The BAFTAs have just been dished out, leaving a level playing field ready to be mown up and mole-hilled by the favourites of next year. So what makes a good actor? Not in terms of Stanislavsky science or Olivier finesse, but in terms of of individuals who manage to hold gazes whilst making minds travel; people whose scenes play out in our daydreams and potter in our private thoughts long after the credits roll.
Improvisation is the decathlon of theatrical Olympics. The chances are that an actor who can riff will be a master of range, and so will be able to make a script breathe like lungs on Cornish air. The ability to dart quickly from thought to inventive thought, cloaked in a character, is one which is rarely reached without balls of steel and a tongues like a whip. Actors who dare to be naked of prompts have usually had the experience of royally cocking up a few times, have felt humiliated rather than hailed, yet have died on stage only to get up and play their tombstone with flair. I recently attended one of RADA's improvisation workshops, and it was fascinating to watch people switch roles in the space of seconds, altering their stance, voice, history and motive in the blink of an eye. A terrifying moment came where we were asked to perform to the room, one by one, and simply 'be interesting', until the room was empty of an audience. The human chameleons who chose to see that exercise through to the bitter end rather than bolt out of the door that day, will have my eternal respect.
Then you have character actors, who swallow you up with them, creating a performance so grounded that it becomes muckily human, melting cinema audiences into a lava of empathy. From the natural magnetism of Sarah Lancashire's northern rhythms in Happy Valley to Sheridan Smith's enchanting humility in Mrs Biggs, British drama would be lost without it. Capturing the flickers and fidgets of everyday life is a trade mark of a fantastic storyteller. Equally, the courage to perform with stillness, as Bill Nighy dares to in About Time in order to relish the fragility of his character's situation, is often the makings of fine performance. For instance, Richard Armitage's deference to subtlety, rather than gesticulation, is what makes him such a genuine Mr Thornton in North And South, and such a charming husband for our Vicar back in Dibley. Facial expression can reside anywhere on the spectrum, from larger than life to enviably understated, so long as the contortions knot up our heartstrings with them. From Olivia Colman's disgruntled nose scrunching as she dismisses David Tennant as a "knob" in Broadchurch to her harrowing moments of disbelief where her whole body warps to leak choked tears; faces are made to tell stories and those with command rather than reserve tell them best.
The transition from comedy to drama is another one to watch for the big deals. Generally, an actor who can encapsulate various shades of comedy, from the dark and dramatic to the sublimely childish, can hold their own in all leagues of seriousness. Take Stephen Fry, a man who graduated from his ludicrously funny language sketches to his tortured portrayal of Oscar Wilde. Similarly, comedic actor Stephen Mangan more than convincingly breaks our hearts in the sincerer moments of farcical Episodes. If they can make you laugh, they can probably make you cry.
Good writing can't be ignored as the makings of a wonderful performance. Stilted lines displaced for subtle ripples of conversation, sewn together with feeling, are the fortés of screenwriters such as Heidi Thomas, Sally Wainwright and Stephen Thompson. Rare interjections of vivid monologue, or sober phrases which stay with us for years, have formed the foundations of remembered actors. Robin Williams isn't known for sitting on a lonely bench in a bakerboy cap for nothing; "I bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel". Speeches which make you speechless, spoken right, are a rare delicacy.
Actors are too often admired in magazine stills, off duty, rather than for their craft. Yet acting itself deserves to be celebrated, for being an animation of human aspects and an awareness of what makes a person. Sometimes in life we are guilty of letting awkwardness, social boundaries and daily formalities mask raw human behaviour, maybe even to the point where we let characters in shows do the earnest talking for us. We can be guilty of living off of the fumes of fictional love confessions, apologies, and frank conversations, before simply snapchatting our loved ones goodnight. Actors cannot afford to do this. In order to play characters in stories, actors must draw from real life, they must live through vibrant and various channels every day. Rather than dodge life and admire its artistic reflection, an actor will learn from the real in order to convey it convincingly. This attitude makes for truer friends, greater loves and wider eyes; speak openly, know people and love the gritty bits. Life's too short not to live like that.