We don’t know how to talk about acting. Take it from someone who wrote a book about it. We don’t know how to say what distinguishes good performances from bad performances. This is partly because actors and casting directors don’t even know how to explain what good actors do and don’t do. We don’t know how to explain, for example, why Elizabeth Olsen can clearly act, but her sisters, Mary-Kate and Ashley, can’t. Why does Elizabeth project an inner pathos, while her sisters don’t? 23-year-old Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence began as a model. We know she’s starring in some of 2012 and 2013’s most successful films, but what sort of performance work is she doing that all her former model cohorts aren’t doing? Believe me, if you could bottle it and sell it, you’d never have to work again.

Michael Caine tried that with his best-selling book Acting In Film. And there’s nothing wrong with reading him, reading Stanislavsky, reading Strasberg, taking classes, honing your craft, et cetera. But that still isn’t going to tell us why Denzel Washington pops off the screen, and his twin brother, if he existed, probably wouldn’t. Why is it that when Octavia Spencer delivers her lines, they sound like she just thought of them? From where does that well-rehearsed spontaneity come? Is it about neck control? Confidence? Holding eye contact? Listening and reacting, instead of acting?

Extended considerations of actors always demonstrate the inadequacy of our language about the acting profession. Like this recent one about Scarlett Johansson, or this recent one about Nicolas Cage. Instead, our authors gush about how people should react, how they reacted. It’s all very subjective and unprovable. Obituaries also seem to be missing something. Four months ago, Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin died on the same day. This might have occasioned someone in the major media to attempt at least a compare-and-contrast, or perhaps highlighting something that one of them often mastered that the other two almost never showed. But no.

One has to conclude that there is an irreducible mystery to performance that is not unrelated to the irreducible mystery of the self. Travel the world, travel through time, you will come to the same conclusion: we are all the same, but we’re all different. Little similarities and little differences await your unearthing, your enjoying, your epiphanies. An actor gives us both, a little bit at a time. An actor tells the truth by lying, and that seeming contradiction can sustain a lot of our interest.

Still, it would be nice to have a way to itemize exactly what Kevin Spacey is doing that Kevin from accounting can’t do. We should be able to track acting the way we track music. Did you know that most of your favorite musicians can’t read music? It’s true! The Beatles never learned to read music. I would say they intuitively wrote at least 100 pretty great songs anyway. And then other people came along and wrote out the scale notes, and now you can buy those arrangements as a Beatles songbook, and that in turn teaches the rest of us something invaluable. Excellent, intuitive actors don’t need to know what notes they’re hitting. But like the people who wrote down the Beatles’ notes, we might benefit from doing something similar, just to get a better idea of what the hell these intuitive people did.

In the 20th century, perhaps the person who came closest to doing this was Rudolf Laban, a well-respected dance teacher who tried to add more rigor to theatrical acting. In my book, I present a very over-summarized version of his taxonomy, as follows:

But having taught this for a few semesters now, I feel this is too complicated for most people to apply to what their favorite performers do. Trial and error has taught me that my students prefer something more like an xy-axis. Hence, I’ve re-purposed (and really re-written) Laban’s taxonomy into this:

laban chart 2.0

You won’t get any argument from me if you want to add more vertices, for example for pathos and humor. But let’s start here anyway. You might think that all good actors project “strength” at all times. Arguably, it takes as much or more skill to appear genuinely weak, as, say, Meryl Streep did for much of Sophie’s Choice, or Sally Field did as Mary Todd Lincoln in Lincoln. You might also think that “sincerity” isn’t all that important to performance, and you might be right if you were talking about most Hollywood films from about 60 years ago. These days, in the postmodern films and shows you know, it feels like all the major actors are running a double-bluff, trying to make you second- and even third-guess their intentions. (I’m looking at you, Sasha Baron Cohen.) Sometimes “honesty” works as a synonym for sincerity, though charts of really strong actors need to factor in how the character may be lying to herself. Anyway, how do you judge sincerity, when it’s a given that the actor is playing a character? Well, it’s not as hard as you might think.


