Just like every other working actor out there, I’ve consumed more than my share of books about the craft.
These texts have been written by actors, coaches, filmmakers and all sorts of other people circulating around the film industry.
Here are five that I’ve found to be especially noteworthy:
1. The Power of the Actor: The Chubbuck Technique by Ivana Chubbuck
With the lengthy subtitle of “The 12-Step Acting Technique That Will Take You From Script to a Living, Breathing, Dynamic Character,” this book, written by veteran Hollywood acting coach Ivana Chubbuck, is full of useful pointers that will transform the way you approach your next role.
My favorite part of The Power of the Actor is the way she breaks down the various Obstacles that might get in an actor’s way — Physical, Mental, Emotional, etc. — and provides vivid examples of each one, as well as providing tools to navigate your way around them.
I also like how she suggests writing preparations on certain parts of a script, which trains your eye to be ready for when you might need to be doing something next. (One example: writing at the top of your script what happens in the moment just prior, which keeps your flow of movement steady.)
It’s a great book and I’d definitely suggest it to any actor, novice or expert.
2. Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to get the Part by Michael Shurtleff
This classic text, written by famed casting director Michael Shurtleff (of Chicago, The Graduate and Jesus Christ Superstar, among others), is chock full of stellar information to help you land the role of your dream.
The book is filled with useful pointers, but I especially like how Shurtleff emphasizes looking for humor in every scene and also considering the opposite of what a character’s motivation might be in a script.
Even the most serious scenes, Shurtleff suggests, have some element of humor lurking just below the surface, which is what makes them connect with an audience.
As for opposites, most actors think that knowing a character’s motivating force is enough, but he proposes that you should also try to figure out their opposing force, which helps you craft a more complex person from a written script.
Having both of these in mind will put you ahead of the rest of your fellow actors!
3. A Practical Handbook for the Actor by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, et al.
I found this one by chance in a second hand bookstore and it seems like it’s somewhat unknown compared to the other books on this list.
The sole focus of the text is a specific set of techniques developed by the several emerging author-actors in the mid-’80s, following their experiences working with people like David Mamet and William H. Macy.
The main thing that I took away from the book is their rigorous approach to analyzing a scene as an actor.
Among other pieces of advice, they propose that you should ask these three questions as you figure out a scene:
1) What is a character literally doing?
2) What is the essential action of what the character is doing in the scene? and 3) What is that action like to me, the actor? (“It’s as if…”)
I’ve found these to all be really generative for the way I start thinking about how a character is moving through a scene.
I think this book is under-recognized and deserves much more praise!
4. True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet
Anyone who is even remotely serious about acting — or screenwriting or directing or any number of other film-related arts — should know who David Mamet is by now. (He’s the legendary screenwriter behind films like Heist, Wag the Dog, The Spanish Prisoner and The Verdict, among many, many others.)
His book about acting is filled with tons of tips that subvert the commonly accepted ideas about technique and craft that we’ve all been taught to follow and it is quite polarizing in that respect.
My favorite part of True and False is how Mamet reminds the reader that we, the actors, are enough in and of ourselves.
In other words, we can do all of the preparation and homework that we want, but at the end of the day, you just need to bring yourself to the role, let the “work” go and just complete the scene.
It’s a calming piece of advice that I’ve found to be surprisingly helpful!
5. Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business by Bonnie Gillespie
Most of us go about our days as actors reading scripts, communicating with agents, hopefully going out for auditions and wondering about the next gig.
This book, by acclaimed acting coach Bonnie Gillespie, draws our attention to the business side of living as a working actor. (This should actually be at the forefront of all actors’ minds, not just a footnote!)
Self-Management for Actors guides the reader through branding, content creation and pitching, among other crucial skills for navigating this business.
It’s written in a plain-spoken style and is helpfully well-rounded in the advice it doles out.
As I said above, I’d suggest roaming the aisles of your favorite used book store in addition to shopping online.
You’ll find popular books, like most of these, for half-price and will probably accidentally find useful older books you didn’t even know existed.
Have you already read any of these acting books?
What are some of your own favorites?