Why you need to be a multi-skilled actor

During my first year of uni, we were lucky enough to be visited by a prominent Melbourne director. During our Q&A time with him, someone asked what actors could do to get ahead of the crowd. He answered, “Speak several languages, and take up horse-riding and fencing.” I think a few of my classmates thought this was a bit of a simplistic answer, but I appreciated his honesty. In a way, it’s reassuring to think that casting is just a numbers game – that if you have enough tools in your tool belt, eventually someone is going to hire you because you, unlike many others, have access to a specific combination of tools.

In reality, I’m not sure it’s that simple – there are certainly a number of other factors at play in every casting – but there are plenty of real life examples where it does pay off to have a well-stocked tool belt. Take, for example, the Kenneth Branaugh Theatre Company’s The Winter’s Tale, which I caught a screening of recently at Cinema Paradiso. (There are plenty of live screenings of fabulous international productions throughout the year – you should be watching these to keep up with what’s happening abroad…)

Judi Dench as PaulinaThe production had quite a large ensemble cast – about ten or so actors, male and female, playing a number of small roles, maybe with only a handful of lines each. I noticed Australian actor Adam Garcia amongst the
ensemble and was surprised to see him taking on such a small role, given he has had quite a substantial career over the last 15 years or so. It gave me a sense of the calibre of actor competing for small roles in London – how tough it must be to sustain a decent living, let alone make a name for yourself as an experienced actor.

I mused to myself about what would put an actor ahead of the crowd to get a coveted role in this ensemble.

Here’s what I noticed:

  • They had to do a country accent.
  • They had to dance really well.
  • They had to sing in harmony.
  • They needed to have strong vocal skills (though they were wired for the screening, I could hear that they were working hard to project for their live audience in the Garrick Theatre).
  • And, obviously, they needed to be able to know how to speak verse reasonably well.

This is the combination of tools you need just to be in the ensemble of a production like this. And a lot of other productions will have similar needs. In theatre particularly, singing, dancing and playing and instrument is a common requirement. For both film and theatre, being able to do a (GOOD) accent or two will help. Speaking additional languages is great, but you need to know the language well enough that you understand its nuances, otherwise you won’t be able to act. However, start speaking Spanish now and when you’re 30 you’ll have the skillz you need. (Look at Kristin Scott Thomas for a great example of how this can be useful… she does buckets of French films…) P.S. Don’t wait until you’re 30 to start learning a language, like me… it takes soooo muuuuuch tiiiiiiiime.

Of course, even if you are wise enough to be actively building your skills set, you’ll always hit another barrier: balance. How on earth are we supposed to find time to maintain and build all these skills, without burning out?

I wish I could tell you some sort of secret that would balance everything out for you, but unfortunately, there’s no real secret. It’s just working hard and giving yourself a break sometimes. BUT there are a few things you can do to make your life a little bit easier.

Firstly, you may want to check out this post about time-saving tips for actors – these are my personal strategies for keeping things balanced and gettin’ sturf durnnn.

You also really need to make sure you’re doing a regular skills self-assessment, to check what you’re already good at, what needs practice, and what new skills you might want to take on to make you more cast-able. Your agent will probably have some ideas about this, or chat to a trusted friend in the industry and ask them for some honest advice.

Yes Please

I also recommend reading a book called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen – he certainly has some great ideas about how to improve your life in a manageable way. Another worthwhile read (or listen if you like audiobooks) is Yes Please by Amy Poehler. It’s not all about balancing your life as an actor, but it’s definitely all interesting for actors, especially if you like improv, Saturday Night Live or Parks and Recreation. 

Do you have any other strategies for keeping balanced while you keep yourself skilled? Which skills do you think get you the most work? So far I haven’t needed fencing or horse-riding, but I know actors who have…

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