinpoint the exact parts that you are struggling with. You’ll see immediately if you are still thinking too much about the text. It’s also a good way to see if you can let go of the text and really listen to your partner.”
You’ve probably heard the phrase “acting is reacting” many times before, and it certainly fits here.
Reading a script and practicing lines is one thing, but when you’re with another actor who’s also in character, you have the opportunity to see how your character feels about every single sentence, and much of that emotional state is informed by how closely you’re paying attention to your counterpart.
When you really listen to the other actors in a scene, rather than getting caught up in your own character, certain nuances come to light. Being aware of those nuances and responding to them is a big part of what makes for a great performance.
Researching a character
Something that can really complicate your job as an actor is when you don’t really understand your character.
Every actor’s nightmare is to be on set, cameras rolling, without any idea of where to take the character or who they really are.
It’s a bit like arriving at a test back in high school without having studied at all. You’re unprepared, and that will lead to discomfort and maybe even irritability. All of a sudden you’re unhappy and the other actors will notice.
To avoid these kinds of situations, every actor should do their best to prepare and research their character as well as they can. But where should you start? If you’re playing a fictional character and you don’t have constant access to the director and writer, you’ll be on your own for the most part.
Friedrich says that her research into a character starts with the script, but becomes more involved from there.
“I want to find out what drives the character. Understanding where the character is from, their environment, the people the character surrounds themselves with; these are all very important to me. Rereading the script several times is helpful in so many ways. But I’m also able to do some exploration on my own and just try to be inside of this character for a short while. You can spend time in their shoes, so to speak.”
Method acting would be an extreme example of this research (take a look at ‘Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond’ for a closer look at the problems the Method can create on set), but there are many other ways to form a deeper connection with your character.
Above all else, spending time with the script and the character can have fantastic results. Yes, each character is different from you in many ways, but in the end, they’re still human. The character has their own set of imperfections, desires, and regrets.
Bringing that character to life for everyone to see isn’t just exciting and enjoyable, it’s also fulfilling. You’ll be able to tell when you’ve really started to understand the character.
Acting isn’t magic, it’s the result of hard work, or just maybe, it’s a little bit of both.