Updated: Jul 27
The renowned Greek billionaire, Aristotle Onassis, once said that “the secret to success is to know something that nobody else knows.”
But what determines the success of an actor? There are varied definitions of this subject. Some would argue that a successful actor is someone who interprets his or her role as believably as possible. Movie producers and studio heads would insist that a successful actor must perform reasonably well at the box office.
Even the Oscars seem to agree with this sentiment: Samuel L. Jackson was awarded a lifetime achievement award at this year’s Academy Awards for being one of the most commercially successful actors in Hollywood history.
I’ve decided to peg my definition of a successful actor to those who interpret their role well, while also appearing on the lists of highest-grossing and highest-paid actors.
So I’ve taken four of the most successful actors of 2021, looking at how they prep for scenes and the mindset that has kept them going in a very demanding industry.
Zendaya: Don’t Overthink It
Zendaya is one of the rising stars in Hollywood, having taken many critically acclaimed and commercially successful roles. She is wildly popular for her role as MJ in MCU’s Spiderman movies, and has some solid credits under her belt like those of Rue Bennett in Euphoria, Anne Wheeler in The Greatest Showman, and Chani in Dune.
Zendaya has often credited her success in challenging roles to her ability to just go with the flow. In an interview for Elle Magazine, Zendaya recounts how she got onto the Euphoria set immediately after coming back from a festival promoting another movie.
“I get in my head if I overthink things too much and then I'll block myself… There was no time to think about it, which I think is a good thing. I had done all the preparation far earlier.”
She also says being confident and insanely optimistic has also pushed her career forward. She would often apply for roles that didn’t seem meant for her. It didn’t always work, but if not for this approach in auditioning, she would never have landed the role for MJ in the Spiderman movies. In her words:
“Let me get into the room. Maybe they'll change their minds…”
Tom Holland: Find The Similarities
If Zendaya is spontaneous and confident, her now-boyfriend is more introspective and meticulous. Like Zendaya, Tom Holland was also made famous for his starring role in the Spiderman movies. But he has also played some more emotionally challenging roles. In 2021, he acted as the titular character Cherry, a movie he described as psychologically draining.
In an interview for Backstage, Holland discussed his approach to acting, which is anchored on his persistent attention to every detail on the set.
“I watch almost every take while we're shooting…it's like a dancer…when I'm on set and I'm figuring a character out, especially in the first few weeks, I have to watch it back because I need to know that I'm doing what I think I'm doing in my head.”
Another thing that works for Holland is his ability to paint the characters he plays in separate lines of contrast and similarities. This helps him to know just how much of himself can be allowed to leak onto the screen.
“The easiest way for me to find a character is to find the similarities between myself and the character and then build on that…But by being able to do the complete opposite, you can mold yourself into those different people in an easier, more fluid way.”
Scarlett Johansson: Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Retakes
Zendaya and Holland are young stars who seem to have the golden touch. Scarlett Johansson, on the other hand, has had to face more than her share of rejections in her career. She broke into the limelight for her role as Charlotte in the 2003 comedy-drama Lost in Translation. She has since acted in movies that have been both critically acclaimed and commercially successful.
In an interview for Variety with her friend and MCU co-star Chris Evans, Johansson talks about her major acting secret:
“This is probably good advice for actors starting out in film: if you have a good idea for something, you should ask for another take.”
In the same interview, she reveals that while acting in Marriage Story, she was doing forty-five to fifty takes on each scene. It is this sort of relentlessness that makes her the highest-grossing female star in Hollywood.
Dwayne Johnson: Keep making progress
Dwayne Johnson is often described as an actor with more charisma than talent. While this might be a topic of contention, it’s indisputable that Johnson is a hard worker who is dedicated to his craft. He’s known for taking on roles in a broad spectrum of genres, from action to comedy.
In a behind-the-scenes interview for Faster, where he stars as an aggrieved man seeking revenge for the death of his brother, he explains why he has refused to stick to acting in just one genre:
“The goal is to become better, and in order to do that I had to work in all different genres… This is important to me: to always get better.”
Another key to Johnson’s success is the amount of time he spends preparing physically for his characters. When he got the role for Black Adams, he embarked on such a grueling training regime that had the magazines printing it issuing disclaimers to warn of its extremity.
The road to success is not a straightforward path – as the varied techniques of these actors attest. There is no specific formula. Everyone has their process, and your job may be to find yours and to improve on it. While you're at it, though, being relentless, optimistic, and meticulous – paying attention to the tiniest detail and being brave with your approach – will not hurt you in the long run.
Charles Kadib is a writer residing in Port Harcourt. He writes movie and book reviews on Medium and as a guest blogger. He is a movie enthusiast.