Essential Films for Actors to Watch | Movies on life and work as an Actor

Essential Films for Actors to Watch

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In a world of crowded streaming services and a glut of content, it’s never been harder to pick what to watch of a night. New or old? Good or bad? Comedy or six hour documentary on frogs? Sometimes, you’re in the mood to see yourself represented on the screen—to experience the stories of actors going through the same trials as you. You might even learn something! That’s why we’ve compiled this list of essential films for actors to watch. Have a watch, have a laugh, have a cry, see your ups and downs laid out before you…

This article contains a list of essential films for actors to watch. These films speak to the lifestyle or the craft or the actor, how they navigate fame or the lack thereof, and how the world might challenge their journey to fame and recognition. In each of these films, there are things an actor can learn from that may inform or enrich their own careers and lives. They are also highly entertaining.

Before we jump in, the usual disclaimer: these films are chosen by the good people at StageMilk, meaning that they are our opinions and ours alone. If you think we’ve committed some great sin by leaving out a favourite of yours, why not leave a comment or drop us a line so we can add it in!

On Selecting These Films

This list of essential films for actors to watch came with a very specific criteria: actors have to be able to learn something from each movie about their craft. For this reason, you might notice certain omissions (gasp!), or completely fail to recognise some of the more obscure titles. Just remember that we’ve selected these films with the specific goal for you to watch them, engage with them, and find ways to enrich your craft.

Essential Films for Actors to Watch

All About Eve (1950)

The ultimate actor’s horror film: what happens when you grow old and the younger generation force you out?! Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, an aging Broadway dame. She gives a break to young hopeful Eve Harrington, who promptly begins to take over Margo’s life, career and social circle as the Next Big Thing. For actors, it’s a chilling reminder that the greatest villain of all is not the young starlets, not even one’s own age, but the paranoia that all-too-easily sets in.

Actors should watch it for a frank look at an actor passing their prime and contending with their limitations. It was a bold move for Davis to make this film, to declare to audiences that she might be more similar to her character than she’d like to admit. But Bette Davis was always a brilliant tactician with the roles she took on; All About Eve is a masterclass in taking a courageous career step and making history with it.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The movie business loves to tell stories about itself. Singin’ in the Rain depicts one of the greatest shifts in the history of cinema—the move from silent pictures to sound. It’s a classic example of the Big Studio Musical, and carries such influence that films are still trying to recapture its magic today. (We’re talking about Babylon. Don’t see Babylon. It’s like Singin’ in the Rain but you’re jamming a fork in your thigh for three hours.)

Actors should watch it for a fun reminder that your business is changing, always changing. Whether it’s those pesky microphones coming to record your voice, streaming services changing the distribution model or AI replacing you with a few lines of code, actors need to stay on their toes. Will you be ready for what comes next? How will you protect your career in the decades to come?

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

The Goodbye Girl is an actor’s classic, an adaptation by Neil Simon of his smash-hit Broadway comedy. An out-of-work actor blows into the life of an out-of-work dancer and her young daughter. Comedy, romance, career angst ensues. The film gives its audience a fairly unromanticised picture of the realities of showbusiness: castings, rejections, day jobs. But it also demonstrates the joys of navigating this world with your closest companions—and how the life of an actor is enriching nonetheless.

Actors should watch it for its unflinching portrayal of career hardships. Elliot Garfield moves to New York to star in Richard III, thinking he has it made. But his director has very different ideas of interpretation… So what does he do? He works part time, makes ends meet, until the next big opportunity comes around. It’s not glamorous, but it’s honest. And it does end well!

Fame (1980)

These days, Fame tends to be a movie people are aware of but haven’t actually seen: it’s a musical, it’s a performing arts high school drama … it sounds pretty damn insufferable on paper, we know. But Fame is an honest look at the trials that young performers face. From their first disastrous audition (see above) to the excitement—and terrifying uncertainty—of graduation. The film never promises the characters their dreams—one excruciating scene comes to mind when the main characters are waited on at a cafe by the school’s former acting wunderkind. But such honesty is rare to find in movies about acting.

Actors should watch it to see themselves reflected in the hopes and dreams of the young performers. There is an infectious quality to the way they seize opportunity, develop their skills and enjoy the feeling of becoming good at they do. The know the odds are against them, but they carry on regardless.

Who Am I This Time (1982)

The very definition of an underrated gem. This TV movie was directed by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), based on a story by Kurt Vonnegut; it tells the love story of two introverted people in a small-town amateur theatre company who use their characters’ voices and passions to express their feelings. It boasts two incredible performances from Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon.

Actors should watch it for a reminder that good work can happen regardless of your personality, your location or level of profession. Amateur, part-time, full-time or retired: acting is acting. And a great performer is a gift no matter  their circumstance.

A Chorus Line (1985)

Adapted from the 1975 musical of the same name, A Chorus Line tells the story of a group of performers auditioning for a new Broadway musical. As choreographer Zach puts them through their steps, the characters reveal the stories of their lives, their hopes and fears as they give their all to win a coveted part in the show.

Actors should watch it because it’s the most honest, in-depth portrayal of the audition process around—even if people do break into song. It shows a lot of audition dos and don’ts, and provides first time hopefuls with a lot of useful information. (The film version is somewhat sanitised from the original production, which is worth a look for its groundbreaking portrayal of queer actors in the theatre.)

