I think this question has gone through every actor’s mind at least once throughout their professional acting career: What do award-winning actors have in common? There are several factors that make award-winning actors a cut above the rest. In my experience, the following traits are the most common thread.
- They've been handed a well-crafted, excellent script!
Does this mean that award-winning actors are just plain lucky? Absolutely not! The reality is that for an actor to be in a position to work on great material, they probably have actually worked long enough and hard enough, and proven themselves to be an actor who can constantly deliver, and have shown their value. This means, they put people in the seats! Only then, will finding or being offered material worthy of winning an award find its way into an actor’s hands.
Professional actors know how to spot good material when it lands on their desk. Ideally, they also have handlers (agents and managers) who should be able to spot a good piece of material. The art of identifying an excellent script is a skill any actor with a burgeoning career should develop. There are countless stories of actors turning down good roles in good movies for ones that weren’t so great. And, there are countless stories of actors turning away great roles only to be strong-armed by their agents or managers to eventually play the part. I believe Al Pacino turned down the lead role in “Scent of a Woman” numerous times before his agent, thankfully, talked him into playing what became the only role Pacino received an Oscar and a Golden Globe.
It can be incredibly overwhelming for actors in high demand to choose the right roles. All actors actually have more opportunities than ever. Digital filmmaking has made the film industry accessible to just about anyone. In addition, the many streaming platforms have created a constant demand for product. Subsequently, the film business is open to just about anyone anymore. This is true for directors, actors, producers, and writers. On one hand, this is wonderful. On the other, it allows for a lot of material that is not well-written, or clearly amateurish, to actually get made. The checks and balances that used to be a part of the system no longer exist. That being said, great material is still out there!
What makes an outstanding script? Well-formed, believable characters and a fresh storyline. While a predictable plot certainly has its place, there’s something enticing and thought-provoking about a script that just doesn’t follow the rules. The three-act structure is unlikely to go away anytime soon and characters that are derived from the tried and true hero archetypes are also here to stay. The challenge for any filmmaker is to allow these structures to be in place but at the same time, tell the story in a way that seems new, fresh, and different. The easiest way to do this is to use an exciting actor we haven’t seen before! Audiences love fresh faces!
2. They believably portray the character’s behavior and emotions.
An actor is required to analyze and study their character to convincingly portray them. This includes the emotional life of the character and their behavior. How does the character navigate the world and the relationships they have created? All great artists study other great artists. If you want to learn great acting, watch the greats! Story is character and character is story. Ultimately, character is also behavior. The best way to actually learn this is by doing. Any actor who doesn’t stay in class and constantly explore and discover what they can and can’t do is at risk for allowing their acting muscles to become weak. They are allowing for a very limited comfort zone regarding their technique where nothing great ever happens.
At the studio, we teach classic scene study and character analysis. The specific technique we use has been derived from The Method developed by Konstantin Stanislvaski. He sought to create a move believable and life-like form of acting than the highly stylized gestures customary in 19th-century theatre.
“If you speak any lines, or do anything, mechanically, without fully realizing who you are, where you came from, why, what you want, where you are going, and what you will do when you get there, you will be acting without imagination. That time, whether it will be short or long, will be unreal, and you will be nothing more than a wound-up machine, an automation.”
― Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares
3. They deliver an emotionally moving performance.
Award-winning actors stir up emotions – positive or negative – in their audience. Consider Sir Anthony Hopkins, who won an Academy Award for his role as Hannibal Lecter in the film The Silence of the Lambs. His scenes, though few, were enough to illustrate the depths of his character’s depravity. Hopkins’s demeanor, dialogue, and overall performance successfully drove the narrative of the villain’s story.
This memorable portrayal reminds us that actors must have a thorough understanding of the script, the narrative, and their character's intentions throughout their performance.
“You can either be a vain movie star, or you can try to shed some light on different aspects of the human condition.” – Leonardo DiCaprio, Academy Award for Best Actor, 2016
As an acting student, it is essential to pay close attention to your director’s vision for the script too. As you rehearse, you should be building up your relationship with the character and learning all you need to know about them to ensure an authentic portrayal. Sir Anthony Hopkins once said that an actor should know his/her character even better than the writer. While this may not seem logical, I agree with it completely. The reason being, a writer has to explore the psyche, heart and mind of one character, whereas a writer can only spend a limited amount of time on the many characters they are drawing. Not every character is going to be given the same amount of thought and consideration when being created. It is the actor’s job to literally breathe life into the character.
In addition, the actor also needs to align with the director’s ideas and requirements from the character. As in life, the ability to adapt and adjust is priceless. Good practice for this is found at an acting studio - join in a few Dallas acting classes to hone your craft.
4. They are nominated for playing a highly-flawed character.
Flawed characters are often considered the most relatable characters in a story. You love them or love to hate them, but many studies have shown that people have an affinity for the flawed hero or the villain. Flawed characters are authentic, and people tend to relate to them. In addition, a flawed character is more likely to have a clear character arch. Like it or not, if we don’t have the opportunity to watch a character change throughout the unfolding of the story, we aren’t inclined to care that much about their journey.
5. They play biographical characters.
The list of actors who have won awards from playing real people is vast. Among them: Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich, Robert Di Nero as Jake LaMotta, Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, Jaimie Foxx as Ray Charles, Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn, Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, to name a few.
With this in mind, it can’t be overestimated how incredibly difficult it is for an actor to disappear into a role. When an actor does this, the audience forgets they are watching Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, or any of the great character actors. It goes way beyond hair, makeup and costume. The greatest actors inhabit their character in a way that allows us to only see the character.
6. They exude passion for acting and are determined.
It doesn't take long to realize that this industry requires dedication and hard work. Award-winning actors know it takes a lot of patience, willpower, and positivity to succeed. There's the famous saying that goes: "It takes 20 years to make an overnight success." Of course, you don't have to keep trying for two decades, but keep in mind that success takes a lot of grit and requires an undying passion for these arts.
One final thing to note about these outstanding actors is that they continued to grow while active in their industry. A successful actor is one who continues to develop their skill, push their boundaries and deepen their ability to deliver on any character in any scenario. Award-winning actors don’t stop because they’ve enjoyed a few successes, they keep on working on their art.
Passion, determination, the ability to deliver a moving performance and spot a great script is what ultimately sets award-winning actors apart. These are all characteristics that you should strive to add to your professional portfolio of essential skills. Ultimately, award-winning actors have mastered the subtle art of bringing their unique essence to a character and storyline, enabling them to take their audience on the character’s life journey authentically and convincingly.