The elusive X-Factor is probably the most sought after trait in an actor. Entire casting briefs have been changed to accomodate the discovery of an X-Factor Actor, so it makes sense to develop your X-Factor alongside your ability to perform to the specifications of a brief. The million dollar question is, how do you develop your X-Factor? What even is your X-Factor? Every creative industry is built upon artist’s X-Factor, something that you can’t describe why you like it, but you know when it’s there and when it’s not. More importantly, everyone’s X-Factor is different. So where do you even start if there’s no proven method to all this?
Enter Personal Work.
Your professional work should be thought of like a musician who diligently does their homework on their scales, chords, and intervals, performing master studies composed by the classic greats. Your persona work is when that musician takes what they’ve learned and strings a few of those chords together in a way that feels good to them. It doesn’t have to be complex, it doesn’t even have to be good. But by re-contextualising the knowledge they gleaned from what is essentially copying, it becomes more deeply engrained, and more personal. Now when they are playing their Beethoven’s and their Bach’s, those favourite chords that they re-contextualised into their own little ditty will hold some sort of significance, and imbue their ‘copying’ with something genuine and individualised.
If you aren’t familiar with the saying yet, get acquainted: Great artists steal. Steal from your favourite movies, plays, actors, and from other art forms. Steal from your favourite musicians and visual artists. Steal feelings, images and intentions. Like a magpie, pick up anything that looks shiny to you and then weave it all together into a nest that is eclectic and stylised. No one needs to see your character’s monologue from the Chekhovian take on Pulp Fiction with its soundtrack by The National and Busta Rhymes. Just make things that you think are cool and continue to craft them by sewing in more cool things as you stumble across them. If you liked the way the old lady on your bus talked to strangers, steal it. Make a character. If you don’t like writing dialogue, just do some movement work on her. Come up with a hypothetical Broadway musical that she would star in. You’ll start to notice the things that really intrigue you and got you inspired popping up in the rest of your work.
These snippets of personal work are what gives you an edge over everyone else who is learning the same monologue for the same audition for the same character. These little magpie-trinkets will wheedle their way into your work just by virtue of you having seen them and paid them special attention. Ever learn the meaning of a new word, and suddenly you hear it everywhere? It’s not the world that has started using the word more. It’s you, whose mind has opened to start picking up what the world is putting down.
At it’s bare bones, an X-Factor reads as connection. When the audience feels connected to you, you have found it. So stay curious to what your taste is, to what speaks to you, and don’t censor or judge it. The audience doesn’t need to like classical music to be moved by an actor who is moved by classical music. What is truly inspiring to see in an actor is when they are feeling something, anything. Find what you like and let it move you in new, unique and unchartered ways. It’s in that space where you’ll find your X-Factor.