What’s your range? What can you realistically, comfortably, confidently pull off as an actor? Are there limits to the kinds of roles you’d take on? And while we’re at it: how are you perceived as an actor, by others, as well as yourself? For the importance it plays in shaping and determining our careers, it’s funny to think of how little interrogation we do on the subject of an actor’s range—that vague-but-vital determiner of what kinds of parts you are (or aren’t) often suitable for. That’s why, today, we’re going to look at how to expand your range as an actor.
Learning how to expand your range as an actor will open you up to new and exciting opportunities in your career. It will give you the confidence to pursue unexpected, unlikely and varied roles, and help shape the perception others have of what kinds of parts you can realistically play. In this article, we will examine some ways you can expand your acting range; however, all of these strategies rely on you first challenging your own pre-conceived notions of what your limits are as an artist and as a human being.
A quick disclaimer…
Before we jump in, let’s quickly set some boundaries around range: the kinds of things that should be obvious enough but are worth mentioning to be clear so we can move on to the good stuff. First of all, there are limits as to what you can and can’t portray: think age, race, gender and identity. Nobody wants to see a white Othello, a twenty-something King Lear or a cis-gendered person portraying a trans character.
These things have been done in the past, sure. But we’re (finally) coming into an age where this kind of casting is being phased out in favour of actors with lived experiences playing parts written for them (or at least speaking respectfully to their experiences.) This issue is an article unto itself, so let’s settle it for now with a simple rule: wanting to expand your range should never be about taking the place of another. Don’t be bitter, don’t mourn a job lost, look for the next one. We guarantee it’ll be better suited to you.
Okay, disclaimer disclaimed. Let’s dive in!
What is an Actor’s Range?
In short, an actor’s range is the spectrum of roles they can believably portray. Some actors have an incredibly diverse range—flitting from character to character like chameleons, and popping up in the unlikeliest films spanning various genres.
The late great Robin Williams is a great example of an actor with incredible range: his dramatic turn in Good Will Hunting is a world away from the comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, not to mention the horror of One Hour Photo. Tilda Swinton also springs to mind (her IMDB page is a wild ride), as does Jamie Foxx and another fallen legend, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Compare these kinds of actors to somebody like Robert DeNiro. He’s a master of the method madness, a true giant of the acting profession! And yet, you can be pretty much certain of what he’s going to do in any given role. He gets typecast in roles that speak to what we know and understand Robert DeNiro to be. And there is nothing wrong with that. Some actors simply stay in their lane and (hopefully) corner the market.
How to Expand Your Range as an Actor
How do you expand your range? Start by thinking about what your range is now. How are you seen in the industry? What kinds of roles do you get sent for and book over and over?
Next, think about the kinds of roles you’d like to play. What would be an unexpected part you think you’d do really well? Let’s say you’re a quiet, kind-faced individual who books a lot of roles as a supportive best friend. How’d you feel about playing a romantic lead, or a bully, or a serial killer?
One of the things people often do is confuse ‘range’ with ‘actor type’. We’ve spoken about typecasting a lot, here, on StageMilk. While the two concepts are similar, it’s fair to argue that they’re different. There’s often not much you can do about being typecast, as it’s inherently tied to your identity. With range, there’s more wiggle room: more opportunities to grow and challenge perceptions.
So how do you expand your range? Start by thinking about what your range is now. And will yourself to look for roles beyond that.
Take an Acting Class
Taking an acting class can be hugely beneficial in expanding your range. Whether you’re an up-and-comer with no training, or a three-year-drama-school veteran with a host of commercials under your belt, an acting class is a fine reminder that you can play the greats, the classics, the big roles that demand more than a self-tape of you pretending to buy frozen yoghurt. Acting classes are nurturing spaces that help you rediscover the ‘artist’ part of being an actor.
The other advantage of acting classes are the peers you’ll have the opportunity to work with. Walk into that studio and run a challenging scene in front of them: see if they can tell it’s not what you usually take on. In a safe, educational environment, there’ll be no judgement that you’ve tried something new. Only support, and from a group of people who can view your experiment with totally fresh eyes. An acting class is the perfect place to experiment and take some risks!
Work With an Acting Coach
For a more focused approach, try doing some sessions with an acting coach. In these sessions, the focus is one-hundred-percent on you and what you wish to improve. So speak to the coach about your range and how they might suggest you expand. Actually, the better question with an acting coach is where to expand your range. They should be able to guide you as to what you can conceivably play, and where to focus your efforts moving forward.
A great place to work with an acting coach is right here, at StageMilk! We run a Scene Club that offers up a wealth of monologues and scenes for you to attempt each month, which are then viewed and critiqued by a professional, industry veteran acting coach.
