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Body Language for Actors: Common Mistakes


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

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Oh yeah?


A few days ago a zebra came up to me and bit me. Just bit me. I live in Northern Vermont. We didn’t happen to get a picture.

Now, you probably don’t believe that, so let me shift gears for a moment and explain what this post is about.

Orson Scott Card, who is that rare combination of a person who can both write exceptionally well and teach writing exceptionally well, describes three key questions that are good to look out for in a reader’s response to a story. I won’t attempt to summarize or paraphrase the great information he gives on the subject, but do highly recommend his books Character and Viewpoint and How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy to you. The short version is that these three key issues are understanding what’s going on, believing it, and caring about it. (“Huh?”, “Oh yeah?”, and “So what?”, respectively.)

This post is about believing. Just because something really happened doesn’t make it believable, and just because it’s believable to readers who don’t know better doesn’t make it realistic.

Back to the zebra: I really did get bit by a zebra this past Sunday. My son and I drove up from our home in Burlington, Vermont to Parc Safari, just across the border in Quebec. They have a drive-through safari where animals come up to you to be fed the food they sell at the entrance. They tell you not to feed the zebras, because they bite. Prudently heeding their advice, when a zebra came up to my window, I refused to feed it. I think that’s why it bit me.

My son points out that I was trying to pet the zebra, but I hardly see how that has anything to do with anything.

Now do you believe that I was bit by a zebra? Because I actually was. I don’t know if you believed it after that additional information or not, or if perhaps you have so much faith in me that you believed me at the beginning without any details (in which case bless you, kind soul!), but the fact of the matter is that the more detailed version was more believable than the less detailed version. Four of the main underpinnings of believability in fiction are confidence, inherent plausibility, willingness, and detail.

Confidence: If you are reading a new work by a writer whose previous works you know and love, you are much more likely to give that writer any kind of slack necessary to tell the story. If Stephen King opens a story with beetles crawling out someone’s ears, most readers will accept that there are beetles crawling out of that person’s ears without concern and read on. If an amateur writer whose writing is full of grammatical mistakes starts a story with beetles coming out of someone’s ears, we’re much more likely to say “Wait, how can beetles come out of somebody’s ears? That just doesn’t make any sense!” If you build up a good body of well-appreciated work, you may have to work less hard to get your readers to swallow the stories you’re telling them.

Inherent plausibility: If someone writes about an accountant standing on a sidewalk, that’s fairly easy to accept. If that same person writes about a living blob of intelligent pond scum standing on a sidewalk, that’s a little harder to get past.

Willingness: Of course, if the reader just wants a good story and isn’t in a critical mood, you can get a lot more by that reader with less work. Unfortunately, this is in the individual reader’s hands rather than the writer’s, so it’s best to write for the skeptical and unwilling reader, since the willing reader won’t be overly bothered by the detail.

However, there is one element of willingness over which you have control, which is how compelling your story is. If you introduce your pond scum creature in the midst of a tense scene in which it immediately becomes clear that the pond scum creature may be able to give your main character the name of his birth mother, the reader may care so much about the story that they will accept whatever they need to in order to continue seeing it unfold.

Detail: Detail is the thing over which you arguably have the most immediate control. If you really want to write a story about that pond scum, you can describe it as moving sluggishly, stretching and contracting like a cautious leech, a smell rising from it like dead fish and mowed grass, a thin layer of translucent bluish membrane holding all of it together. As it passes over a discarded cigarette, the cigarette hisses out. It makes a sound like a soaking wet towel being dragged over rock.

Those details aren’t going to make everyone believe in the pond scum creature, but they’ll up your numbers.

Remember that just because something really happened in your experience, unless it has also happened in the reader’s experience, it’s not necessarily believable to them. If I write a story about a man being bitten by a zebra and don’t give some details to shore up plausibility and add detail, readers who have actually been bitten by zebras may have no trouble with that part of things, but readers who haven’t have a good chance of objecting to it.

And there’s the flip side: just because something’s believable to many readers doesn’t mean that it’s actually plausible. Take for example making someone go unconscious by hitting them over the head. According to friends of mine with medical backgrounds, you cannot hit someone over the head hard enough to make them pass out without the possibility of doing significant permanent damage. We’ve all seen people knocked out hundreds of times, but for the great majority of us, only in fiction, TV, and movies.

“So?” you may say. “If the reader believes it, who cares?”

But of course we’re not writing for just one reader, and any reader who knows that people can’t be casually knocked out without the risk of serious damage are going to either think your character is a psychopath who doesn’t care who dies just so long as he gets his caper finished, or think you the writer are kind of ignorant.

Therefore I strongly recommend never using fiction as a source of research about how things work in the world if you can help it. If you want to know about knocking people out, talk to a doctor or someone with a lot of training in personal combat. You’ll win more readers and gain more confidence from the readers you already have … believe me.

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