Filmmaking: Tips, Sources & Tools — December 11, 2012 at 11:09 am

The opposite of good: what defines bad acting?

Range…and knowing how to apply it – Talent requires being adaptable. The greatest actors have that range and know where to use what.

By Glenn Kalison, Chair of Acting for Film Program,
New York Film Academy

The character Olive Neal, the talent-deficient actress (played by the quirky and intriguing Jennifer Tilly) who happens to be the girlfriend of a gangster in the Woody Allen movie Bullets Over Broadway (1994), illustrates that in show business sometimes even bad actors get work – sometimes, with disastrous results.

(But don’t be confused… the movie itself received seven Academy Awards nominations. My favorite quote from the Marx Brother’s film Duck Soup: “He looks like an idiot, he talks like an idiot, but don’t be deceived, he IS an idiot.”)

Some actors are born for the stage or big screen, either through natural talent, great bone structure, or the right parents.

There are many famous acting clans – think of the Arquette, Barrymore, Coppola, Douglas, Sutherland, Carradine, Sheen and Redgrave families, to name a few.

If you are the offspring from one of these families, you grew up around acting and have probably been so immersed in the basic tenants of the craft that extensive, formal training may not be necessary. (No pressure.)

Other talent pops out of Los Angeles or New York acting schools. I’m associated with one, but there are many schools that turn out successful actors.

For example, Tilly earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater at a small college in Missouri. Formal training can’t take a talentless hack and turn them into a De Niro or a Mirren, but it can provide direction and a realistic sense of what is expected in the professional world.

That training, in combination with talent, real life experience, and many auditions, is a recipe for good actors finding great roles.

Great looks aren’t talent – Rarely do top supermodels make it as actors. Looks and talent are two different things that sometimes coincide, but few of the most talented performers on stage and film are perfectly constructed.

Ok, but how do bad actors find great roles? In some instances (without naming names), it happens as a result of being born into a prominent family – one is ushered into the wrong part (see above).

Another possibility is that physical beauty or physical appropriateness to a certain role gives way to an opportunity.

Ok, but what do we mean by “bad actor?”

  • Unbelievable. As soon as they open their mouth, they lose credibility. I simply don’t believe they are living truthfully in the imaginary world.
  • Lack of charisma. Physical beauty and charisma do not go hand-in-hand. People who lack charisma may look great in a photograph, but I may not want to watch them in a film.
  • No respect for craft. This is a messy performance. I don’t want to see the actor working. If the performance is not seamless, the actor is not ready for primetime.
  • No respect for story. A self-indulgent performance is probably the most painful to watch because it puts the actor ahead of the story. It hijacks a film for the purpose of showcasing a perceived talent, which the audience could not care less about. The audience always wants the actor to give way to a clear story.
  • Emotional Wallowing. I don’t want to see an actor cry. I want to see a character try NOT to cry.

Respect for story – An actor might be able to deliver a strong character, but what matters most is to create the character called for in the script.

There are many other ways for actors to fail and for this reason it takes a brave person to try it. It takes a thick skin to let judgment of your work fall by the wayside.

At the professional level, critics and industry folk will not hold back their opinions and when you are front and center, you are the target.

How does that saying go, “if you can’t take the heat… get off the stage?” In studying the bad, we understand and better appreciate the good.

Glenn Kalison received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of California at Irvine and has since worked as an actor on films that include Clutter (with Carol Kane and Natasha Lyonne), The Good Shepherd (directed by Robert De Niro), Mystery Team (with Aubry Plaza and Donald Glover), a Sundance Film Festival hit.

His television productions include Elementary, Smash, Law and Order: SVU, Law and Order, Law and Order: CI, Lights Out, As the World Turns among others; and many off-Broadway and regional stage productions. He is the Chair of the Acting Department at the New York Film Academy.

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