UPDATED: I had an interesting e-mail discussion with my father, professional actor J. Louis Reid. My takeaway is that anyone who’s serious about method acting would do better to ignore all of this in favor of connecting with emotions directly. As my mother used to say of mixed food at dinner, “it all goes to the same place”: feeling the emotions your character is conveying should encourage your body to move accordingly.
With that said, I still have to say that I’ve seen a lot of plays where the below mistakes take away from the performers’ ability to convince me that they are the characters, so if you’re not actively pursuing a method acting approach or are critiquing someone else’s performance, the below may still be of great use.
There are potentially valuable lessons for actors in one of my favorite areas of behavior study, body language. From moment to moment we communicate far more to each other than our words would suggest, and learning to read body language opens up new channels of communication to understand much better when people are feeling annoyed, confident, defensive, or flirtatious, how serious they are about what they’re saying, what they intend, what they want, and how they’re reacting to you.
How good are actors at body language? As you can probably guess, there’s quite a range. My sense is that what works best as a rule is method acting, in which the actor is conjuring up the same emotions the character is feeling, usually (as I understand it) by connecting with events and memories from the actor’s own life. For instance, if I were playing the part of an athlete who had just lost an important game, I might conjure up my recollection of losing in the finals of the school spelling bee in 4th grade by misspelling “chief” (I had trouble with “i before e” for quite a while, partly because of my last name). Method acting appears to work in part because some of the body language the character would be showing comes out as a natural expression of the actor’s emotions. Regardless, a better awareness of body language can help create stronger performances.
Of course, this knowledge is useful for a lot more than acting and public speaking. Surprisingly, just mimicking a gesture or position that tends to go with a certain emotion can help evoke that emotion itself (see “Using Body Language to Change Our Moods“).
Limitations of body language
Body language is not a simple one-for-one system of communication: when interpreting body language, it’s important to take in the whole sense of what’s going on and not fixate on one particular gesture. For example, if I say something and then scratch my nose, it might mean I’m a dirty rotten liar–or it might mean that I’m recovering from a mild sunburn.
With that caution, let’s look at some common body language mistakes–or if that’s too cut-and-dried a term, perhaps we can call them “infelicities”–seen in both beginning and experienced actors. We’ll look at most of these in more detail in later articles, but the point of this piece is to point out a few specific things to avoid.
“I don’t really mean it”
Here’s one that appears regularly even in major studio films, most often when someone’s professing their love for someone else: the head shake. The actor says “Darling, I love you more than life itself,” and all the time he’s shaking his head slowly as though overcome with the passion of it all. He’s not overcome with the passion of it all, though: he’s probably worrying a little about how his real life wife is feeling about the scene, or thinking about how little he likes the actress who’s playing his love interest. To borrow language from another sphere, “No means no.”
People do shake their heads for emphasis when they’re saying something negative, though. For instance, if someone says “I won’t leave you” or “That’s not what happened,” a head shake just reinforces the point.
“Gosh, I’m nervous!”
Of course being on stage can be nerve-wracking. Unfortunately, if the nervousness comes through in a character who is meant to be confident, focused, or relaxed, the character becomes hard to believe. Watch out for repetitive motions, tapping, fidgeting, clasping hands together, holding something in front of you (like a pencil or a hat) to connect your hands, or holding your arm or leg (a reassurance gesture). Of course, the best way to stop being nervous is to be so submerged in the character that you’re feeling the character’s emotions instead of your own.
“Say that to my face”
Personal space is something that actors seem to get better at with experience, so issues with it are especially common in, for instance, school productions. We all have a zone of personal space around us, and generally speaking, people don’t enter that space unless their interests are either romantic or aggressive. This is one reason that doctors and dentists (for example) can be so unnerving: to do their jobs, they have to violate personal space in a big way.
If someone’s being loud and aggressive from across the room, or if a character is trying to seduce another character but is sitting at the other end of the couch, it’s hard to take the intention seriously: seduction is much more convincing within a few inches of the body, and we can see a fight coming if Mary gets just a foot away from Ellen’s face and Ellen doesn’t back down.
“I want you! But not really”
Love and attraction are hard to convey even when the personal space issue is managed well. People who are interested in others use a complex combination of courting gestures that vary based on a person’s personality, level of interest, gender, sexuality, status, and other measures. What’s least convincing, though, is an attempted seduction where there are no courting gestures. If a straight woman sits down and entwines her legs or brushes her hair from her face, we start getting the signal that there’s interest there even if no words have been spoken. Gaze also plays a part, as people experiencing attraction often glance briefly–or stare openly–at the objects of their of affection. People who are trying to convey romantic interest find excuses to touch each other, face their bodies toward one another, and show off their prize physical traits (for instance, by a woman putting her fingers together and resting her chin on them, a gesture called “the platter,” to show off her face). You can read about courting gestures in more detail in “How to Tell If Someone’s Interested in You, and Other Powers of Body Language“.
Photo by slava.toth