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Originally published March 12, 2020 and is continually updated
If you look at professionals in any industry, they are constantly honing their skills. As actors, we are told to “always be in class”, and while this is vitally important, it’s only one piece of the puzzle in being at the top of your game.
Acting books include foundational work – learning from the masters, acting technique, auditioning skills, self-marketing and the business in general.
Here are the top 17 books that every actor needs to read.
ACTING TECHNIQUE: THE ESSENTIALS
“There are almost no American actors uninfluenced by Uta Hagen.” ~ Fritz Weaver
I studied with Uta Hagen in the last masterclass series she taught. She was phenominally detail oriented and focused on authentic choices, movements and relationships. She didn’t like her first book, Respect for Acting because she had grown and changed so much by the time she wrote A Challenge for the Actor There are excellent exercises in both of these books that very much reflect who she was as a person and her personal teaching style, and true love and devotion for the craft.
Much in keeping with her style, this book is simple and straightforward, while at the same time revealing profound insights about the craft. Uta Hagen distills the core of acting into nine specific questions. (download the worksheet here) You’ll have to read the book to truly learn how to investigate them, but maybe the most important questions Ms. Hagen tells actors to ask when it comes to their characters is “Who am I?” “What do I want?” and “What is my relationship?”
“Theoretically, the actor ought to be more sound in mind and body than other people, since he learns to understand the psychological problems of human beings when putting his own passions, his loves, fears, and rages to work in the service of the characters he plays. He will learn to face himself, to hide nothing from himself — and to do so takes an insatiable curiosity about the human condition.” – from the Prologue
At the time I knew here, Ms. Hagen really didn’t like this book. In keeping with her no B.S. New Yorker style, she literally told me throw it in the garbage when I brought it into class one day and asked her to autograph it. Lol! No, she did not autograph it, but yes, did autograph A Challenge for the Actor. Having said that, I still found the book incredibly valuable, especially for very new actors. Although it focuses heavily on theater, it taught me a lot about preparation and specificity in performance.
“This fascinating and detailed book about acting is Miss Hagen’s credo, the accumulated wisdom of her years spent in intimate communion with her art. It is at once the voicing of her exacting standards for herself and those she taught, and an explanation of the means to the end.” – Publishers Weekly
“Hagen adds to the large corpus of titles on acting with vivid dicta drawn from experience, skill, and a sense of personal and professional worth. Her principal asset in this treatment is her truly significant imagination. Her ‘object exercises’ display a wealth of detail with which to stimulate the student preparing a scene for presentation.” – Library Journal
“Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting . . . is a relatively small book. But within it, Miss Hagen tells the young actor about as much as can be conveyed in print of his craft.” – Los Angeles Times
Sanford Meisner was one of the most renowned acting teachers in the country. This book follows one of his acting classes for fifteen months, beginning with the most rudimentary exercises and ending with affecting and polished scenes from contemporary American plays. Written in collaboration with Dennis Longwell, it is essential reading for beginning and professional actors alike. Throughout these pages Meisner urges his students onward, provoking emotions, laughter, tears, discomfort and personal growth while developing the craft.
“This book should be read by anyone who wants to act or even appreciate what acting involves. Like Meisner’s way of teaching, it is the straight goods.”—Arthur Miller
“If there is a key to good acting, this one is it, above all others. Actors, young and not so young, will find inspiration and excitement in this book.”—Gregory Peck
“I call this book The Intent to Live because great actors don’t seem to be acting, they seem to be actually living.” – Larry Moss, from the Introduction
When Oscar-winning actors Helen Hunt and Hilary Swank accepted their Academy Awards, they each credited Larry Moss’s guidance as key to their career-making performances. At one point, there was a two-year waiting list for his advanced acting classes, but at the moment, unfortunately I don’t believe he is teaching at this time. So, this is a great place to learn the tips and techniques that celebrities rave about.
From the foundations of script analysis to the nuances of physicalization and sensory work, there are case studies, exercises, and insights that help you to connect personally with the script, overcome fear and inhibition, and develop your character from the inside out.
Ideally, I would move this book further down the list, simply due to it’s age and difficulty to get your hands on these days. However no discussion about acting is complete without discussing “Method Acting”. At it’s core, method acting is a technique used by actors to completely immerse themselves in the characters they are going to portray; emotionally identify with them through one’s own life experiences. “The Method”, as it’s known is still widely taught and used and I would encourage any actor to explore this through classes.
