Often actors just starting out have one burning question that surpasses all the others: what does it really take to succeed?
Of course, everybody has a different definition of success. For some it means money, fame and glamour on Clooney or Pitt-like levels (good luck!) For others–who are perhaps a bit more grounded in reality–success can mean simply having steady work, the respect of your peers, and being good at what you do.
One thing is certain: if you take a survey across a broad sampling of successful actors of all types, you will probably find the following similarities in their approach to the craft.
1. They’re hard workers
There’s an image some people have of actors as perpetually living wild lives of excess and partying, out late every night hanging with rock stars and models until the wee hours, and waking up at the crack of noon only to lounge by the pool all day long. And sure, we are generally known to be fun, outgoing, beautiful, charming, and of course humble people (hey, who wouldn’t want to hang out with us?) But the fact of the matter is that 99.9 percent of actors who succeed in this business also work very, very hard to get there. You can’t do that if you report to set every morning on two hours of sleep and smelling like a brewery. What’s more, when we talk about working hard we’re not just talking about the struggle of young actors juggling two day jobs in order to make ends meet while navigating endless auditions. Hard work is also a common trait for successful actors even after they’ve “made it.” There are interminable days and nights on set, early morning calls, and late nights learning lines for the next days’ scenes. Plus there are always more classes and coaching sessions, along with dialects, dances, combat and other skills to learn and improve. But remember, hard work comes in many forms: sitting quietly at home with your cat and a cup of tea as you learn your lines is hardly glamorous, but it is the foundation of the work that every successful actor brings onto the set or into the theater every day.
2. They have endless stamina
Remember those long days on set mentioned above? Well, guess what those top-notch actors are doing there for 14 or 16 hours? That’s right, acting. And not just the phoning-it-in kind, either. In order to be successful as an actor you have to be able to bring the goods every take, every day, no matter how long the shoot lasts. And these successful actors aren’t satisfied with anything less than their best: Anne Hathaway famously insisted on take after take of “I Dreamed a Dream” for the film version of “Les Miserables,” shooting for over eight hours just for that one song. Keep in mind too, stamina and energy aren’t exactly the same thing. Yes, having a lot of energy is an excellent trait for an actor. But stamina is something different, defined as “…the ability to sustain prolonged physical or mental effort.” It’s that second part we should focus on as actors, because it’s the sustained mental (and emotional) effort of acting that sets apart the truly great actors from the also-rans. And stamina isn’t strictly something you’re born with or not; it’s a skill that can be developed and enhanced with effort and training. This is yet another reason it’s vital to take classes, create and perform original work, and act every chance you get: the more you do it, the more you work those acting “muscles,” and the stronger you become. It’s also important to treat yourself well, eat right and exercise in order to keep your instrument running in top form.
3. They have a positive attitude
Sure, we’ve all heard the tales of petulant actors having ugly meltdowns and screaming at crew members or fighting with directors on set. But here’s something to think about: why do those stories make such a big splash when they do get out? One could argue it’s because they’re the exception rather than the rule. When you consider how many television shows, movies and web series are being shot at any given moment these days, the percentage that have stories of spoiled, nasty actors behaving badly is miniscule. (Note the term “actors” here, thus excluding “reality” television programming, where being a horrible human being is rewarded.) While there are always exceptions, it’s fair to say that most actors bring a positive, collegial attitude to set or to the theater with them. As a highly collaborative art, acting simply requires people who can work together and get along. Having the ability to set aside your personal issues and bring a friendly, open, and cheerful persona to work with you is a big part of being a successful actor–and more importantly, being viewed as an actor that people want to work with.
4. They have great focus
It’s hard to overstate how important it is to have the ability to focus if you want to succeed as an actor. From beginning to end, the work of acting requires the ability to concentrate intensively: whether it’s learning lines, or auditioning an out-of-context piece for a roomful of strangers, or performing for the camera or on a stage, there are a million things trying to steal your focus. Luckily focus is also something that can be developed, although it does take work. You have to figure out what works for you: meditation, insisting on a quiet place to rehearse or prepare for a scene, unplugging all your devices, working with a coach to help you concentrate while performing–if you want to succeed you have to find a formula that lets you do whatever you need to do in order for you to focus your energy where it needs to be.
5. They love it
Finally, there isn’t a successful actor out there who would deny that they love acting. They may hate other aspects of the business, but when it comes to actually performing, they all came from a place of love for it. Amid the stress and pressures of building an acting career it’s vital to keep this in mind at all times: what we get to do every day is fun! There is such tremendous joy in the performances of the best actors no matter what role they’re playing–we must all insist on incorporating that same love of the craft within ourselves and infusing it into every project we take on, no matter how small or insignificant. That, at the end of the day, is perhaps what separates the successful actor from those who are not: love. Love of the craft of acting and joy at the privilege of sharing it. There are certainly worse definitions of success!