Good Acting vs Bad Acting | Learn from the Best and the Worst

Good Acting vs Bad Acting

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“How to act good” is one of the most popular questions from actors all over the world. It’s so popular that entire schools have been founded to teach it, and people have become famous for just writing about what they think the answer is. Today, I’ll attempt to follow in the footsteps of Stanislavski, Adler and Moss to answer the burning question: what the heck is good acting anyway? Personally, I think the best way to understand what something is … is to understand what something isn’t. So let’s play a round of good acting vs bad acting.

It can be difficult to determine what makes for good acting, because we often lack the tools to explain it. “It just felt good”, “it felt real”, “they had a great voice”, are all common answers. The same is true of bad performances as well. Determining good acting vs. bad acting is all about understanding the tools of performance: energy, connection, context and technique. This will help you make worthwhile choices in your own work, while avoiding thoughtless blunders.

In this article, we’ll focusing on the actor and what they’re doing right or wrong, but you’ll never catch me calling someone a “bad actor.” Honestly, I don’t think they exist. Declan Donnellan describes what people call “bad actors” as “blocked actors.” I think is a far more accurate and sensitive description. And never forget that direction, writing and even cinematography can have a huge impact on performance as well.

The Bad

Let’s start with the bad. In trolling for examples, I’ve tracked down some shockers—but let me clear that these performances are not necessarily an accurate representation of the actor themselves. Let’s work our way through the scenes in this handy compilation:

Troll 2 (1990)

Connie Riet plays Holly in this scene. The main thing going wrong for her is she isn’t connected to what she’s saying. She’s speaking clearly but not really communicating anything. Declan Donnellan talks about something called “The Target” which is the thing in the scene that you are being affected by and are trying to affect yourself.  Connie Riet has over-rehearsed and decided exactly how she is going to deliver dialogue in the scene, rather than allowing herself to be affected by her scene partner.

If you are paying attention to “The Target” every time you do a scene, the scene will be a little bit different every time because you’re actively discovering how your character is affecting and being affected. We don’t believe Riet is playing a character because she isn’t making discoveries about what she is saying in the moment.

Sidenote: I won’t be looking at every scene from Troll 2 because it hurts to think about that film for too long. If you’re game, I encourage you to identify what is going wrong in the other scenes and report back with your findings.

Judge Dredd (1995)

Sylvester Stallone and Armand Assante are really giving it their all in this one, to their credit. My acting tutor always used to tell us never to play a character as Stoic because it’s boring and it closes you off to your impulses. I understand that stoic is Stallone’s brand, and he must be doing it well to have worked as much as he has … but are you convinced that he is anyone other than himself when he performs?

It’s blaringly obvious in this clip that Stallone’s using old tricks. He’s not much more than a tough guy and if you watch his eyes, you can see the lack of connection between what he’s saying and how he’s saying it. Even the way his mouth moves is “looking cool like Stallone” rather than how Judge Dredd’s mouth might move. Armand Assante has moments where it “feels good”–when he checks his watch and looks back at Stallone, there’s some electricity there–but he throws it all away when he turns his head in the next moment. It feels unnecessary and uncertain, and so we get confused.

And let’s tackle the way Assante shouts “Law!” You can hear a gravelly tone, which suggests he is pushing from his throat and not supporting it with breath. This is very important in acting because human beings will, often unknowingly, mimic the shape of someone’s vocal qualities–even if they don’t say anything. Watch the scene again and see if you notice a different in the way you are holding your throat. This feeling affects how we view someone’s performance, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

Bonus: Troll 2 (1990)

I can’t help myself. I want to talk about the second scene from Troll 2 in this compilation because there’s something unique about what is wrong with it. The way George Hardy is talking to Michael Stephenson doesn’t feel like how a father would speak to their 8-year-old son. If you changed the character and the context, the performance might make more sense, but this is a good example of how having a clear sense of the relationship between characters can be make or break a performance.

The Godfather Part III (1990)

A classic of bad acting—practically the standard against which all else is judged. The pacing and the action in this scene is so bizarre that I found it funny to watch. A lot of their reactions and attitudes feel out of sync with the action of the scene: it affects the pacing and rhythm. The final shout of “No!” doesn’t feel connected at all and is so abrupt that it makes us giggle instead of cry.

