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Kenneth Rea: What makes an Outstanding Actor?

by / 0 Comments / 01/10/2014

As the Senior Acting Tutor of Guildhall School of Music and Drama for over thirty years, Kenneth Rea has produced some of Britain’s most famous actors including Ewan McGregor, Orlando Bloom and Daniel Craig. Using his years of experience as a theatre critic, director and actor – and having just completed writing a new book on acting – Kenneth answers the million dollar question of what makes a successful actor?

Why are the performing arts so important?

Well, it can change people’s lives. It’s absolutely important these days because what worries me is we have a generation of people who are losing contact with real communication – they lose the confidence to actually communicate with people. A lot of people have found drama classes or experience they might have had at school inspirational in giving them confidence in presenting themselves. The performing arts can remind us of our humanity and bring us together and create a community. Actors are very important in life and always will be, it goes back two and a half thousand years.

What particularly interests you in acting?

What interests me is what makes an actor stand out from all the rest, because I’ve been at Guildhall about thirty years and in that time, of all the people (maybe over a thousand) I’ve taught here, maybe ten or twenty of them became internationally famous. Now what were that ten or twenty doing that the rest were not? And what behaviours or practices did those people have in the day-to-day classes that the rest did not? And what can I do to try and raise that number? Over the years I’ve reflected on what are the elements of the training that make a difference to actors. So what I am interested in is not the core skills like the voice work, the movement work, the acting process – but the skills that will make a difference to help people stand out. What I’ve found is that a lot of it is about particular values or qualities that an actor brings to the work, not just in drama training but in the profession.

What qualities should an outstanding actor possess?

Enthusiasm. If I think back to all those people who became famous, they all brought a great enthusiastic energy into the room and that enthusiasm is contagious, it spreads to the other people, it ignites the room and that’s very important for an actor. You find that enthusiasm by finding your motivation by focusing on the goal of: What do you want to be? What’s your ambition as an actor? Keep focussed on that emotionally and not just intellectually, and that will help pull you along and give you that energy and enthusiasm, because all the greatest actors are very enthusiastic.

Another thing is a quality of danger, that’s where we don’t know what you’re going to do next so you set up tension between you the actor, and the audience. Rather than thinking ‘oh I can see where this is going’, that quality of danger is incredibly exciting for an actor. You acquire that quality of danger by making your choices bolder, more inventive, fresher and more creative than ordinary actors. They also have a sense of curiosity – they are very alive and interested in everything around them and that curiosity feeds into their work, and gives their work detail and an inventive creativity that ordinary actors don’t have.

Also what an actor needs is a strong sense of presence. Presence is being totally there and occupying the space, so you can think of presence in terms of time – are you present now in this room, in this moment? Not dragged back into the past thinking about something you did this morning or what you’re going to have for dinner tonight. With that goes the quality of generosity of spirit (rather than ‘me me me’, make it about the other person), that allows you to be comfortable with the vulnerability that you’re giving focus to the audience. To work with warmth – to come from a warm heart and that allows you to be open (open to the other actor; open to the audience).

If you put all of those together, you get the most important of all – which is charisma. The very best actors have a charisma on stage or on screen, it’s all that quality which makes us look at you and draw us towards you. The good news is that those are qualities an actor can acquire if you work at them. Some people might be lucky to have some of them naturally, so they will be further ahead, but with the right mind-set and the right nurturing, all those qualities can be developed.

How have you identified these qualities?

I’ve been doing a lot of research because I’ve just finished writing this book about these qualities, The Outstanding Actor, and as part of the research I’ve spoken with top actors – top of their profession. So this book is really about interrogating the process – Why do I do what I do? How can I do it better? What are the qualities that really make a difference? If you put all those together, you get the main components of my book.

Do you feel that natural talent or experience is more important?

It is an interesting thing about the relation between talent and experience (or what they sometimes call ‘deliberate practice’). Do you have to be talented and would you just float through? Or if you start off with an average talent, by really working at it for years and years could you actually get better? All the research has shown that it’s deliberate effort that does make the difference – people who are successful just work twice as hard as everyone else. For acting, there has to be an innate talent and that’s about your ability to put yourself in the skin of another character, to use your imagination. But through working at that, developing that, that could make the difference.

