Ah, talent. It can be a bit of a dreaded word, can’t it? It’s a force which is feared, praised and desired by actors all over the world. We all know someone who has it, and most of us have wondered and hoped that we possess a quantity of it as well. Today we’re talking about all things talent – what it is, whether it is even real, and what we can do with or about it.
Flagging the Fear of ‘Talent’
Questions about talent frequently arise in the minds of actors, and here at Stagemilk we are often receiving questions from actors as to whether or not they themselves possess or need talent to achieve success in this industry.
These concerns are well founded. ‘Talent’ is a word which bounces around in every cinema or theatre foyer. The words “Wow, they are so talented!” have been uttered countless times about actors all over the world. When we are just starting out this word is really loud in our ears. As we are auditioning for drama school or going for our first few professional auditions, this question of whether or not we are ‘talented’ enough can be heard ringing in our ears.
Like with any skill, there is undeniably a level of ease and sophistication the best actors in the world possess. A performance which would be desperately challenging for us seems easy in their hands. Now, I feel that most of us are aware of the importance of hard work and time spent developing our craft in the quest of mastery – that is definitely a factor of these top actors’ work. But there does often seem to be something else; some essence – let’s call it ‘talent’ – that these actors possess which gives their performance an extra edge. What is that THING? How do we get some of it? Or has our level of talent been preordained, fixed into place by some cruel deity, restricting our ability to achieve the success we so desperately seek in our lives?
I must admit, I’m making myself chuckle whilst writing this. This is absolutely a fear I have experienced in the past, and may still experience yet. These concerns in this industry are absolutely normal, and I want to begin this conversation by validating your experience a little.
The casting process for acting roles can be SO elusive, so mysterious and so unpredictable. We can be given roles we’re sure we are not right for, and we can have roles we were born to play given to someone else. There is no measurable progression as an actor. We are not in a workplace which presents a clear ladder of opportunity, where hard work will be rewarded with promotion, and complacency discouraged with unfavourable consequences. No, this is not our lot as actors. Some actors will shoot immediately for the stars upon stepping out the door of their drama school, and some may never meet their full potential until later in life. Many actors will continue striving for a goal which remains out of their reach for the entirety of their career.
Whatever this factor is which catapults some to dizzying heights of success, and leaves some strapped to the spoon, whether it is talent, luck, coincidence or fate – there is one important thing to remember.
Focus On What Is Within Our Control
At the end of the day, whether talent or fate is real or not is beside the point. These factors are not useful for us, for they are completely out of our control. Focusing on talent as a factor which will determine our success and the success of others is simply a way for us to shift responsibility off ourselves. It’s a defence mechanism. Praising the talent of a successful actor is simply the flipped side of the coin of bemoaning the success of an actor for sheer dumb luck.
As hard as it may seem, as unfair as this industry can appear sometimes, my main point to you today is this: focus on what you can control. This sentiment was made popular by Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome. Stoic teacher, Epictetus, says,
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” — Epictetus
Adopting this attitude will prove invaluable to you as an actor, for there are SO many factors which are out of our control in this game. Whether the casting director likes you, where you’re in the casting bracket for a particular role, whether you land a role, what the audience thinks of your performance, whether you get good reviews are ALL factors completely outside our control, and yet we all place so much focus and importance on these things. This is to be expected – we, as humans, are social creatures, and crave the validation of the tribe. You should not be beating yourself up whilst reading this if you have felt tied to the opinions of others. It’s normal, and BELIEVE ME – I have spent a lot of my life focussed on the thoughts and opinions of others which are out of my control.
The question of ‘talent’, therefore, fits into this category of things which are out of our control. If talent is this elusive force which provides success in some and restrains others, then so be it. C’est la vie. If talent is merely privilege; that some actors are born with more opportunity than others, then so be it. We cannot cultivate talent, in the same way that we cannot increase our stockpile of ‘luck’. So, now that we’re agreed that we are not focusing on or bemoaning our perceived levels of talent as actors, what the heck DO we focus on?
