This article was originally published in the October issue of the Chicago Actors Studio newsletter.  If you want to subscribe to the CAS monthly newsletter, sign up at

Some Guidelines To A Great Performance


By: Edward Dennis Fogell
Acting Coach, Actor and Director

If Acting is believing the performer in that role, what constitutes good acting?

While traveling the globe for 15 years as a musician and singer, I have opened concerts for such names as Donna Summer, The Jacksons, Frank Sinatra Jr. and more. Now I’m an actor, director, teacher and producer, working with actors for more years than I’d like to count. I am also the artistic director and owner of the Chicago Actors Studio and Complete Video Services & Film Productions. Here are some of mine and other learned and experienced casting directors definitions of good acting. I want to strongly stress that if one person states “Pacino is great,” and you disagree, it doesn’t make anyone right or wrong. It just means there are different tastes.

First: An actor is good if he makes one believe he’s actually going through whatever his character is going through. I’m talking somewhat about physical stuff (“He really is getting shot!” “He really is jumping off a moving train!”) but mostly about psychological stuff (“He really is scared!” “He really is in love!”). If an actor seems to be faking it, he’s not doing his job.

Second: The actor has to be surprising. This is the most nebulous requirement, but it’s important. Except for really small parts that aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g., a bank teller who just cashes the hero’s checks), it’s not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that the viewer can’t predict their every reaction before they have them. Think of how someone might react if his or her significant other ends the relationship. There are many, many truthful ways—ways that would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way. An actor’s job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of his or her own possibilities. He or she must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, the actor becomes boring and predictable.

There are many ways an actor can surprise. Gary Oldman surprises us by being truthful while playing multiple, very different roles. Jack Nicholson surprises by being … surprising. Even though he’s not a chameleon like Oldman, you never know what he’s going to do next. But whatever he does, it’s grounded in psychological reality. It never seems fake. Christopher Walken, Glenn Close, Al Pacino, and many others have a surprising danger in them. They’re a little scary to be around, because you feel they might jump you or blow up at you at any time. They are ticking time bombs. And, of course, many comedic actors (e.g., Julia Louis-Dreyfus) surprise us in all sorts of quirky, zany ways. Or watch Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby—absolutely surprising and absolutely truthful.

Third: The actor is vulnerable. Great actors share the parts of themselves that most people keep hidden. They are always naked. (I’m talking about emotional nakedness.) Bad actors are guarded. They don’t want to share the parts of themselves that are ugly, mean, petty, jealous, etc.

There are so many examples of actors being naked onstage and screen. Example: Rosalind Russell in the movie Picnic. She plays a middle-aged teacher who is in danger of growing old and dying alone. There’s a heartbreaking scene in which she begs a man to marry her. She goes down on her knees in front of him. She gives up every scrap of dignity inside her and lets the scared, hurting parts of herself burst out. These are the same scared, hurt parts that are inside all of us—the parts we work hard to hide.

This ties in with everything I wrote above: When actors are exposed and raw, it’s always surprising. And if it doesn’t seem real, there’s no point in it. In fact, this sort of emotional nakedness is very hard to fake. If you ever get a sense that an actor is showing you a secret part of himself, he probably is. Examples are Julianne Moore, Bryan Cranston, and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version. He turns himself inside out and wrings out all his pain.

Fourth: The actor knows how to listen. It’s fascinating to watch actors when they’re not speaking. Some are too caught up in ego or technicalities (e.g., trying to remember the next line) to totally focus on whomever it is they’re acting with. Others seem to register everything they hear. You can see whatever is being said to them physically affecting them, as if the words are slapping them across the face. Watch Claire Danes. She’s an amazing listener.

Fifth: The actor has a well-honed “instrument,” by which I mean he/she knows how to use their voice and body to serve whatever role he’s/she’s playing. This doesn’t necessarily mean one is slim and has a six-pack; James Gandolfini used his body well. It means the actor knows how to move and talk in expressive ways. The voice and body aren’t fighting the actor or holding tension that’s inappropriate to his/her role.

Dustin Hoffman was great because he embodied all of these traits. He was vocally and physically gifted. He wasn’t in great shape, but he used the shape he had in expressive ways. If you watch him closely when he’s not speaking, you’ll see he always listened to his co-stars closely. What they say affected him deeply, and his reactions grew organically out of whatever they had previously said or done to him. He was profoundly vulnerable. Always. This was his most distinctive trait. You always knew what you were getting from him was raw and honest. It was this rawness—as well as intelligence and a sly sense of humor—that made his work surprising and fresh. And I never once saw anything from him that seemed fake.

A bad or average actor often seems as if they are reading from cue cards rather than saying words that are theirs. There is a difference between playing an undemonstrative person and being a wooden actor. In fact, playing someone who is reserved is very difficult (because you have to act without showing very much), and the actors who pull it off are brilliant. I would point to Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, Tommy Lee Jones in many of his roles, and even Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. These actors manage to convey the sense that although they have stony exteriors there’s much going on underneath.

Some actors sound as if they are reciting or reading something. They sound scripted. Their performance sounds like line-readings as if that actor has not fully lifted them off the page and into their own mind and body. I don’t believe much else is going on underneath except maybe nervousness. Look at Tommy Lee Jones. The difference, for me, is that Jones seems to be speaking his own words, even though they are scripted. Jones is comfortable in his skin and able to “own” his lines.

But some people think an actor is cool because he or she is in this action film with special effects or bombs blowing off everywhere If some other actor had been in those films, those same people would have liked that other actor, even if the actor lacked many skills, but since the actor plays the protagonist, they focus on that actor and think they are good.

To sums this all up and quote from all the agents, producers and talent managers we recently had speak at our Business of Acting Seminar, training, training, training and good solid training at that. One or two acting classes is not going to secure a career. Steal from the great actors and make what you’ve discover your own. Get those cameras out and practice in front of them often. See what others see. It may be painful to watch, but as in sports, “no pain, no gain”. As I often say to my acting students, here at The Chicago Actors Studio, “If you keep doing things the same way, the names and places may change, but the end results will be the same.”

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