This is the oldest book on the list and the first of the three acting books written by Mr. Stanislavski. Through these pages, Stanislavski takes you on a guided tour through his system by following the experiences of a group of actors as they learn. It is an in-depth theory of acting that includes exercises and techniques that are really some of the core foundations of the craft today. Every working actor has at some point been influenced by The Method. While there is some debate on whether or not this is still valuable in today’s market, every actor should at least know the method as part of learning their craft.
Imagine if you could learn your lines in half the usual time yet feel confident they will roll off your tongue when needed? As an actor, line memorization is going to be a big part of your career as long as you are auditioning and working, so it’s worth taking some time to get good at it. This book is interesting because it was written by a woman who hold a PhD in Psychology, and then “temporarily pursued acting”. She developed a memorization process along the way and decided to share it with other actors.
The book promises simple tricks to learn lines in less time and tools to “turbo-charge your memory”. The book is written in a very conversational tone, easy to follow and understand, and short enough to read in an afternoon. Packed with practical advice!
FILM & TELEVISION
Absolutely LOVE this book for the beginning actor! This book simply, clearly, effectively explains what the big differences are in acting for the camera vs. acting on stage. It gives you an inside look at things like shots and framing and tricks directors use to fit everything into a rectangular format. There is also a list of words, terms and phrases you will hear on film & tv sets – awesome if you don’t want to look like a total newbie!
Patrick Tucker explains how to work with the realities of a shoot and gives you a step by step guide to the elements of effective screen acting. Seriously! This is one of my favs!
UPDATE 2022: This book is currently out of print but I’m still including the link to the Kindle edition because it literally taught me more about workin on-set than any other book I’ve read! So clear and simple and easy to understand. If you can get your hands on it, it’s worth it!
At some point, every new actor has to read this book. Written more than 20 years ago, by veteran Broadway casting director, this is still a solid book on acting and the audition process. Here Shurtleff gives us insights into the casting director’s thoughts, as well as valuable advice for playing scenes and fleshing out roles as an actor.
Seriously, I remember when I first heard the title of this book and I thought “No way! Never!” But it’s true, I have learned to love auditioning! (really….? I only get 5 minutes in the room?!) In this book, Larry Silverberg does a deep dive, quickly, simply, and in a way that is easy to understand, into breaking down a scene and creating the character from the inside out. There are a series of thought provoking exercises designed to illicit heated emotional responses – just the way your character would.
Small paperback, really useful and a quick read.
The Linklater Vocal Technique is world famous, and for me, was the backbone of my vocal training. Voice work continues to be one of my passions because, if you let it, it will radically change your life. It’s never about “making” your voice do anything, it’s simply “allowing”. The voice is deeply personal and Kristen Linklater’s work offer ways to free the voice – from inhibitions, tensions, and habits that we usually have adopted as a way of coping with overwhelming emotions.
Most of the book consists of exercises that include relaxation, awareness of breathing, the experience of voice vibrating in the body, how to open the throat, the development of resonance and range, and the articulating activity of lips and tongue. The only way to free your voice is to free the emotions connected to it, and when you do this, your acting opens right up.
*I highly recommend this class and getting into in-person trainings as well if you ever get the chance.
This is an amazing book, and one that will totally change the way you look at the business of Hollywood. BUT…it has become harder and harder to get, and alas, this is the “Final Edition”. I think with so much information about contracts and financing being available in the trades and online today, this is probably becoming a little tougher to keep current.
Basically it’s an insight into how Hollywood finances mega deals, what surprising economic forces drive the industry and what goes into some of these killer contracts for A-listers.
Veteran investigative reporter Edward Jay Epstein explores Hollywood’s “invisible money machine,” revealing the sometimes astonishing and complicated finances behind the big hits and bigger flops.
He also answers the surprisingly intricate and involved question: How do the big studios really make their money?
Other things covered:
- How and why the studios harvest silver from old film prints …
- Why stars do—or don’t do—their own stunts …
- What it costs to insure Nicole Kidman’s right knee…
- How Hollywood manipulates Wall Street: including the story of the acquisition of MGM… wherein a consortium of banks and hedge funds lost some $5 billion… while Hollywood made millions.
- Why Arnold Schwarzenegger is considered a contract genius (so interesting!)
- The fate of serious fare: How HBO, AMC, and Showtime have found ways to make money offer adult drama, while the Hollywood studios prefer to cater to teen audiences.
- Why Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is considered a “masterpiece” of financing
I’m a bit of a money and finance geek, so another one of my favs! Sad to see it go.
