CIT Flashback Friday – 10 Secret Skills Every Actor Should Have

Here are some Black Belt actor tips from yesteryear: Star date – June 2014

If you spend any time seriously pursuing a career as an actor, there is no shortage of people telling you what you need to learn. Theories of acting, industry standards, and the nuances of technique are constantly being analyzed, explained, broken down, and re-imagined. (Many of them right here! On this blog! Previous articles of which you can always access . . . ahem . . .) But what about the skills no one tells you to learn? There is a whole world of things every actor should grasp that never make it into Acting 101. Some of these skills are assumed givens. Some seem, on the surface, to be divorced from an actor’s reality and so are ignored. The problem is, there are tasks and concepts actors routinely have to perform and appear to understand. When the actors don’t appear to have mastery of them, it takes the audience out of the moment, and valuable storytelling is lost. So in the interest of not looking incompetent, here are 10 things every actor should know before ever touching a script.

1.     Know How to Clean Things

If you didn’t grow up sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, vacuuming, plunging, and polishing everything in your house (or if you did, and suspect your training may leave something to be desired), learn how clean stuff. Know what products to use, how to hold and wield every cleaning implement, and how to efficiently accomplish each task. This stuff often slips by directors, but there is an entire generation or two out there who are going to disconnect when your supposedly 1950s housewife character irons a shirt starting with the sleeves instead of the collar. Bonus points if you can clean and/or operate outdoor machinery, like grills or wheelbarrows.

2.     Know How to Cook Things

Much like cleaning, cooking is one of those things that sticks out like a sore thumb when done incorrectly. Think of how many films, plays, and television episodes feature a character preparing food at some point (Hint: Pretty much all of them). So knowing your way around a kitchen pays off big time in the believability department. If you’re more of a microwave chef, get schooled in the basics. Learn how to wash, prep, chop and season things (there is a wrong way to do each of these). Get used to using a gas versus electric stove. Suss out the appropriate utensils for each task. Even if you miraculously never have to do this in front of a camera, you will at least know how to feed yourself. Thanks, acting career!

3.     Know How to Dress Yourself

“Oh, come on! I dress myself every day!” That’s you, logging a valid complaint. SLAP! That’s me, bringing you down to earth with tough love truth and the steely-eyed coach’s glare that tells you we’re here to win, dammit. It is probably true that most of us have the getting dressed thing down pat. Within our modern age and comfort zone, that is. Would you feel as confident getting laced into a corset? Swinging a suit coat around your head like Martin Sheen in The West Wing? Do you know how to shave sideburns? Being conversant in a wide range of fashion and all its attending buttons, zippers, layers, and complicated undergarments can help you adapt to new costumes with ease. This includes makeup, shaving and hairstyling if you aren’t well-versed in those areas. Think about it. In your daily life, putting yourself together is a familiar routine, often performed on autopilot. The same applies to the characters you will play (most of whom will differ from you in style and background).

4.     Know How to Drive and Otherwise Navigate

This includes all sizes of vehicles and public transportation. While no one expects you to come to your starring role in Semi Summer knowing how to drive an eighteen wheeler, you should at least look comfortable behind the wheel. Also, if you never take public transportation, start experimenting. Notice how people behave on buses versus subways, etc.

5.     Keep Up With Technology

Like it or not, technology and is a huge part of our global culture. It is also changing, improving and rendering its predecessors obsolete at breakneck speed. That means that we actors need to stay on top of it, not only to remain relevant and competitive, but also to be able to portray all levels of technology users accurately.

6.     Pay Attention to Vernacular

Listening to colloquialisms and speech patterns is an important one. This will really damage your believability for an audience if you mess up. Like technology, language is constantly evolving, and writers may not catch everything, so it’s up to you to keep an ear out for awkward or misused jargon. Some writing might just be dated—how often do you use the word “computer” versus “laptop?” It may not seem to matter, until you’re supposed to play a popular teen in a show aimed at young audiences. I once had a friend scoff at a LOST episode where musician/addict Charlie said “I want my drugs back.” My friend claimed no one who uses in real life refers to their chosen substance as generic “drugs.”  While there may well have been a reason for the writers to remain purposefully vague, the point is that clumsy use of vernacular took my friend out of the moment. It is of course the actor’s responsibility to remain faithful to the text, but it is also our responsibility to open dialogue about the intent. When the two clash, we should at least point it out (and then make it work when we have to).

7.     Venture into the Great Outdoors!

Having a basic understanding of how to function outdoors is something no one is going to teach you in an acting class. Especially in film, eventually you might run into a role that requires you to look at home in varying degrees of wilderness. If you’ve always been a city mouse, take a camping trip. A simple stroll through the woods will help you learn things like how to move without disturbing wildlife. No one is going to tell you these things, but anyone who has spent any time outdoors will spot a city slicker in about two seconds.

8.     Have a Grasp of Human History

We just have to. In order to remain versatile as an actor, one has to be able to blend into any era. And in order to do that, we must be conversant in human history. Having a handle on the changing conventions, values, and stakes of the ages lays the foundation of an honest and specific performance.

9.     Figure Out Religion

This is another one that will ring false if you phone it in. Religious and spiritual experiences crop up a lot in every type of media. Actors are often required to portray the devotion, faith, wonder, and zealotry that accompany all forms of religion. Even Yoda believes in the force! Even if you have attended every Sunday service since your birth, find a way to discover what the many incarnations of spiritual belief mean to you. Think about the difference between an old fashioned terror in a literal devil and a more contemporary metaphorical understanding. A Greek pantheon of gods inspires a different religious experience than the son of a New York Rabbi might have. Going back to history, think about the changing relationship of religion and day-to-day culture. It will alter the stakes of your character, which means you should figure it out.

10.  Bonus: Be a Renaissance Human!

This isn’t one you can always predict. As actors, we are constantly asked to play people with skills we lack. Our characters may be musicians, chemists, spies, or ballerinas and obviously we cannot become instant masters of every craft. But what we can do is thoroughly research every circumstance and skill we are assigned, including finding someone who does have the background we are supposed to be fluent in. It also helps, as cheesy as it sounds, to be well-rounded. Be a Renaissance human. Use your hobbies to your advantage. The more random skills you pick up, the more marketable you are. And the more you accustom yourself to the act of learning, the faster you will adapt to in your career as an actor.

These are just some things to be aware of that will make your life as an actor easier. Basically what it boils down to is that in order to reflect humanity you have to experience a bit of it. So have fun living and call it acting research.

 

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com