We chatted to the author of The Outstanding Actor: Seven Keys to Success about the book and his advice for actors when the theatre industry reopens again.

Hi Ken, could you explain more about what The Outstanding Actor is about? It’s basically about how to be more successful as an actor. The point is that there are practical things you can do, choices you can make and habits you can adopt that will help you to do better work and have a more successful career. The Outstanding
Actor sets out to reveal those things. For instance, there are two main aspects here: doing exciting work and getting the job in the first place. A lot of very good actors fail to get the job they deserve
because they bring the wrong energy into the audition. And when they do get the job,
a lot of very good actors don’t do outstanding work because they are fearful of
failing. The best actors have learnt early on how to overcome that fear. But how do
you do that? That’s what The Outstanding Actor is about.

How did the idea for the book come about? I started to notice that some of my students at Guildhall had a lucky break that led to an extraordinarily successful career. Ewan McGregor, Lily James, Jodie Whittaker,
Daniel Craig for instance. I became fascinated by the question: What were they doing – in the classroom, in the rehearsal room – that the rest were not? What actually created that lucky break and got them those great jobs? So, I started to look more closely at their habits – what they brought to the work. I also spoke to great actors at the top of their game, such as Judi Dench, to find out what they were doing that made them so powerful on stage or screen. I then narrowed it down to seven habits or traits that made a difference: warmth, generosity, enthusiasm, grit, danger, presence and charisma. When put together, these are the mark of great actors. And in writing this second edition of the book, I included new research, new interviews and new exercises to bring it up to date with all the changes that have happened in the industry since the first edition came out five years ago. To be a successful actor today, you need to be aware of movements such as MeToo and Black Lives Matter, as well as navigating social media. The world has changed.

What was your aim when writing The Outstanding Actor? My aim was to give actors the means to achieve the qualities that great actors show. That covers both what you do on the rehearsal room floor and in your life, because if you’re looking at success, you can’t really separate those two aspects. I set out to do this through a discussion of each of the qualities, backed up with interview excerpts to test my views and then practical exercises that help deliver the results. So it’s different from most other acting books in the territory it covers. Most exciting of all, I’ve been able to use new technology to include 20 video clips of me working with a group of professional actors on some of the exercises that I’ve described. I wanted to give the reader the feeling of actually being in one of my masterclasses and being able to put the work into practice. You can easily do this by recording the exercises on your smart phone or laptop and playing them back to monitor your performance. You can virtually be your own coach.

Are there any bits of advice that you wish you had known about when starting out? Yes, I wish I’d known about all of it! I would have been a much better actor more quickly. But if I had to give you five top tips, this is what they would be:

  • Be at ease with risk, because that enables you to come up with more inventive acting choices. As they say in sports training: Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Cultivate resilience because you need a way to survive the inevitable knock backs. As the Japanese saying goes: Fall down eight times, get up nine.
  • Develop the default of a positive mindset. Positivity and optimism pave the way to success. Very few people succeed by being generally negative and pessimistic.
  • Be good to work with. If you are considerate to the team and a director has enjoyed working with you, they’ll be more likely to give you another job the next time something suitable comes up. Directors remember you.
  • Make it about them, not you. All your work is about giving of yourself – to the other actors and to your audience. Focusing totally on the others is one of the key indicators of your charisma. Actors who are vain and self-regarding just turn the audience off.

What do you think that actors should be doing during this time to keep their skills
sharp?
The lockdown won’t last forever and soon, the industry will get going again. You
need to be ready for that, because the opportunities will come thick and fast.
So, my advice is: while you have probably more time than you’ve had before, work
on your skills in a structured way. Have a routine where every day you commit some
time – an hour, half an hour – that’s devoted to developing yourself. It might be voice
work, sight reading, singing, or strengthening the muscle of your imagination. That
way, you feel you are moving forward and it builds your self-esteem. Most important
of all, it means you’re likely to be match-fit, ready to go when that first audition call
comes and the challenging rehearsals begin.

By Emma Clarendon

The new edition of The Outstanding Actor: Seven Keys to Success is available to buy now.