What Skill Do You Want to Learn?

March 31, 2018

Between working a regular job, going on auditions, and being on set, it can be hard for actors to find the time to learn new skills. But the importance of acquiring additional abilities can’t be underestimated because each new skill an actor can demonstrate only broadens the opportunities for finding acting work.

The variety of skill sets required for roles is truly endless. Chadwick Boseman needed to learn a unique version of martial arts for Black Panther; Margot Robbie was taught how to ice skate from scratch for I, Tonya; Robert Downey Jr. studied how to play the violin to portray Charlie Chaplin; Jennifer Lawrence had to learn how to chop wood and skin squirrels for Winter’s Bone. When it comes to acting, you never know what they’ll look for next!

Certainly, everyone has a desire to learn some new skill whether it be speaking with a new dialect, sword fighting, horse riding, woodworking, belly dancing, and so much more. But how can anyone find the hours on end to practice?

In this TEDx, Josh Kaufman has some words of encouragement for those who may be feeling overwhelmed at the thought of picking up a new skill. Kaufman is the author of The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything. The birth of his first child–and the subsequent limited spare time he had as a new dad–inspired his passion to find ways to effectively and quickly learn new topics and skills. In turn, he found strategies to gain reasonably good skills in a relatively short amount of time.

Through research, Kaufman realized it takes at least 20 hours of deliberate effort to acquire a skill. But he makes clear this doesn’t mean a person can learn an entire language or become a masterful trumpet player by merely practicing 20 hours. The goal needs to be realistic. Kaufman, for instance, wanted to learn to play the ukulele reasonably well. Here are four steps he suggests to help in acquiring new skills.

Deconstruct the skill

Kaufman says to clarify the goal so only what is essential to the task is of concern. Maybe the goal is simply to learn a specific song on the piano rather than studying the piano from A to Z. Next, he says to break the task down into basic, manageable parts. “If you practice the most important things first, you’ll be able to improve your performance in the least amount of time possible,” he says.

Learn enough to self-correct

Find three to five resources about the topic, Kaufman suggests, whether they be books, classes, how-to YouTube videos, or personal instruction from a knowledgeable friend. Then he urges people to “learn just enough that you can actually practice and self-correct or self-edit as you practice.”  When students can both recognize mistakes they make, and have strategies to make corrections, progress is essentially endless.

Remove barriers to practice

Sounds easy, but this step can be much harder to do in practice. Let’s face it, it can be tough to turn off the TV, postpone snacks, not pick up the phone, or do things that are important, like paying bills. When learning a new skill, carve out a specific amount of time to dedicate to practice–and stick to it.

Practice a minimum of 20 hours

Kaufman says, “We don’t like to feel stupid, and feeling stupid is a barrier to us actually sitting down to do the work.” Thus, he urges people to pre-commit 20 hours worth of practice. People are more likely to stick with the process of learning–and the inevitable initial frustration associated with it–knowing they’re only committing to a reasonable, finite amount of time. Indeed, he argues the major barriers to learning are emotional rather than intellectual.

Kaufman ends with, “So what do you want to learn?”

Benedict Cumberbatch on Character Development

November 18, 2016

“Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me.” –-Benedict Cumberbatch

Marvel’s Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch’s resume includes a long, impressive list of awards and nominations for his film, television and theater work. In part, he can boast appearing in four films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar: Atonement, War Horse, The Imitation Game, and 12 Years a Slave–the last of which won the category. On a recent webchat on The Guardian, Cumberbatch answered fans’ questions about a variety of topics. After sharing what his favorite flavor of coffee is, and which books he’s currently reading, the Sherlock star was asked if he takes the time and effort to create a backstory for his characters. Cumberbatch responded with an admittedly “verbose” answer. But here is his reply regarding processes to build up backstories and specific skills for his prolific characters.

“Yes, I do build up a backstory in my head even if it’s just for me,” he said. “As far as preparation goes, it’s important to understand the who, what, where, why of the character before you meet him.” Cumberbatch continued:

“That helps the character employ those tactics for whatever action they’re trying to perform, which can necessitate a limit of choice as well as a discovery of new things to be learned as an actor to portray the character with. For example, a character I played in a Martin Crimp play called ‘The City’ at the Royal Court [theater], was describing an incident where he was humiliated in his new job to his wife, and I began to [characterize] the voices in his story when Katie Mitchell [director] pointed out that it was unlikely he would have the confidence to do that as opposed to me, because I could. Those differentiations are vital, but often (and this really ain’t no humblebrag) I’m chasing the tailcoats of my character’s abilities, whether it’s their intelligence or professional excellence, or even their ability to sing/play piano/ride a horse/paint some of the great works of modern art! All these things require a heavy tutoring in new skill sets, one of the many privileges of our job, i.e., getting to learn new stuff and continuing with a form of further education, I suppose. And the results, while varied, sometimes work, but it’s all smoke and mirrors, and I often feel like a horrible fraudster. I think the worst is when I played violin as Sherlock–a skill that takes years of childhood and adolescent practice time….But just to finish, vocal and physical differences, prep of any sort, work on a backstory, learning a skill, all has to be given time and when it isn’t you run into [generalizing], and I’m fully aware I’ve done that on occasion, and so aim to create enough space around my work so there is enough space between roles and I have enough time to [honor] the tasks each present me with.”

When it came to developing Doctor Stephen Strange, the English actor delved deeply into the character using the source material as well as relying on president of  Marvel Studios and “superfan” Kevin Feige and the film’s director Scott Derrickson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the character and story. He also referred back to his experiences as a teenager when he taught English in a Tibetan monastery which got him in touch with “the power of the mind to change your reality.”

Here is a clip of Cumberbatch and Derrickson as well as actor Mads Mikkelsen talking about how they prepared to capture the mystical world of Doctor Strange.