Focus on a Genre or Style
This one is simple enough: if you’d like to book more science fiction roles, practice more science fiction scripts! Get comfy with a particular genre or style. Often, your acting range is diminished by a lack of knowledge about the particular field in which you’re hoping to expand. So will yourself to become an expert! Read more scripts, watch more films, practice script analysis to know how the writer has created a particular character/narrative/style on the page.
One range expansion a lot of actors are looking to achieve is performing Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays, characters and words are scary to a lot of actors; they turn away a great deal of talented performers simply because they don’t know where to begin, and how to get comfortable. Set yourself the goal to become a Shakespeare expert! Or at least confident enough that you could have a conversation at a party without feeling like a fraud. Get to know his plays by reading or watching them, and work at deciphering and understanding (and appreciating) the language.
Expanding your acting range is a lot about confidence and knowing yourself. But like so much of acting, it’s mainly study and hard work. Let this comfort you: the hard work pays off.
Practice New Material
Once you’ve thought about your range, and you’ve decided where you’d like to expand and challenge yourself, find some material and have at it! Find a scene or monologue that typifies something unexpected for you as a performer, and bring it to life. The trick, when playing outside your usual range, is not to treat it like it’s anything unusual. Do the same work you’d do for any other role: interrogate character, analyse the script, find your character’s objective/s and the actions they deploy to achieve it.
Finding new, confronting material is paramount to improving your acting abilities and expanding your range. Often, when we see great performances in our Scene Club here at StageMilk, we find ourselves stuck with what to say. What do you tell a performer who’s nailed it, and has nothing in that needs fixing or strengthening?! We tell them to play. Experiment, try new things, make unexpected choices.
Make a fool of yourself! Be bold, be mousey! Go full Cage, go full Gosling! You can discover all sorts of amazing things in simply tackling unexpected material, or trying a comfortable scene in a less-than-safe way. In those moments, you are sure to surprise and delight yourself.
Put Yourself Out There
For all the great work you can do on yourself and your craft to expand your range, it all counts for naught unless you actually go out there and pursue new roles. Seek out opportunities to play roles that subvert your usual typecasting: look for casting opportunities, auditions, speak to your creative community about your goals (if you haven’t already) and see what they could do to help you break the mould.
If you’re lucky enough to be represented by an agent, talk to them about sending you for roles outside your usual slate of auditions. You might need to work harder to impress the casting director if you’re not an obvious choice, but you certainly didn’t set this range-expanding goal because you knew it’d be easy.
However, if this exploration is happening within the safety of an acting class or with a coach, then you have no damn excuse not to go hard on the range-busting roles. Every chance you have to perform and workshop your acting is a chance to change perceptions and grow. Don’t waste the opportunity to perform for and work with others on a safe role you know you can nail. From the other side of that equation, we’ll tell you this for free: there’s nothing more boring than watching an actor perform a scene they feel they’re ‘perfect’ for. Inevitably, this breeds complacency (and boredom.)
Consider Stage, Screen and Voice
One final provocation before we wrap things up: if you’re primarily a ‘stage’ or ‘screen’ actor, look for roles in the other discipline! Step onto a set or into a rehearsal room and see what happens when you’re taken out of your comfort zone. A lot of actors don’t think about range as being tied to the field in which they work. And that’s because it isn’t. Why would you deny yourself the opportunity to work across such a huge percentage of your field, simply because you don’t generally ‘do’ that aspect of your craft?
Working in a new medium gives you the chance to view your acting through a new lens. So branch out and look for work in the aspect of acting you don’t know so well, because that will provide you with a fresh perspective on what you can play—and well. You may even surprise yourself, and find that what you originally disdained or dismissed is actually your new passion.
As an extension to this strategy, consider pursuing more voice work as an actor. Voice acting is a great field that promotes an incredible diversity of jobs and styles; because of this, it’s a great place to try and expand the kinds of characters you play. Ideally from the comfort of your own, COVID-era home recording studio.
And if none of these things particularly appeal to you, you lose nothing by treating them as experiments. Think of them as you might an acting class: use them to challenge yourself, knowing that the comfort and safety of your usual field will always be there.
Confidence and honesty are paramount to expanding your range as an actor. So if you’ve decided to undertake this challenge for the sake of your career, know that it’s going to require a lot of introspection and frank assessment of who you are as an actor. This can be rather tough!
The good news is there are plenty of ways to approach this topic, and therefore options galore for you to consider. Here at StageMilk, we’re here to give you All The Encouragement and tell you that, for all its difficulties, expanding your range as an actor is fantastic. Think of all the incredible roles you’ll suddenly open yourself up to! All of the opportunities previously hidden or denied… It’s a tough road, for sure. But there is so much to be gained.
Finally, let us leave you with this nugget of encouragement. When you think about your range, you’re thinking on how to be a better actor, not simply how to book more roles. This will not go unnoticed, because you’ll be signalling your peers and the wider industry that you’re exactly the kind of actor people strive to work with: one who wants to improve, and challenges themselves to be more.