How Kevin Spacey Teaches Us Attention to Detail

I didn’t know what I was going to blog about this morning, then I saw this on Lucretia Pruitt’s Facebook page. I want you to watch it all. Trust me, it’s so entertaining you won’t even notice it’s a bit long.

Impersonations by Kevin Spacey (Inside the Actor’s Studio)

It’s no secret that Kevin Spacey is one of the best actors of our time. Not convinced? Well, if you haven’t seen The Usual Suspects, The Shipping News, American Beauty, or any of the other 60-some-odd films he’s been in, then you need to. Then come back and tell me he’s not one of the greats. Not only that, but as you’ve seen above (you did watch the video, right?), Mr. Spacey is also extraordinarily talented at impersonations. But don’t get too hung up on his ability to change his voice to match Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, and yes, Katharine Hepburn, because there’s so, so much more to it than that. What makes Kevin Spacey such a great actor is his absolute attention to detail.

Don’t just do. Be. Go back and watch a bit of the video again if you need to. You’ll notice something interesting. You see Kevin just being Kevin, smiling, laughing, and blushing Then suddenly, host James Lipton asks Jimmy Stewart a question and there is a sudden shift. Kevin isn’t just preparing to talk like Jimmy Stewart – he becomes Jimmy Stewart. His body position changes. He starts to move his hands a certain way. He somehow shape-shifts parts of his face to be more “Jimmy”. He’s Jimmy, before a word even comes out of his mouth. Then, when he does speak, he answers the question, not as “Kevin Spacey doing Jimmy Stewart”, but as Jimmy Stewart would have answered the question.

It’s this fine attention to detail that is so impressive. There’s no doubt that Mr. Spacey has spent countless hours watching his fellow actors, studying, in detail, the precise habits, mannerisms, intonations, and expressions they use. Then, he probably spent countless more hours in front of a mirror, perfecting his impersonation. Sure, talent has some to do with it – the guy’s most certainly got an aptitude for this whole acting thing. But attention to detail is what wins him the fans. He’s not just “doing” acting. He’s “becoming” his characters. Big difference.

Are you doing, or being? As you go through your days, are you just floating from one task to the next, doing this, finishing that, so that at the end of the day you look back and can’t really see what you’ve accomplished? Or are you being your work? Are you getting into the finer details of the things you’re doing, and really studying? If you start to pay attention to the fine details of what is in front of you, something amazing will happen. You’ll notice different things. You’ll see how all the little pieces fit together to make the whole. You’ll be able to read between the lines, and your end result will be much, much better quality. Be present with your work, and focus on the detail of it, until you get it right.

Make it look easy. Kevin Spacey makes acting look easy. In that video, he shifts seamlessly from Kevin to character and back again. He brings all the pieces together – body language, humour, expressions, tone of voice – and the complete package is presented flawlessly. But at the end of the video, you see Kevin do something, even though it’s sort of in a joking way. He fans himself, says “whew”, pretends to look worn out by this ordeal of having to play so many characters at once.

It is not easy to do what he did in that clip. It takes crazy amounts of concentration, confidence, experience, and wit – more than most people have. I can bet that it would take a lot out of a performer to have to perform on the spot like that. But Kevin’s a details man, and he’s not about to let the minutiae slide, that’s for sure. He’s practiced, prepared, and paid attention to detail, and he makes it look easy.

Are you a teacher? A public speaker? A musician? A consultant? Your goal should be to make what you do look easy, even though people know it’s hard. And that takes an absolute dedication to detail. It takes practice and knowledge and comfort with your subject matter. When you make things look easy, you’re not trying to show people that things ARE easy. You’re showing that you’ve mastered something, and if you’re a master, people will want to see more. Maybe they will even want to hire you for what you know how to do.

Making something look easy is hard, and it takes lots of practice and a bit of talent and oodles of time. But focus your energies on working hard at making it look easy, and people will start to respond. Remember, most people just see the easy. Details people see what it takes to get there.

How much are you paying attention to the fine details of things? Are you reading between the lines? Studying, re-reading, preparing, practicing? Or are you just going with the flow and stopping when something is “good enough”? I know I’d rather see Kevin Spacey do a remarkable impersonation of Johnny Carson than one that’s just “good enough”. Wouldn’t you? Then why would we ever expect just “good enough” out of ourselves?

Perhaps we should all try to be a little more Kevin Spacey.

Focus on Everything
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  • July 29, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    It's all in the details…

    Wonderful find, thank you for sharing!

  • July 30, 2010 at 4:49 am

    […] How Kevin Spacey Teaches Us Attention to Detail – Suzemuse shares an awesome video of Kevin Spacey at work – it’s all in the details. […]

  • August 1, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    A couple of things came to mind:
    It's kind of sad that 6:43 is considered “a bit long”. But with this medium it's true.

    It's Ironic that James Lipton advises his students to close their eyes, while SuzeMuse councils the opposite. Sue is right.

    On top of a pitch perfect caricature, what he says reflects the character as well.

    Mr. Spacey makes it look so easy… Always the mark of a master.



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