What Is Within Our Control
There is a big, courageous shift which is required from us to take our focus off the uncontrollable factors surrounding us and onto what we are able to influence. This requires courage from us because it forces us to take responsibility for our every action, and for the result of those actions. No longer can we blame, complain or question the ‘fairness’ of another actor’s success. All we can do with another actor’s success is allow it to inspire us, and remind us that “if it is possible for them, then it is possible for me”. Another person’s success does not mean your failure – even in the closest of races. Your result is your result – and reflects your preparation, practise, work ethic and attitude.
“Woah woah woah Jack, are you telling me that me not getting a role is my fault?” Ah, I see I am beginning to ruffle a few feathers. That’s a good thing, I believe this is an important and difficult conversation to have.
No, I don’t think that the result of an audition, (positive or negative) is your fault, but I do believe it is your responsibility. Now, your responsibility can mean any number of things, from your level of preparation, confidence with an accent, confidence with the lines, your hair colour, your age, your look, your emotional state on the day of the audition, and so on. Your responsibility is YOU – not anyone or anything else. Now, what you need to do next is to determine what within your responsibility is within your control. These factors, such as your look, age and even your emotional state on the day, may be out of your control, and therefore maybe not worth worrying about- or simply trying to optimise for the opportunity. These other factors, however, are well within your control. How well you learn your lines, do the backstory for your character, how confident you are with the accent, how hydrated you are, how healthy you have eaten recently, how well you have slept, how kind you are to the casting director and others you encounter, how present you are in the room – these are all factors well within your control, and the ONLY things worth focusing on.
This is why this is such a confronting and difficult task. There is great solace which can be found in placing blame or fault on things outside our control – our uber driver took a wrong turn. The casting director was in a foul mood. There was a party raging last night so I couldn’t sleep. Whilst all of these things certainly impact our lives, placing the fault, blame or responsibility on them when it comes to the result of our work is short sighted and unsustainable. I say these things because I know, I KNOW that I have shifted the responsibility for my work onto something outside of my control in the past. It was a defence mechanism. “Oh yeah, I didn’t get that because I ran into an old friend right before the audition and that threw me” I have said. “These theatre companies always cast the same actors, it’s such a closed shop” I have said. “They only got that role because they are really good looking” I have said. I have uttered these words at times where deep down in my heart I know that I didn’t work as hard as I could have. That I felt shame about my lack of dedication, and fear at the prospect of me giving it my all and still coming up short. This, (I hope – unless I’m discovering that I’m quite abnormal) is normal, and understandable. But leaning into this challenge with courage will see us developing exponentially over time. At the end of an audition, if we say “Ah that didn’t go well because of ‘X’ (someone else’s responsibility)” we will probably meet our next audition with the same effort and dedication that we met this one. If we actually go through a truthful debrief with ourselves and take responsibility for our work, acknowledging where we may have been able to work harder or more effectively, we’re far more likely to grow and develop and increase our chances of success.
What it comes down to is this: take responsibility for your life, and focus on what you can control.
Practise and Process
Take your attention off what is outside your control, and bring it back to what is within your control. One thing that is well within your control is your commitment to practise and your process.
Instead of looking at the ‘talent’ of others, look at the steps they took to get where they are today. What you will inevitably find is that hey, these actors who are so talented and make their work seem so effortless actually were beginners once, and they have come a long way. Now, instead of being daunted by an intangible ‘talent’, we can actually see the steps and process which led to their mastery of craft. What we will find in the majority of the best actors in the world is courage, persistence and hard work. Any natural ‘god given’ essence to their work is minuscule compared to the degree which these actors have had to persist in the face of adversity and overcome the hurdles in their path.
