But not every actor works from the inside out.
Meryl Streep starts with a voice, a way of moving externals. In the '80s, it became a joke: What accent now?
Not that she wasn't enchanting. The campiness of her Polish immigrant early in "Sophie's Choice" was an attempt by the character to keep despair at bay.
Streep brought the same playfulness to the Danish writer and hapless farmer in "Out Of Africa."
Of course, her artifice could be way over-the-top: Take her bag lady in "Ironweed" . . . Please!
About her Edith Bunker accent in "Doubt" I had my doubts, but not about her acting as a whole.
Now, in the comedy "Julie & Julia," she plays the middle-aged Julia Child, and what starts as a great piece of mimicry becomes a triumph of sympathetic imagination.
It's a musical performance. Streep uses Child's burbling falsetto with its trills and diphthongs to get right into Child's pleasure centers. And pleasure was everything.
Streep isn't tall - five-foot-six - but she projects height. She understands the six-foot-two Julia learned not to be ashamed of her size but to go with it, even if she seemed a bit unbalanced.
"Julie & Julia" isn't a great movie. Writer-director Nora Ephron cuts back and forth between Paris in the '50s and Queens, New York, in 2002, where blogger Julie Powell spent a year laboring to make all 500+ recipes in Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
Ephron wants to show how both women achieved emotional autonomy in the kitchen, and Amy Adams is lovely. But the Julie/Julia relationship is strained, and the Julie scenes only skim the surface.
You have to see the movie, though, to watch Streep make the leap from surface to soul, to see acting that's truly transcendental.
Stanley Tucci plays Julia's devoted husband, Paul, and I imagine he was dazzled by Streep and used that bedazzlement to show Paul's bedazzlement with Julia - and we're bedazzled by one of the most tender rapports in all movies. For all the artifice, the emotions are marvelously real.
For more info:
• "Julie & Julia" (Official Movie Site)