Do you love acting and want to improve your skills? Acting lessons are a great place to start — but you can also learn a lot simply from curling up on the couch for movie night! Take a look at these eight movies you can study to learn about important acting techniques from your favorite on-screen actors and actresses.
Instinct is a natural tendency to, in character, behave in a certain way. All actors have a bit of instinct – some more than others. For example, Peter Sellers’ success in the lead role of the 1963 film The Pink Panther is often attributed to his improvisation and strong instincts for the role of Inspector Clouseau – including the well-known (and hilarious) globe-spinning scene.
Too young for years of training to hone their skills, many child actors also have excellent instincts. An example is the youngest-ever Best Actress Oscar nominee (2013) Quvenzhané Wallis. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, six-year-old Wallis held audiences spellbound with her poise, charisma, and natural talent. Her instincts are inspiring for anyone hoping to improve their acting techniques.
Beyond instinct, most actors spend a lot of time developing the character they’re playing. Some actors even go as far as dropping everything in their day-to-day life to “become” the character, using method acting techniques. In the making of the 2005 film Walk the Line, actor Joaquin Phoenix immersed himself in his character to successfully portray famed country singer Johnny Cash. For the role of June Carter Cash, Reese Witherspoon learned to sing and play the autoharp in order to perform live in the film. Witherspoon won numerous awards for the role, including an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.
Stage Direction, Blocking, and Physicality
Acting involves paying attention to stage directions and blocking – your positioning, movement, and body language – some of which are outlined in the script, while others are not. These stage directions often convey a character’s emotional and physical state. For example, poor posture could mean insecurity, or a stumbling gait could mean the character is intoxicated, old, or injured.
In the 2003 film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, actor Johnny Depp showed off this acting technique in various scenes, from his mischievous swagger to his quick-thinking rescue of the fainting Elizabeth.
The 2006 comedy-drama The Devil Wears Prada is another great film to observe this technique. Meryl Streep’s role as an ego-centric and cold magazine editor is defined and then reinforced by her demeanor, walk, and gestures. Anne Hathaway’s initially insecure character evolves throughout the film to become a confident but stressed young professional; Hathaway’s role relies heavily on physicality to show this transformation.
Projection, Diction, and Breathing
It isn’t just singers that need vocal training! Actors need to learn how to project and enunciate, and some roles require additional training in learning specific accents or vocal tics. For example, in the 1980 biographical film Coal Miner’s Daughter, Sissy Spacek plays a convincing Loretta Lynn based on her ability to incorporate the singer’s speaking style.
The 2005 film Brokeback Mountain demonstrates the skills of actors Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Randy Quaid in assuming their characters’ physicality and speaking styles. Ledger’s character has a quiet nature and a distinct rural Wyoming accent, and his spot-on performance earned him several award nominations.
Listening and Reacting
Acting is rarely a monologue. During your acting lessons or performance practice, you’ll learn to hone the skills of listening and reacting to acting partners. Think of the spark between acting duos like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. One particular performance that epitomizes good listening and reacting is Robert Redford and Paul Newman co-starring in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They skillfully play off each other like old friends, especially during the ambush scene when they’re working as guards at a mining company.
As an aspiring actor, there’s something you can learn in just about any movie you watch. What movies are your favorites? Leave a comment and let us know!