So, how do you learn to act? Now THAT my friend is a tough question; I think it takes a long time to truly learn how--the lessons learned accumulate, and we find how to make our characters more believable, more complex, but I think we all begin with imitation--actors, singers, dancers, writers, painters -- all of us I think begin by copying others styles till we find our own voice, our own unique style. I managed to learn through trial and error, by working with and watching fine directors and actors -- at ACT, Ashland, The Old Globe, the Berkeley Rep company--learned from beautiful, tragic, vital and funny productions and portrayals.
My theory on becoming a good actor? Know how to use words. Pay attention to the way the author has written them, punctuated them, what echoes you hear and what undercurrents you sense. How did the author hear it? How did they want it spoken? Take nothing as fact, no statement a character makes as true--decide for yourself. Look for the clues--every character is a puzzle to be solved--think of it that way and you'll ask questions. Questions are vital.
Theatre actors at least are storytellers; we don't use images to tell these stories, we convey it in word, gesture, and intention. Learn to tell stories--hell, learn to tell jokes. And stories are all around us--we ignore them on a daily basis (I do as well) because we're too busy for them or they're too painful to hear -- listen to them. Learn how inflection and pitch can inform a line, change the meaning of a word. Learn to be supple with language and the spectrum of how it's used--from Shakespeare to Mamet.
And language changes, is changing; the English we speak today is descended from Shakespeare's own, but many of those words no longer carry the same meaning, they imply vastly different things. The same is true of today-- I recently said near someone considerably younger than myself that I was going to go "Hook up with a friend" -- The younger someone's head snapped around and gazed at me aghast. "What?!" I said to them. "Do you know what that means?" they asked in a low, level voice. "Well, I think so." I said "Uh..............What does it mean to YOU?" "Dude! Hooking up means having sex with someone!" was the reply...........when I was a kid hooking up just meant you were going to go see someone. Evolution at work.
Learn body language as well. Watch people, watch your world. Build a library of physicality, discover how your body works and how to use it. Dance. Sing. Listen to people. Really listen. Try to hear both sides of any argument. Learn to tell the difference between what is said and what is actually meant. Learn peoples' masks, learn your own, know yourself; your demons, your angels. Be honest with yourself, but not modest to a fault. Take pride in your work, but don't be arrogant. Know your limitations and try to exceed them regardless. Take risks, push the envelope, grow. Listen. Listen.
What else--there's so much! Learn the difference between theatricality and indulgence -- they are a hairs breadth apart. Seek truth in your work. Let your performance be new to you every night; one of the most difficult things to learn, I think. No matter how good you were you can never do last night's show again --that was last night. This is Tonight--play that, go with what is happening NOW. Learn from your failures as well as your successes and learn to forgive yourself when you do (and you will!) make mistakes; don't beat yourself up--move on.
The last few things it takes to be a good actor? Grace, Respect, Compassion. For others, for your craft, and for others in your craft. Be patient with others--they have to be patient with you; and be kind -- it costs nothing.
Josh, I hope this helped answer your questions, or at least some of them, and I wish you the best in your career to come. There is one thing I will ask of you -- and this is the only fee I will charge for your questions -- is that you return kindnesses given to you in the course of your career to others--lend someone else a hand, OK?
And as for me?