Actors need years of experience before they achieve mastery in the craft. For example, Daniel Craig got James Bond about the age of 38-39, but did he just pop out of the blue as James Bond? No, he’d been working away doing television, drama series, stage, films and then when he gets James Bond, suddenly he’s ready for it and there’s a James Bond with more gravitas, acting power and charisma than many of the ones before him.

How can students prepare themselves for acting training?

One of the things at Guildhall that we say is very important from day one – you must work with warmth, with generosity to each other, respect the differences, celebrate the differences, because you all have different strengths, you bring different qualities to the work. They can prepare by learning to take the pressure off themselves, because what you aim for is a state of relaxation. Your creative imagination only works in a state of relaxation, so I might say to somebody, don’t do your best work – get it wrong, mess it up. If you don’t have to impress me, you relax enough to be very interesting and to listen to your acting partner. In that state your imagination works, so your choices become very interesting.

What aspect of your teaching role are you most passionate about?

Making people successful. The measure of my success is the degree to which other people become successful. So I know why I’m getting out of bed in the morning, it’s to get the best out of those people and what drives me is: can I find more challenging ways of making more people more successful? That’s a lifelong quest that keeps you going and striving. In drama training, you are preparing people for a lifelong career that’s maybe about sixty years because you could be working till you’re well into your 80s, even 90s, when you’re an actor.

What advice would you give someone on how they can break into the acting industry?

First I would say go to a drama school, get drama training. There are lots of people who can do reasonably well in the acting industry but often they find they haven’t got the technique to sustain a performance on stage night after night – they might lose their voice or they might get bored with the role or they might just not have the technique to bring the kind of detail and authority of presence that they need on stage. So technique is very important.

So my advice would be go to a good drama school, and therefore research all the drama schools because they are all different, they have different strengths and different areas they concentrate on, so find out what is right for you and do this research very carefully because the decision is going to affect the rest of your working life. We select twenty-six people each year and for that we see 2,600 people so there’s a 1 in 100 chance of getting in, and the figures for other drama schools like RADA and LAMDA are quite similar. You might think the odds are so huge there’s no point in even trying – there’s always hope, somebody’s going to get in and that again, is positive thinking. We want people for whom its life or death, what you’re looking for is a passion, otherwise they will not survive in the profession.

Positive thinking is very important, both for getting into a drama school, being in drama training and in the profession. You’re going up for auditions and you’ve got to get used to those knock-backs, so you need a very positive spirit and motivation. Grit is a very important quality for an actor: they can be knocked-back but they bounce back again and they carry on, they’re driven, they’re motivated by that passion and drive to keep going.

How do actors remain financially stable if they are not always working?

Some people may be very lucky to go from one job to another but in practice, most actors need to be able to do other things as well, and that might involve teaching or doing work in businesses. They will usually be looking for jobs that allow flexibility so they can suddenly go off to an audition. Usually people need to have something else that will keep them going because the figures are a little bit disappointing of how much money actors make in a year. I’m freelance, no two weeks are the same – but I like that. For other people, that’s completely scary, they want the stability, so you’ve got to have the right temperament to be an actor and to survive the apparent insecurities of the profession.

What is the best way to stay successful in the industry?

Choosing jobs that are going to move you forward but also are going to keep building your skills. Do good work where the script is good, the play itself or the film is challenging, where you’re working with a good creative team and a good director who is really going to challenge you. A casting director or a director will make all sorts of judgements about you in the first five seconds from the moment you walk in the room. What makes you stand out is keeping hold of your vision, what you want to do, why you want to be an actor. Never giving up, keeping positive, keeping driven, keeping an optimism – not a blind optimism, but optimistic thinking.

What is so special about British theatre?

I think what’s highly prized in British theatre is language, and that’s what British theatre does best of all countries: precision of language, expression of language and a tradition of really crafted acting and of ensembles. There is also a tradition of good subsidised theatre, so places like the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company are able to produce work of huge excellence and are able to take risks. It’s part of the heritage, it’s in everyone’s blood, it’s part of the society, it’s part of the strength. Figures from the Society of Official London Theatre show that more people go to theatre than the whole of the football league, so it’s a very important part of the culture and people value that highly. It’s part of our education, of making the society better and that’s why there is dignity in the profession of being an actor.

‘The Outstanding Actor: Seven Keys to Success’ is due to be released early next year

Sarah is an enthusiastic freelance journalist from Reading in Berkshire. Her passions include film, theatre, dance, fashion, animal welfare and charity work. She is also a part-time student, currently studying Creative Writing at Oxford University.