Do I Need Talent to Become an Actor? | Unpacking the "X" Factor

Do I Need Talent to Become an Actor?

Written by on | Acting Tips

As a person who spends a lot of their time teaching and training artists, I really hate the word “talent.” I believe that it does describe something, well, indescribable at times. And there are people I’ve worked with who exhibit a natural affinity for their craft. But focusing on talent—as so many actors are wont to do—reduces the multifaceted nature of the artist’s life and process to a cruel binary: “either ya goddit or ya don’t, kid.” If you’re asking yourself “do I need talent to become an actor?”, you’ve come to the right place. And not a moment too soon.

Talent—an innate ability to do something—is undoubtedly a useful commodity for any actor. However, talent is useless unless properly funnelled into productive work. It is also no substitute for training and consistency in one’s practice, as it does not promise reliability. Any actor asking if they need or have talent is advised to focus on what their abilities are, and how this translates to their process. 

Before we set to our task today of answering the title question, along with a few other choice queries and concerns, let’s be clear that there is nothing wrong with asking “do I need talent to become an actor?” It’s a fair question, and one you’re excused for asking given how much the industry likes to go on about the concept.

The answer is “no”, by the way. With an article’s worth of asterisks to follow.

What is Talent?

Talent is the ability to do something well, seemingly without effort. We often talk about talent as a natural, innate capacity for a given task—such as acting, or, say, classical violin.

There are differing views on where talent comes from. Some suggest it’s genetic, or perhaps an inherited trait. Most sources agree that talent requires some kind of environmental trigger, a space where talent can be recognised and hopefully nurtured.

It’s likely that the nebulous origin of talent is what makes it such an exciting commodity. Anybody can be talented, meaning that the Next Great Whomever could come from the unlikeliest places. It could even be you! But the problem with this thinking is that it separates talent from everything that supports it: be it genetics, environment or the nurture and hard work that any artistic skill requires to truly flourish.

What Makes an Actor Talented?

We know it when we see it, don’t we? Meryl Streep’s talented. So is Bryan Cranston. Andrew Scott? Yep. Octavia Spencer? Absolutely. Nicholas Cage? Well you can’t deny he’s got something (that other awful buzzword…) Of course, it’s not just about recognition. Not all talented actors are famous, and not all famous actors are talented. But talent does seem to be a defining point for actors we might consider to be the best in the business.

So how might we classify an actor with talent in a less subjective way? Come back to the initial definition we provided about natural ability: a talented actor makes acting look easy.

Does that mean it is easy for them? Sometimes. Certain actors are naturally predisposed to certain aspects of their craft—as all humans are to certain skills over others. Others may simply work incredibly hard, or have extensive experience, or have gotten incredibly lucky.

A Particular Set of Skills

This is trouble with actors and talent. Often, when an actor’s ability is regarded as effortless, it diminishes everything else they’ve put into their craft to produce the performance in question. Acting is not one thing, one singular task that somebody is either naturally suited to or terrible at. It’s study, practice, the honing of skills and discipline; it’s multiple schools of thought and fractured methodologies. Beyond craft, acting is a business and a lifestyle. There are many fine actors whose talent fails to extend to an understanding of career progression. They tend to burn bright and brief.

An actor may have talent, but even if that talent extends to multiple facets of their craft, it’s not going to cover it all. To suggest otherwise is to ‘mystify’ the process; it promotes an unhealthy idea that certain actors are somehow chosen, or blessed with a calling that few others possess. Because 99% of an actor’s development is about the work they put into themselves and their career—not a fortuitous lottery.

So the next time you go to an audition, or take an acting class, and find yourself burning with jealousy of another actor’s ability: work out what it is they’re doing well. Be as specific as you can. Is it their capacity to conjure emotion? Grapple with given circumstances? Memorise dialogue? Pursue an objective?

If you can pinpoint what it is they’re doing well, you can identify the skill. And all skills can be learned and improved.

How do I Know if I Have Talent?

Listen to the people around you. People in your life tend to tell you when you can do something well, and those who love you won’t hesitate to let you know. If somebody says that you have talent as an actor, it’s worth thinking about the context, their knowledge of your craft and their relationship to you. Which is to say if your acting teacher and your mother disagree on the subject, you’re probably better off listening to your acting teacher.

If nobody says you have any talent, don’t let that worry you. There are plenty of other metrics with which to judge yourself: career opportunities, reviews, the opinions of your peers and even your own honest self-appraisal.

In my experience as an acting teacher and coach, actors who ask me directly if they have talent are overwhelmingly the same students I wish would work harder at their craft. They linger at the end of a class, hoping to find out from me if they’ve “got it.” And I usually tell them something along the lines of “talent is potential, not a result.” If they keep working and believe in their own abilities, my appraisal of their talent shouldn’t matter.

Develop Your Craft

This is why I argue that the answer to “do I need talent to become an actor” is a firm no. Because even if acting comes to you like melodies to Mozart … it’s not enough. You need to work on your fundamentals, improve your voice, read plays, practice auditioning skills, take classes, explore script analysis. You need to hone your understanding of the art of acting constantly, from now until your dying day.

Develop your craft, and you’ll run rings around the “talented” actors who assumed it would all come easy to them. You will develop a reputation as a worker—which is worth so much more than the fleeting mystique of being some gifted flash in the pan. You’ll get to enjoy the day when their lack of effort results in cul-de-sac careers and bitterness.

Conclusion

Let me finish up with a personal anecdote. From the age of four until the age of eighteen, I trained as a classical violinist. I had a lesson every week, I practiced mostly every day and I eventually moved from the country to the Big City so I could attend a specialised music school. There, I encountered prodigies for the first time: children—sometimes half my age—who could stand toe-to-toe with any concert violinist in the world and put my technique to shame. They didn’t even need to practice. Music just came to them.

I was devastated about this development until my own violin teacher taught something extremely important. Child prodigies are incredible: they are fonts of talent that defy all explanation. But the rest of us catch up. And we did.

It’s a lesson I’ve kept with me as my life has meandered from orchestra pits to film sets to theatres. Talent is a helpful leg up. But faced with the marathon of the artist’s journey, it’s surprising how quickly it pales in comparison to good, consistent hard work.

Good luck!

 

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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