And while the actors aren’t blameless in this instance, it’s a great clip to examine for how the filmmaking can fail the actors present. Coppola was famously miscast by her father, and the scene feels like a melodramatic attempt to claw audience sympathy back. The framing, editing and even music feels melodramatic—at odds with the truth a scene like this lives or dies upon.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987)

“Oh God, oh man. Oh God, oh man, Oh God, oh man…” Whether this was written in the script or not, Ryan O’Neal’s performance is comical when it should be dramatic mainly due to the lack of variation in his delivery. If you’re stuck with a script that’s making you repeat the same thing one too many times, ask yourself why the writer has asked you to repeat it. Even if it’s completely overdone, it’s up to you as the actor to analyse the script and determine the meaning.

Another way to deal with repetition is to stay attuned to emotions. Our emotions rarely stay exactly the same for longer than a few seconds; it’s a skill to be able to track them as they change. If saying “Oh God, oh man” over and over starts to make you laugh, then laugh. Let the laughter become embarrassment, let embarrassment become shame and so on. 

The Happening (2008)

We worked with a film director in drama school who taught us one of the best ways to create energy in the scene is to let it move. Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg are clearly dealing with a terrifying situation, but they’re getting stuck right next to each other right up against a window. See how when the camera cuts back to a wide shot their lower bodies are completely disengaged? Even if you’re doing a super tight close up, make sure your entire body is engaged: a lack of engagement in your legs will read on your face.

When Wahlberg answers the door and speaks to Betty Buckley’s character, you can still see how trapped above the neck he is. The given circumstances of the scene don’t seem very clear either. Stanislavski insisted that actors needed a crystal clear idea of where they were, where they had been, where they were going next and what was happening–everything that contributes to the situation the characters find themselves in. The stakes in this moment between Wahlberg and Buckley seem too blurry to make any sense of what either character is feeling, which leads to a very wooden “What? No!”

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)

A lot of people have a problem with Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin in the prequel trilogy and I am included in that demographic. There is a distinct lack of energy and grit to Christensen’s performance. It’s common for screen actors to dial back their performance to try and be more realistic but if you end up too dialled back, you appear lazy, stoic and boring. Great performances, even if they are subtle, have energy coursing through them (as we will see next.)

The Good

Now that I don’t have to worry about getting back problems from cringing anymore, let’s start with one of my all-time favourite scenes:

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Javier Bardem and Gene Jones are masters of creating an unsettling and subtle tension that builds into the final coin toss. What makes both of their performances so excellent is how receptive they are to one another and how they’re honouring the status of each component in the scene.

At the beginning, when Bardem’s character walks in, he’s no more than a customer at a gas station. There’s nothing at stake here, other than the price of the gas he just bought. The initial interaction is so domestic and simple that we’re almost convinced it will end with Bardem paying for the gas and leaving. That is, until Jones asks whether Dallas has been getting any rain. The switch in Bardem is instant and so intense that we, much like the gas station attendant, are shocked by the shift.

It’s a terrific example of a beat change. Bardem takes all of the status in the scene and pursues Jones into a corner that he squirms to escape from. When he introduces the coin toss, Jones (and the audience) are at the mercy of a little chunk of metal. And once the result is revealed, the tension dissipates.

There’s no immediate threat of violence in this scene, which I think adds to the unsettling atmosphere. If Bardem came at Jones with aggression and anger, the tension would vanish because we as an audience would anticipate what was coming next. Playing opposites is a simple yet incredibly effective tool for actors.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

In Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance plays a man accused of spying for the Soviet Union. His performance is another lesson in playing against audience expectation, in that the stakes are clearly very high for Rylance’s character but he doesn’t respond how you might expect. Rylance is a master of portraying innocence in his performances. I believe this ability comes from the immense respect he has for the characters he plays: he understands their motivations, their wants, their dislikes and he uses all of that information to create a character who is an ordinary person—no matter how extreme their circumstances.

Never judge your character. Even if they are the most horrible person in the world, you need to find compassion and empathy for them somewhere–it’s very uncommon for even the evilest person in the world to believe themselves to be in the wrong.