The best actors have worked really hard to achieve what they have today. This means you need to do the same, if you wish to achieve this success too. Even if talent was a true and influential factor in this industry, these talented few would still need to work hard to position themselves in the right circles, and work towards getting their craft known by people in positions of power. Hard work is inevitable, so that’s what you should be turning your attention towards, right now. Today.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think ‘talent’ is a factor which does exist in many fields, perhaps more than in the acting industry. But I think it is important to make a distinction between ‘talent’, and ‘genetic suitability’. This phrase, ‘genetic suitability’ is something I’ve lifted from Atomic Habits by James Clear. This is a fantastic book, and incredibly useful in service of developing habits and processes which will maximise our productivity and growth. Clear speaks about talent in his chapter, ‘The Truth about Talent (When genes matter and when they don’t)’. When it comes to a conversation about talent, this chapter is really useful to read. Clear speaks of the importance of us seeking to maximise our potential by seeking environments and situations where our genetics will give us an advantage. He writes,
“The secret to maximizing your odds of success is to choose the right field of competition… The strength of genetics is also their weakness. Genes cannot be easily changed, which means they provide a powerful advantage in favorable circumstances and a serious disadvantage in unfavorable circumstances.” — James Clear, Atomic Habits
This truth is perhaps most noticeable in physical skill sets, where some body shapes are undeniably more suited to certain sports than others. In acting, this factor is less tangible. To be an actor does not require one particular ‘type’ of human. They can be introvert or extrovert, of all different body shapes, all different backgrounds and life experiences. Perhaps, then, what is useful for us to consider is whether or not we are aiming for the area within the acting industry that is best suited for our natural ‘style’. What might be the case is that we’re working against the grain of our personality while trying to break into a particular style or medium of acting. Clear goes on to expand on this notion, writing,
“The people at the top of any competitive field are not only well trained, they are also well suited to the task. And this is why, if you want to be truly great, selecting the right place to focus is crucial… In short: genes do not determine your destiny. They determine your areas of opportunity.” — James Clear, Atomic Habits
Or, in a more light hearted fashion,
“Boiling water will soften a potato but harden an egg. You can’t control whether you’re a potato or an egg, but you can decide to play a game where it’s better to be hard or soft.” — James Clear, Atomic Habits
So, if this question of talent has got you beating your head against a wall, and you feel you are failing to progress, then perhaps the task is actually redirecting your efforts to a different area of the industry. Perhaps you are more suited to the environment of screen acting than stage. More comedy than drama, for instance. This is not to say that you will not, one day, be able to do all of these things, but in the early stages of your career while you are establishing yourself, it is definitely best to work towards your natural strengths.
Here’s a final thought for you. One thing seems to clearly exist amongst the most successful actors in the world. This isn’t talent or hard work, though those elements may certainly exist, too. No, this factor is an unapologetic acceptance of self. These actors have got themselves to a place where they are willing and able to give themselves, all of themselves, to the work. They offer themselves up to the craft of acting life a sacrificial lamb – unapologetically, vulnerably, confidently and willingly. Perhaps this is what we must strive to do as well.
In order to best be able to act, we must develop our self awareness. We must deepen our self-acceptance. We must know ourselves so we can give ourselves. The challenge of achieving this self awareness is going to be far more fulfilling and useful for us than focusing on ‘talent’ – this wishy-washy intangible substance that is of little use to us.
Use your ‘talent’ – that is, using ‘yourself’, and every facet of your being, to maximise your chances of success. People are watching you act to see what you can bring to the role, not just the role itself. People don’t go to see Hamlet, they go to see you playing Hamlet.
That is the whole crux of this article. You are talented, whether you believe it or not. You are talented because you are you, and no-one else is you. You are unique, and you have everything you need to achieve what you wish to achieve in your life and in this industry. All that is left for you to do is to focus on what is within your control and do those things to the best of your ability. With hard work and discipline and taking responsibility for your life, there really isn’t anything which can stop you. Doing these things will ensure that your success is unstoppable and inevitable.