Cancer cell metastasis is a multi-stage process involving invasion into surrounding tissue, intravasation, transit in the blood or lymph, extravasation, and growth at a new site. Many of these steps require cell motility, which is driven by cycles of actin polymerization, cell adhesion and acto-myosin contraction. These processes have been studied in cancer cells in vitro for many years, often with seemingly contradictory results. The challenge now is to understand how the multitude of in vitro observations relates to the movement of cancer cells in living tumour tissue. In this review we will concentrate on actin protrusion and acto-myosin contraction. We will begin by presenting some general principles summarizing the widely-accepted mechanisms for the co-ordinated regulation of actin polymerization and contraction. We will then discuss more recent studies that investigate how experimental manipulation of actin dynamics affects cancer cell invasion in complex environments and in vivo.