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.