Acting Is Hard

In undergrad, I once took an acting class. I got a B+, which is not a great grade by my standards. Our grade was mainly based on two monologues. I did rather poorly on the first, from Neil Simon’s Chapter Two. However, I did so well on the second, from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, that when we had a final performance I had to go last because no one wanted to have to follow my ranting, raving Antonio Salieri. I learned a fair amount about the technique of acting, things like psychological gestures, centers of movement, and how important body and movement are as part of playing a part. I learned that I am quite capable of playing a small range of parts (villains) but not so much others. However, the main lesson I really took away about acting was that acting isn’t easy. There is natural talent involved in acting and having natural talent or just particular inspiration can carry a performance, but technique does exist and does add to performance ability.

The best actors typically invest time and energy into their preparation, not just in terms of understanding their characters and the works in which they are performing but also in terms of understanding techniques and theories that underlie their work. That preparation gives them the ability to understand how to adapt to different situations, genres, etc. without having to hope for a bolt of inspiration to hit them along the way.

Something similar often happens in music. No matter how much training I ever had, my nearly tone-deaf ears mean that I would never sing like Michael Hutchence and my short, fat fingers mean that I would never be able to shred like Yngwie Malmsteen. However, it’s not unusual to see talented but little-trained musicians like Paul McCartney fall on their faces when they leave their area of expertise (McCartney’s classical works have not exactly met with critical praise.) while less-talented, better-trained musicians like Paul O’Neill (producer of Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra) have been able to seamlessly change genres and styles.

And yet, we see musicians try to move into acting with some regularity, with little evidence that most of them put any thought into the technique that should help them. As a result, many of them are left to stand or fall based purely on casting choices and natural talent, which is a difficult position that often leads to extreme results.

Probably the most successful transition from music to acting in recent years has been Justin Timberlake, and he has (as far as I can tell from Wikipedia–I’ll admit that I do not care enough about his music career to look more than that) quit music while switching to acting and at the same time been very smart about choosing his parts. He didn’t have to do anything but be sort of charming in The Social Network (David Fincher, USA 2010), Trouble with the Curve (Robert Lorenz, USA 2012), or Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA 2013), but he did that well enough. Maybe he can’t do anything else, but it’s smart to work within his limitations if that’s the case.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder if the reason why he’s been able to make that transition so much more successfully than people like Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Mos Def (Though admittedly it’s questionable whether his was a transition since he was trying to do both from the outset, like Will Smith and Zooey Deschanel [ugh]), and countless others who have made a few critically-panned appearances before returning to music is that he has committed fully to acting. There have been some people who have been successful at both at the same time, like Kris Kristofferson and Billy Bob Thornton (Commercial success has eluded Thornton, but he has been enormously successful with critics.), but those stories are few and far between.

I don’t know enough about Justin Timberlake to know whether he actually puts effort into preparation. The fact that he has essentially played the same simplistic part in every film makes me think that his success is mostly just a matter of choosing parts well rather than anything about the way he’s performing. But I just can’t shake the feeling that there may be more to him than he shows, because he may just be committed in a way that most musicians never are when they try acting on for size.

It may be that he’s one of the few who already knows that acting is hard. And I wonder if that’s just a difficult concept for some to understand.

7 thoughts on “Acting Is Hard

  1. Interesting post, but I’ll just be that guy to let you know that Timberlake hasn’t exactly quit music. He had the best selling album of 2013.

    • Like I said–not willing to put much effort into researching his music career. :P
      Wikipedia says he took a hiatus from music 2007-2012 and then announced his return in January 2013 after working on a new album off-and-on through the second half of 2012, though it also seems to note an awful lot of “guest appearances” in music during that “hiatus.” Anyway, he was just a vehicle to make a point. :)
      And more importantly, I actually wrote this because someone told me I “should . . . write about musicians who try to become actors.” After about three weeks of trying and constantly running into the roadblocks that (1) I don’t know musicians from the last 25 years and (2) I don’t have any interest in musicians from the last 25 years, this idea was the best I had–writing about how difficult acting is and using musicians’ failures as examples. Timberlake’s hiatus seemed like a good way to make the point.
      While the point is still valid, just a few minutes of looking still without going beyond the bounds of Wikipedia tells me that I chose a poor example to make the point. I have a feeling there is a lesson I should learn here . . .
      I did at least get another opportunity to diss Zooey Deschanel, though!

      • Ha, true.

        Also, 50 Cent and DMX seemed to have um, some modicum of success as actors. What about Eminem in 8 mile?

        • I never actually watched “8 Mile.” It seemed like the point was to be a commercial for his music, so I wasn’t interested.
          I actually have never seen (or, honestly, heard) 50 Cent or DMX. I had to look them up on the IMDb because I don’t even know who they are. When music is involved, you should just pretend I’m about 55 years old. :)
          I actually thought Sean Combs was good (if a bit melodramatic) in “Monster’s Ball” (Marc Forster, USA 2001) and Huey Lewis was probably the third-best actor in “Duets” (Bruce Paltrow, USA 2000), in a cast that included a number of pretty talented actors. David Bowie has generally acquitted himself well enough as an actor as well. And of course Mark Wahlberg turned out to be far more talented as an actor than he was as a musician.
          Something I always found weird that’s related: One thing that annoys me about Zooey Deschanel is that she doesn’t modulate her voice at all–it’s completely flat at all times, which seems bizarre for a singer. It’s interesting to contrast with fellow “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” actor Mos Def, who has one facial expression at all times but is often excellent at line readings, to the point that he’s actually fantastic in his guest appearance as a locked-in patient on “House.”

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