Anatomy of a Fall (2023)

If you haven’t seen Anatomy of a Fall yet, stop reading this article and go and watch it right away! Sandra Hüller has considered her character’s history so thoroughly that it makes us resonate and empathise with her. Everything she is saying in this argument feels like resentment that has built up for a long time. Sandra’s character is giving voice to thoughts and feelings that she has had well before the events of the movie, making it feel justified and realistic.

It’s common for audiences to switch off when actors start to get frantic and angry in arguments, but if the actor has done their homework and really considered why everything is being said, we lean into them instead of away from them. Stanislavski and Meisner would be proud.

The White Lotus (2021)

Jennifer Coolidge is so entertaining throughout the whole series of The White Lotus because of how engaged her whole body is. It’s a terrific example of an actor “embodying” a character, and not simply reciting their words and miming their actions.

Remember: everything that happens in your lower body shows on your face. You can see everything about Coolidge’ character from the way that she runs, walks and leans on the railing of the boat. She is honouring the stakes of her character too, no matter how absurd they might seem to the audience, which makes it all the more enjoyable to watch her.

So, what is the difference?

We’ve identified a few different things that decide the difference between a good performance and a bad performance.

Energy

There is energy in every good performance. Rub your hands together quickly, get them warm then hover them above your skin. Feel that electric warmth? That’s some real good performative energy right there. When you’re performing, you’ll feel a similar sensation inside you somewhere. It might feel like nerves: sweaty palms, shaky legs or your heart pounding – that’s energy you want to learn how to harness.

Seasoned actors are masters at harnessing this energy and directing it where it needs to go, which is towards the other actor. If both actors are doing this, you get an electric exchange of energy that creates mesmerising performances.

Connection

Connection in every direction. Not just towards the other actor, but the text and given circumstances as well. This translates as being present and having intention. Every word said is considered–though don’t take that as speaking slowly. Let your character think fast, but always know what they’re saying and why they’re saying it.

You can develop this skill simply by reading the script over and over in different states of mind to get as many different reads on it as possible. One of my tutors used to tell us to imagine a golden line running from your stomach to the other actors’ stomach(s) and it’s amazing how it reads. The best way to give a great performance is to make the other actor look good.

Context

Actors love context. When I was working on The Seagull by Chekhov a couple of years ago, we’d all hang around and talk about things that weren’t explicitly said in the script after rehearsal for ages. “Do you think your character hears that offstage?” “Why do you think she says that?” “What’s making her so anxious right now?” “Where did they all go to school together?”

Remember that acting is a great big game of playing pretend. You need to have an active and vivid imagination to really participate in the game. Meisner talks about imagined circumstances as if it’s a hard science, but all it actually is, is creating the most realistic game of playing pretend, informed by your understanding of text and character.

Technique

There is undoubtedly a lot of technical skill that goes into giving a good performance. Vocal and physical proficiency is essential to any actor. Having a versatile and powerful voice and body only comes from consistent training–many of the great performers we looked at today come from some kind of theatre background which is generally more demanding than the screen. And it shows when these actors make the jump from stage to screen.

Bonus Comparison: Richard II

Have a look at this:

And now this:

Both excellent actors, but which performance did you find more watchable? Personally, I engage more with Mark Rylance. He plays against expectation and finds an ease with the text that Tennant does not seem to grasp. I find Rylance’s Richard to be charming and innocent, which makes it all the more tragic when he starts to cry. Tennant sets up a wizened Richard who is tortured from the moment his exploration of death and kings begins. 

Conclusion

“Know what you’re saying, say it clearly and mean it.” I could’ve opened and closed this article with just that saying, but there’s a more complex interplay of factors at work within it that we’ve explored today. In our dynamic profession, talent alone doesn’t dictate whether a performance is good or bad, but rather a complex interplay between energy, connection, context and technique.

Some homework for you: get together with some pals and watch a really good movie, then watch a really bad movie soon after. The more you analyse the good, the bad and the ugly, the more accurately you’ll be able to identify what is required to give a good performance and to know what’s good is a huge step towards being good.

Hope this helps. See you around the traps!

 

 

About the Author

Frazer Shepherdson

Frazer (he/him) is a writer, actor and director. He has worked professionally in film, television and theatre since 2016 and graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor in Acting in 2021.

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