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How to tell a good actor from a bad one

This post was originally published in response to the question "How can you tell bad actors from good actors?" On Quora.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images for GQIf anyone tells you that there is an objective standard for this, that's bullshit. This topic is always about personal tastes. There are definitely trends that can be used as a guide. For example, many people love the acting skills of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Tom Hanks. If you're not one of them, then you are not wrong. At worst, you're just eccentric.

An interesting question and one that has not been asked, which is why we won't answer it here, is why there are trends. Even if Hoffman wasn't objectively a great actor, why do people love him? And while we're at it, why do people love the Beatles, Shakespeare or Leonardo Da Vinci? Maybe someone will take the trouble to ask why there are trends in tastes.

I am a director who has worked with actors for 30 years and is the son of an art historian. I'm going to give you my definition of a good actor here. I would like to emphasize one last time, after that I will also stop saying that I think Pacino is great and if you don't see it that way, then I am not wrong. It just means that we have different tastes.

For me, an actor is good when ...

He can convince me that he's going through whatever his character is going through

I'm also talking about physical things like “He was really shot!”, “He really jumps off a moving train!”, But mainly psychological things like “He's really scared!” Or “He's really in love!”. If an actor is just pretending to be doing the job, by my definition, he's not doing his job well.

He surprises me

That is the least clear requirement, but the most important. The little things that aren't supposed to attract attention, like the cashier cashing the hero's checks, aren't enough for an actor to come across as believable. Appearing real is a necessity, but it's just as important that I can't foresee his actions and reactions every time before they are taken.

Think about how a woman might react if her boyfriend breaks up with her. There are a great many real ways. These should appear as from a human being and not as from an alien who behaves improbably and strangely.

She could break down and cry. But she could also laugh hysterically. She could pour water on his face or she could have no expressions at all, making her face look numb.

The job of an actor is to know the range of human possibilities and also to be able to assess the scope of the individual possibilities. They have to be able to dig this out of their hodgepodge to surprise us. Otherwise, they'll get boring and predictable.

There are many ways an actor can surprise. Gary Oldman and Johnny Depp surprise us because they are honest while playing many different roles. Jack Nicholson surprises us because he's just surprising. Although he's not a chameleon like Oldman or Depp, you never know what he's going to do next. Whatever he does, however, is part of the psychological reality and it never seems to be posed.

Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Al Pacino and many others have surprising danger in them. They always seem a little scary because you think they can jump right in or explode at any time. They are ticking time bombs.

Comedic actors like Julia Louis-Dreyfus wow us in their quirky and wacky ways that are also quite surprising. Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant were utterly surprising and very real in "You Don't Kiss Leopards".

Another good example is Diane Keaton in The City Neurotic. There it looked surprising and never posed.

He is vulnerable

Good actors share the part of themselves that most other people hide. You are always naked. Some of them are literally naked, but I'm talking about the emotional nudity. Bad actors are often reluctant. They don't want to show the parts of them that are ugly, mean, petty, or jealous.

There are so many examples of actors being naked in movies or on stage. My favorite example is Rosalind Russel in "Picnic". Borrow it if you don't know it yet. In it she plays a middle-aged teacher who is afraid of getting old and dying alone. There is a heartbreaking scene in which she asks a man to marry him. She kneels in front of him and gives up every spark of self-respect. The fearful and vulnerable parts almost burst out of her.

These are the same fearful and vulnerable parts in all of us, the parts that we don't want anyone to see. Hiding these and keeping them inside takes a lot from us and one of the most beautiful gifts an actor can give us is when he gives up his dignity for us. They bare themselves for us so we don't have to do that. They are a little like Christ who died for us.

That sums up everything I wrote above. When actors are fresh and open, it's always surprising. If it doesn't seem real, it doesn't make sense. To be honest, this emotional nudity is difficult to mimic. Whenever you have the feeling that he's revealing a secret part of himself, he probably does too.

Good examples in my opinion are Julianne Moore or Bryan Cranston. When you get the chance, borrow “Conflict of the Heart”, but the original, not the remake, and check out Michael Redgrave. He turns himself inside out and brings out all his pain.

He knows how to listen

It's fascinating to see how actors act when they're not speaking. Some are so focused on their ego or technical subtleties, like being able to recite the next line, that they can concentrate on who they are playing with. Others register everything they hear. You can literally see how everything they hear affects them physically, as if the world is falling upon them. Check out Claire Danes, she is really good listener.

He has a well-honed "instrument"

By that I mean that he knows how to use his voice and body in such a way that he can serve whatever role he needs to play. That doesn't mean he has to be slim and walking around with a six-pack. James Gandolfini put his body to use very well. That means he can talk and move to say something. His voice and body do not fight him or have a tension that contradicts his role.

A negative example: Kristen Stewart. It is really painful to look at. She always looks like she'd rather be somewhere else than in front of the camera. She always seems very embarrassed and inhibited.

For me, Hoffman embodied all of these traits. He was really gifted physically and vocally. He wasn't in great shape, but he used his shape to express things. If you look closely at him when he's not talking, you always notice that he is listening very carefully to his colleagues. What they said has always touched him deeply and his reactions have always grown naturally from what was said to him or what was done with him.

He was deeply vulnerable. Always. That was its distinctive feature. You always knew that what you got from him was raw and honest. It was this rawness, along with his intelligence and reserved kind of humor, that made his work so refreshing and surprising. I've never seen anything of him that looked posed either.

I don't hate Tom Cruise like some other people do. To me, he's believable most of the time. It's just not very interesting. He doesn't surprise me very much, and it always seems to me that he doesn't go deep enough to reveal anything raw or vulnerable. It always seems to be locked. The most vulnerable thing I've seen of him was on Eyes Wide Shut, where he was really good. It wasn't brilliant though, and unfortunately that wasn't his norm either.

Keep in mind that a lot of people who aren't exactly directors, actors, or movie fanatics know what an actor brings to a movie. That's OK. It is not necessary for the audience to understand who exactly is doing what in a production.

Many think that an actor is good if they like the character. But that is often due to the good script, not so much the good acting. Or some think that if it has an impressive effect on something like losing a lot of weight or pretending to be disabled, it is good. These are impressive things, but not the core of what an actor does. If I had to choose between Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" and Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer", I would go for the latter. In "Rain Man" he hid behind some tricks, in "Kramer versus Kramer" he was simply real.

Some think that an actor was good if they liked the movie. Keanu Reeves is a terrible actor in my eyes, mostly because he looks wooden and fake. Most of the time it seems like he's reading words from a card, not like they're his own. But some people like it because they think the Matrix movies are cool. If another actor played the role, they would like this one. It's not, or at least not entirely, about the actor they like. But since he's the main character, they focus on him.

It is so that many people confuse the artist's acting skills with his life. Tom Cruise is a good example. He is a senior Scientologist and many hate this religion. They hate his acting, at least in part, because they find him repulsive as a person. Up to a point, that's also due to his poor work. At least he's not so good that people forget about his personal life while watching his movies. But up to a point it wouldn't matter how good he is.

Right now, a lot of people have strong feelings about the work of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, which has nothing to do with what they are doing on screen. I am not saying that these people are wrong, stupid, or seem crazy. I'm just saying that people's reactions are often complicated and not always 100 percent influenced by acting performance.