Below, we will discuss acting, acting styles, and how to assess acting in a film.
Stage and Film. While film acting takes an overwhelming majority of its core tenets from stage acting, there are some important distinctions between the two. Of primary importance are location and intimacy. In stage acting, the audience is in a fixed location from the action. This creates situations where actors must act with their costars but also to the audience. Stage acting will often feature monologues or dialogues where characters do not look at each but rather out at the audience. Such a dynamic would look wrong in film. While film actors do not always look at each other (sometimes a director may want to emphasize the communication breakdown by having the characters face away) they never need to focus on a fixed audience.
Intimacy is similarly important. In stage acting, the audience is far away from the actors. To accommodate, stage actors must project their voices and make exaggerated facial expressions so that even the people in the back row can understand the emotion and intent they are trying to convey. In film, when we want to see emotion and intent, we simply move the camera closer. A film actor can work with subtlety and nuance that a stage actor never could.
Stars and Star Studies. An entire branch of film theory is dedicated to the understanding of how stars work. Theorist agree that when we watch a movie star, we are no longer taking in a film as a solitary artistic experience, but rather also incorporating all of our outside knowledge of the star and his or her personal life, film library, and professional branding. When we watch a Tom Cruise movie, for example, we are never able to simply watch his character as a character-- instead, we are always aware we are watching Tom Cruise. That experience brings with all of our knowledge of his personal life (Scientology, failed marriage, that Oprah couch performance), his library (early career with Top Gun, playing against type in Tropic Thunder, franchises such as Mission Impossible), and his professional branding (sex symbol, action star). Because of all this, many theorists argue that Tom Cruise can never actually play a character-- instead, he's always playing Tom Cruise in every film.
Types of Actors. Not everyone can be a star! Certain actors carve out lengthy and lauded careers by finding a role type that suits them and perfecting it.
Stars. See above. Actors who transcend their leading roles over the course of several films.
Featured Players. Actors who frequently play lead characters in films.
Stock Players. Actors who play a variety of roles, but do not often lead films.
Supporting Players. Actors who fill out casts by playing supporting roles.
Assessing Performance. Beyond understanding the types of performers or why stars are important, we needed to think about how to talk about and assess acting performances. First, we need to think about what the goal of an actor is. An actor's goal is to bring a character to life, and to connect that character with the audience in some way. No easy task. We must also learn to filter out those other elements of film that viewers frequently confuse with acting, such as editing, staging, and, most commonly, writing. Great dialogue is not great acting. In many ways, directors who thrive on dialogue (such as Tarantino) often standing in the way of actors-- it is difficult to emote while talking. Instead, we will need to focus on the ways in which an actor communicates an interiority to the character-- those internal thoughts and feelings that film cannot capture.
So how can we assess an acting performance?
1. Appropriateness. Does the acting fit with the character? Does he or she speak like the character should speak? Does he or she behave in a way we would expect. Remember verisimilitude here-- we are not always looking for characters who behave in a "realistic" manner, but the acting should always make sense within the world of the film.
2. Emotionality. Also referred to as "thoughtfulness." Does the actor express emotion through careful and nuanced expressions? Good actors can convey thoughts with minimal action, and masterful actors can say everything with just a look.
3. Expressive Coherence. Here, we look for acting that stays true to a character. Does the way the character expresses this emotion or thought make sense given what we know and have seen from this character? Shy people do not suddenly become outgoing (unless they snap, which we should see coming); nervous people do not suddenly become confident. Beyond that, does the actor stay with the physicality of a character? How does the character walk? Talk? Does he or she have any ticks or quirks? These expressions need to remain coherent throughout.
4. Wholeness and unity. The changes we see in a character need to make sense within the framework of the story. Characters change, but only after they go though experiences that make them change. We should see these changes expressed through the character, which means that the actor must synthesize the narrative into his or her performance.
What is "The Method?"
"Method acting" is a term that gets thrown around loosely, but has its basis in acting schools. In order to understand method acting, we need to remember that films are almost never shot in order. One day, we might be filming an action-packed chase scene from the third act, and then hours later we are filming a touching romantic moment. Actors might have to transition between scenes in which they love each other and then hate each other. Method acting is a technique for adapting to the needs of the scene by invoking the personal lives of the actors. Method actors are conditioned to connect experiences from the real lives to the characters they play. We have all-- at some point in our lives-- experienced every emotion. The Method teaches actors to tap into memories of those moments and draw them out at a moment's notice, expressing them as their character might. While media frequently focuses on the ridiculous means actors go through to embrace The Method, the technique is standardized and has stood the test of time.