Withnail & I (1987)

There is surely some kind of law that dictates any list of films for actors to watch contains this one. Withnail and I is a cult classic, with a superb cast and more memorable lines than a book of quotes. Two broke, drugged-out actors decide to end the decade of the Sixties on a holiday in the country. To say more is to give away the experience of seeing this film for the first time, or the hundredth. Tip: watch it with the finest wines known to humanity.

Actors should watch it for Withnail. He’s captivating, he’s talented (see the above clip), he’s charismatic … and he’ll never make it as an actor. He is the perfect cautionary tale, all too real and common in our business, of an entitled actor whose career stagnates because they are unwilling to compromise. It’s a heart-breaking watch for an actor, once you stop laughing at everything else in this movie.

Jesus of Montreal (1989)

In Denys Arcand’s excellent film, a group of gigging actors come together to create a Passion Play (a religious work depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ) for a Quebec church. The troupe chooses unconventional methods to tell the story, including historical details, audience immersion and fourth-wall breaking, and the play is an unexpected hit. But as the story complicates, and the integrity of their work becomes threatened, lead actor Daniel finds his life increasingly mirrors that of Jesus as he fights corruption and preaches compassion.

Actors should watch it to see how hard work and belief in one’s craft can elevate a banal project into something truly life-changing. The conviction of the actors in the film is infectious, as is their method for collaborating and workshopping an idea to make it its best. It is the kind of work we should all aspire to create, and is often more in reach than we realise.

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

As big fans of David Mamet, we talk about this unique film a lot on StageMilk. Vanya on 42nd Street is a strange adaptation of the Chekhov classic, that sees its actors arriving for a rehearsal with their director Andre Gregory in a decaying New York theatre. There is no set to speak of, only the stand-in furniture in the orchestra pit of the old stage. The actors transition into scene work so gradually you are almost unaware that the action of the piece has begun. It’s a metafictional oddity, but a must-see for actors of any level.

Actors should watch it for a masterclass in performance. With the staging and pretensions of theatre stripped back, the acting is on full display in this adaptation, and there is much to be learned in the subtlety of the ensemble’s work. Andre Gregory and his cast had workshopped Chekhov scenes together for years before this film was even an idea. Their confidence with and understanding of the script certainly shows.

Waiting for Guffman (1996)

Another cult entry on this list, Waiting for Guffman is a mockumentary about a group of small-town actors and their director. Tasked with creating a play about Blaine, Missouri on its 150th anniversary, they craft an ambitious (if terrible) musical they hope to one day take to Broadway. Director Christopher guest (who also portrays “Red, White and Blaine” director Corky St. Clair) allowed his actors to do extensive improvisations, resulting in a film that is not only hilarious, but touches on some truly human moments.

Actors should watch it to relate to the sometimes ridiculous nature of what they do. Not a scene in Waiting for Guffman will feel unfamiliar; while it sometimes laughs at the actor’s life, it is always loving towards the people who make complete fools of themselves just to feel like another person, if only for a second.

Me & Orson Welles (2008)

Richard, a precocious 17 year old actor, lands a job in the Mercury Theatre’s famed 1937 production of Julius Caesar. In the week before opening night he learns his craft, falls in love, finds his place in the theatre and grapples with the enormous talent (and ego) of wunderkind director/actor Orson Welles. Told with very rose-tinted glasses, the film is a delightful riff on history; it captures all the hope and ambition of a young artist at the beginning of their journey.

Actors should watch it for a fond, if frank representation of working in the theatre. It perfectly captures the measured chaos of life before the opening—including the regulation Disastrous Preview—and details the efforts of a brilliant director getting the very best from his cast. Plus: if you’ve never had an inkling to try your hand at stage acting … take this film as the inspiration to give it a go!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Forget the ultra-violence, forget the period setting and the soundtrack. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film about actors: how they come to terms with their careers beginning, blossoming or ending. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton finds himself at a career crossroads, choosing between bit parts in television or Spaghetti Westerns. As his star fades, young Sharon Tate (a criminally underused Margot Robbie) sneaks into a matinee of her own movie, her career stretching out before her. It is at this point the film diverts from history—arguably in poor taste. But Hollywood is ultimately the story of the optimism of actors hoping for everything showbusiness has promised.

Actors should watch it for the indulgence director Quentin Tarantino gives to moments like the above scene: a young girl discusses acting and career with Rick Dalton on the set of his latest job. His attitude towards his own process is changed, challenged by the convictions of a person who sees acting not as a way to pay for vodka, but a way of living. Inspiring stuff.

Conclusion

So there you have it: essential films every actor should watch! Before we sign off, there’s one final thing we want to leave you with. As actors, your job is not just about practicing lines and nailing auditions, it’s about absorbing art in all its forms to round your knowledge and appreciation. The films in this article are a great place to start (especially those with a cheeky link to the full version), but you’ll do yourself every favour as an actor by seeing all you can and absorbing as much from each movie as possible.

Remember that writers and directors immerse themselves in cinema: it’s the language they use to convey meaning and emotion, and how they may very well communicate with you on set. “It’s like the end of Fargo!” or “Remember how Viola Davis nailed that scene in Doubt?” Learn to love cinema. And learn to love to learn from it.

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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