Today, if you really want to become a working actor, you have got to promote yourself! This book is written by a former talent agent and skips the usual advice about “persistence and luck”. Brian O’Neil provides clear-cut guidelines that give actors a solid knowledge of the business behind their art. It’s packed with practical information—on everything from what to say in a cover letter to where to stand when performing in an agent’s office—including:
- Tactics for getting an agent, including preparing for the interview
- How to research who will be casting what—and whether there is a role for you… well in advance
- Examples of correspondence to agents and casting directors for both beginning and advanced professionals
- How to communicate effectively with an agent or personal manager
- Creative ways to use the internet and social media
Today, more than ever, acting is a super competitive business, and self promotion is no longer an option. Self Management for Actors is exactly about that; it focuses succinctly on the business of managing your own career.
Written by Hollywood indie casting director, Bonnie Gillespie, this book provides a roadmap for surviving, and thriving, in the entertainment industry, whether an actor has an agent or manager or is building toward assembling that team.
“I’ve spent 20 years empowering creatives to bring more joy to the showbiz journey. Enoughness is an inside job, and sometimes you need a guide to find yours.” – Bonnie Gillespie
UPDATE 2022: This book is another one that is tough to get these days. It was written in 2014, but being a casting director, Bonnie has a wealth of knowledge, and as much as anything, it’s a bit of wake-up call to actors. Kindle edition is about $10 and totally worth having even a quick look!
Okay, this isn’t an acting book, but you want to succeed, right? This book is the work of long time success guru Jack Canfield. It really lays the foundation for how to get what you want in life, with both practical and inspiring tips. There are exercises to help increase your confidence, tackle daily challenges, and generally just get sh*t done!
It’s also filled with motivating stories of CEO’s, world-class athletes, celebrities, and everyday people. It’s basically a guidebook for how super successful people created incredible lives and how you can too.
Oh, the genius! I wish I had discovered this book, and the most amazing teacher who wrote it, a decade ago! Scott Sedita has been one of the most profoundly influential teachers /acting coaches I’ve met in the business in the last 10 years.
The Eight Characters of Comedy is the a How-To guide for actors and writers who want to break into the world of sitcoms. It has become a staple in acting classes, writers’ rooms, casting offices and production sets around the world – yes, really. Don’t believe, read through some of the Amazon reviews!
Scott is brilliant at breaking down comedy scripts, showing you the “science” behind sitcom writing as well as writing jokes and delivering them with comedic brilliance. Plus, you’ll find in-depth sections on Sitcom History, The Three Pillars of Comedy, Auditioning for Sitcoms, and his acclaimed comedic technique The Sedita Method ™.
Most importantly, and you don’t want to miss this, you will be introduced to his famous sitcom character archetypes. This help be enormously with refining my brand, honing in on my current “type” and will help you build your niche in half-hour comedy.
“Who is normally cast as The Logical Smart One? Why do we love The Lovable Loser? Why is The Neurotic a favorite for actors and writers? How do you play The Dumb One smart? Who are the biggest Bitch/Bastards? What drives The Materialistic Ones? Why is The Womanizer/Manizer so popular? How can you realistically write and play someone In Their Own Universe?
The Eight Characters of Comedy answers all these questions and more, with UPDATED EXAMPLES from current and classic sitcoms, and from many of the greatest sitcom characters and actors of all time! After reading this book, you WILL be ready to work in the exciting world of situation comedy!” (Sedita Studios)
Seriously, if you want to do funny, this a must read!
As you can probably tell from the title, Jen Sincero has a pretty good sense of humor and writes in an extremely gal-pal, conversational tone. Both of her books are easy to read but require a little digging and personal soul searching, so role up your sleeves and dive in. Yes another self-help book, but I find this one is especially helpful for anyone who may have some self-esteem issue lurking… aka constant rejection!
Full of hilariously inspiring stories, sage advice, easy exercises, and the occasional curse word 🙂
No more starving artist!! I am so fed-up with the bad advice and tired notion that to be an actor, or an artist or to “be serious about this business” means that you have to suffer and starve! Yes, work hard. But the sooner you get a handle on the whole money thing the easier this is all going to be, and in general, the quality of your life will probably improve as well.
This is a woman who went from living in a garage to multi-millionaire… on here own. Worth reading!
So…. have you read any of these books? How about heard of them? And if you read any, what did you think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback! Head to the comments section below….. I promise to respond to every one!
Like this or love it? Share it. Post it. Pin it. Tweet it! It’s a tough business and we could all use a little help!
* Please Note: I am not an agent, manager, or casting director. I do not procure work for actors. All information, workshops and coaching are for educational purposes only and are not a guarantee or promise of employment. Thank you for being here!