9 Tips for the Working Actor From Samuel L Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson has been acting professionally for over four decades, and he has developed voluminous insight about the craft over that period. Here are 9 tips for actors from the man himself:
- Give your character a biography. Source material is a great place to start when working on a new script or character, if it’s available. If there’s no source material to draw from, it’s your job to create a full backstory for your character. A thorough biography must include life experiences and personality traits that will inform the way your character thinks, speaks, and behaves on stage or on screen. Begin deducing these biographical details by examining your character’s relationships with other characters in the script. Be sure not to discount any clues given to you in the actual text.
- Use physicality to express psychology. When creating his character’s physicality, Sam considers their body posture as a manifestation of their psychology. If they have a physical condition or infirmity, he researches what those look like. If they have specialized skills, he researches and practices those so that he can perform them with authenticity. Putting this level of preparation into a role connects you to the character more deeply, earns the audience’s trust and belief in your performance, and helps them connect to your character.
- Start thinking about your character’s voice from the moment you are cast. It’s essential to have an idea of your character’s use of their voice in advance of rehearsal. Sam studies his lines, noting areas of emphasis, loudness, softness, and emotional charge; he then formulates a plan in his head for how his character will speak. Sam also anticipates a discovery process once he begins rehearsing, when the reality of performing the scene with props and other actors can change the pacing or dynamics of a scene. It is especially important to keep in mind that rehearsing with another actor will change the nature of these choices and to have flexibility within them to stay truthful in the moment with your partner.
- Create dialogue with a director. Sam describes two methods of nurturing a solid actor–director relationship. The first is to make an effort to communicate and harmonize your choices about your character with the director’s overall vision and goal for the story. The second is to prove to the director that you’re invested in the film as an ensemble effort, not just in your own performance. When the director gives you thoughtful notes on your performance, use them as an opportunity to learn and build trust. If the director doesn’t give you notes, don’t go looking for them—it means you’re giving them what they want.
- Be a professional on set. The rules for on-set behavior are simple: arrive early, know your lines, don’t waste people’s time, and don’t overstep the boundaries of your role. Fight the impulse to think that your contribution as “the talent” means more than the contribution of the crew, your fellow cast members, or the PAs. Remember that everybody is working toward the same goal.
- Do your cultural research. Nurturing a keen sense of curiosity about worlds and customs different from his own is a key component of Sam’s mastery of character. Push yourself to explore cultures and customs that are different from your own. It will help you build a library of experiences to draw from and bring interesting characteristics into your performance. Read fiction and watch foreign films. Exploring stories set in worlds that you are unfamiliar with will enable you to expand your acting choices when the time comes to craft a new character. Go to the theater and watch how other actors perform.
- Evaluate your own work with regularity. Watch yourself on-screen, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Being an honest critic of your own work is a cornerstone of becoming an exceptional actor.
- Respect the audition process. Know your lines and don’t change them. Plumb your emotional depths and have an arc—know where you’re starting, where you came from, and where you’ll end up. Enunciate. Resist the urge to improvise, unless you’re asked to. Don’t show up in costume, but do wear something that suggests the character you’re playing. Always step into an audition with a plan of who you want your character to be. You want to take everyone in the room with you on your journey through the scene. The most important objective is to make a lasting impression, so that the director/producer/casting director want to follow your character out of the room. Remember that you’re an actor and this is a “look-at-me” business, so make them look at you—keeping in mind of course, the given circumstances of the scene and character. Be your best self.
- Always maintain perspective. Sometimes the outcome of an audition is not related to your performance. You might not have “the look” that the director wants. It’s a tough truth, but accept that you’re not meant for every job. Try not to dwell on the parts you don’t get.
Want to Become a Better Actor?
Whether you’re treading the boards or prepping for your next big role in a film or television series, making it in show business requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No actor knows this better than the legendary Samuel L. Jackson, who has acted in over 100 films to date, from Pulp Fiction to The Avengers. In Samuel L. Jackson’s MasterClass on acting, the Oscar-nominee shares how he creates memorable characters, powerful performances, and a long-lasting career.
Want to become a better actor? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Mirren, Natalie Portman, and more.