Is acting a talent or skill?
It’s technically both, and the reason it’s not clear cut as to whether it’s a talent or a skill is because the mixture of both is different in every actor on the planet.
Let’s define some terms so that this makes sense.
Acting is the business of inhabiting characters – usually, though not always, explicitly written down, with pre-determined dialogue – in such a way that they tell a story to the audience, or show the life of that character.
There are improvisational plays and films which serve to challenge the talents and skills of actors, but these are rare within acting as such and more frequently appear in comedy venues.
A talent is an innate gift, something that someone is naturally able to do – like having a great memory or being able to mimic the voices or movements of other people.
A skill is a discipline, a process which if followed, becomes second nature (as opposed to first nature – which is what a talent is), and allows a thing to happen. It can be learned, taught, passed on and replicated.
Skills would include active empathy, allowing the actor to inhabit a character’s life, knowing how to hit a mark so that either a particular light or a particular camera is on you at a crucial moment, the ability to learn great amounts of dialogue and combine it with action and emotion, and so on.
As such, it’s easy to see why people get confused over whether acting is a talent or a skill – there’s a great deal of overlap between the two, and they’re uniquely mixed in every actor.
Some have naturally good or even eidetic memories (talent), others have to read and read and read their lines, their cues, their responses to get them to flow naturally (skill) – the performance will be different in every actor, but you can get to the same result through either route – or by some combination of the routes.
If there were no skill involved in acting, then every stage school in the world would be guilty of fraud, because they exist to teach would-be actors a set of disciplines and skills that will serve them well in their acting career, and examine the application of those skills through practical performances.
If there were no talent involved in acting, every stage school’s admissions board in the world would be guilty of fraud because the way they choose their students from the great pool of people who want to be actors is based on them spotting some innate ability in the prospective student.
Ultimately then, acting is neither just one talent nor one skill. It’s a complex, almost genetic mixture of many talents and many skills, governed by the experiences that make up the actor’s life and what they bring to the job.
Can you be naturally good at acting?
You can naturally possess any or all of the skills you need to be good at acting – but the likelihood is that any raw natural talent will be honed by applying the disciplines taught by a good acting school.
You can be a good natural poet, with a flair for words, rhymes, visualization, and emotional impact, learning the tools of the trade will help you harness that talent into forms that reach more people.
Similarly, you can have a lot of the talents you would need to become a successful actor, but adding in the skills and methods taught by acting schools can help you take what you have and make the most of them.
Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course – there are exceptions to every rule. If you’re a Sean Connery or a Robin Williams, you can harness your particular innate talents and ride them to acting success.
But it’s worth remembering that Williams went to Juilliard, but never finished his course. Connery, while he never went to an official acting school, got his experience working in small, local theatre productions which would switch productions every week or two, honing the ability of the actors to learn lines fast, deliver emotional reactions on cue, hit marks, deal with props and movement – and then do it all again with a new production the following week.
They each – along with countless other examples – had a set of innate talents that made them good actors.
Some of those talents they knew about in advance, some they only discovered through performance.
Those talents were then honed and augmented with a raft of skills, experience, and learning that led them on to stellar, award-winning performances.
The answer then is that yes, you can be naturally good at acting – but that natural talent plus learned skills will always be likely to deliver better performances than raw talent alone.
You might translate the emotion of a piece if you’re a naturally good actor, but having the skills to deliver that emotion in the best, most effective way, to take direction, and to be more than an individual actor but a cast member, are usually skills that are taught, either by direction or by example.