Let’s take last night’s scene of Peter Dinklage, as Tyrion Lannister, telling Shae, played by Sibel Kekilli, that she has to leave Westeros. Dinklage starts somewhat strong – not Denzel-in-Training-Day strong, but quietly confident and forceful. Time to end their friendship, he says, time for her to go. As he continues, his voice rises, and he calls her a whore that he could never marry. He is becoming less sincere, so he’s dropping down our xy-axis of acting. (No good actor stays in the same position on that graph for very long.) Now, is he getting stronger or weaker? Is he convincing her? Us? Are we seeing the hidden pain for him to do this? Is Shae? With a lesser actor I think this would be easier to chart; Dinklage is a talented enough actor to make it hard to tell…thus I would chart his performance toward the end of the scene just on the line between strong and weak. (Clearly, Kekilli is weak and gets weaker by the end – and if her tears seem genuine to you, the actress has pulled off something tricky.) My students have enjoyed applying the chart to youtube clips of Heath Ledger as The Joker; Ledger seems to hover right around the very middle of the graph, and just when you think you know where he’ll stay, he swerves again.

Dinklage xy axis

Can such a chart be applied to an entire movie, or a TV episode? Well, how about Jon Hamm as Don Draper in last night’s season premiere of Mad Men? As with Dinklage, fans of the show have seen Hamm all over this axis. I think last night he surprised us by spending most of the first half of the episode in the upper-right quadrant – he was relatively strong and relatively sincere. Hamm nuanced Draper where you could sense Draper keeping most of his brooding demons at bay during the restaurant scenes with Megan’s swishy manager and with Pete Campbell. I wouldn’t put Hamm WAY up in the quadrant – you could tell Draper was slightly holding back – but he was more sincere than he was insincere. Later, on the plane with a lovely stranger, you could feel Hamm place Draper into a holding pattern (not a coincidence, surely) of sincerity – how much would he tell this woman? What would it gain for him to be honest, or not? Hamm exquisitely unrolled both Draper’s eventual sincerity as well as his relief at said sincerity. As the airplane landed, Draper was stronger for his honesty. But it was never a pure, world-beating, post-coitus, Stephen Colbert-on-steroids strength; Hamm nuanced it with enough vulnerability to make the scene with Freddie count more. In the episode’s final shot, Hamm gets points for a very sincere weakness – the upper-left quadrant – as he feels his life slipping away.

Hamm xy axis

Can the chart help us shine light on a whole career? Well, speaking of Stephen Colbert, as of a few days ago, he’s preparing to wind up what has to be one of the great decade-long performances of all time, comparable only to Yul Brynner in The King and I and a few others. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster has a great essay on Colbert where she claims that it’s best to understand the Colbert “character” as “a drag act of sorts.” She quotes Steven Shaviro: “Drag performers exteriorize themselves so completely, they exalt visibility and artificiality so ostentatiously…they so utterly give themselves over to the mystique of the aura, that they disrupt the very models…that they are ostensibly imitating.” For Foster, Colbert’s audience, like a drag audience, loves the postmodern fun, the sense that we are behind the usual looking-glass of faux sincerity. Indeed, Colbert has done the role of a know-it-all right-wing blowhard so well that he’s gotten major blowback (from #cancelcolbert, Rush Limbaugh, and too many others to name here). But what Foster doesn’t really cover, and what we might ask as we prepare to say goodbye to “Stephen Colbert” and hello (on CBS) to Stephen Colbert, is: what was “Stephen Colbert”?

Colbert xy axis

The simplest place to put “Colbert” would be deep in the bottom-right quadrant, at the apex of strength and insincerity. And while that’s often true, I think he betrays a certain good-guy-ness from time to time, taking him down a few strength pegs. He can even be sincere toward the ends of his sometimes scathing celebrity interviews. CBS hired him – even if they wouldn’t know to put it this way – because he wasn’t always in the one quadrant, because he knew to swerve out of it at the right times. Actually, they’re counting on that.

Is being a talk-show host like Jimmy Fallon really a performance? Well, one of the points of this exercise is that everything is a performance. As modern existence is increasingly defined by surveillance, avatars, selfies, online dating, and the like, we see more performative elements filtering their way into our daily lives. We can’t stop acting, and we can’t stop viewing acting. We can only hope to get a better grasp of it. The axis of acting is but a first step.