Actors need to be jacks or jills of all trades


On some level, every good actor has to be a jack of all trades. Yes, acting is their No. 1 profession, but the process of transforming a character on the page into a living, breathing person on the screen isn’t just about memorizing lines. For each role, an actor has to become a whole other person, with different thoughts, different problems and, notably, a different set of skills than his own.

Consider the abilities required for some recent and upcoming movies — driving a race car, demonstrating proper etiquette, shooting weaponry — and walking in high heels.

“You really need to look the part,” said Mark Wahlberg, who plays a Navy SEAL under fire in Afghanistan in the Dec. 27 release “Lone Survivor.” “No matter how hard it is, it’s about sucking it up and understanding how important it is to get things right.”


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And while maybe all film training isn’t as dramatic as with a war movie, just about every actor still relies on instructors to get them ready for a part. Stephen Rochon, the former director of the executive residence and chief usher of the White House, offered his expertise to Forest Whitaker and others for “The Butler.”

“I taught the actors how to properly carry their trays with one hand and arm behind their backs as they served drinks and food with the other hand, draped with linen cloths,” Rochon recalled. But it was also about helping them get into the head of a White House butler, who must be unobtrusive and tight-lipped no matter what they might overhear. “They are the gentlemen behind the scenes,” Rochon said. “Undeniably, they make America look great to the entire world.”

The most typical skill an actor must acquire is the ability to do accents. But getting an accent regionally accurate, for a time period, with some element of the character in it, is difficult fine-tuning. Chris Hemsworth had to modify his native Australian voice to play Englishman James Hunt for the Formula 1 racing movie “Rush,” and had to not only locate the right class inflections, but go deeper into Hunt’s personality. “He was trying not to appear too privileged, not appear like he was an upper-class snob,” said Hemsworth, who worked with dialect coach Gerry Grennell, drilling word lists and listening to audio of the real race car driver.

Armor and costuming play a big role in how an actor may feel in his or her persona, and learning how to behave correctly while wearing it is often crucial. Jared Leto spoke with several transsexuals over his 3½ weeks of prepping to play a character called Rayon in the recent release “Dallas Buyers Club.” What did he discover?

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“When you put on heels, your body center changes,” he said. “When you want to live your life as a woman and want to be perceived as more feminine, your choices change. When you put on a handbag slung over your shoulder, you walk differently. When you have [finger]nails on you pick up things differently.”

Wahlberg’s armor may have been more literal but the idea is the same: “The way you carry yourself, the way you carry your weapon, the way you manipulate all your equipment, I had to have all those things be second nature,” he said. He had one distinct advantage: Marcus Luttrell, whose story “Lone Survivor” is based on, was present for much of the training and rehearsal.

“I’ve played military guys before, but playing a Navy SEAL is a completely different thing,” Wahlberg said. “The pressure when we were using modified live ammo, it was pretty damn intense. Then, having the guy you’re playing looming over you every day, that was something else.”

Still, this whole learning business has real upsides. Hemsworth grew up riding motorbikes, but race-car driving “was a whole different beast again,” he said. A four-week boot camp with actual race-car drivers led to particular words of wisdom he still remembers: “They’d say, ‘Drive it like you stole it; it’s not meant to be babied.’”

Hemsworth chuckled. “It was every boy’s dream.”