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The Unseen Art of Non-Verbal Acting and Versatility in the Industry by Maty Young

Updated: Oct 16, 2023



While tons of movie scenes we see today are absolutely jaw-dropping, it makes you wonder if we’re kind of missing the point of acting. We often seem to think that the best performances are the ones where actors are yelling their heads off or crying a river. Maybe it’s because we all get anger and sadness, or perhaps there’s just something deeply satisfying about watching someone smash a mirror in a fit of rage.


But, isn’t acting supposed to be way more than just high-volume expressions and tearful breakdowns? Acting is a massive, colorful world, with tons of styles and subtleties that often get overlooked. Subtle, nuanced performances, where the emotion is just under the surface, or where happiness and love are portrayed, are just as important but often don’t get the props they deserve. These require just as much, if not more, skill and understanding of the craft as the loud and intense ones.


Acting isn’t just about what we can see and hear; it’s about the whole range of human emotions, from the quiet and restrained to the bold and explosive. Each emotion, whether it’s whispered or shouted, is part of the human experience that acting tries to capture. As watchers and fans, it’s important that we start appreciating all aspects of acting, not just the loud and tearful bits.


Sure, dramatic and intense scenes are cool and all, but we should also appreciate the quieter, more understated moments that depict the variety of human experiences. Acting is rich and diverse, and by understanding and valuing all its different shades, we can fully enjoy the wide world of movies, recognizing that a softly spoken word can be just as powerful as a screamed one.



REACTING


Often, one element of acting that doesn’t get enough spotlight is the subtle art of reacting. Sure, the way an actor delivers their lines is super important, but how they respond when they’re not the ones speaking—well, that’s just as crucial. The real question is: how does an actor react to what’s being said to them by their scene partners? Do they look like they’re feeling every word, or do they just seem to be waiting around for their next line, seeming completely unaffected? The truth is, even the most perfectly delivered lines can’t save a scene if one actor looks lost while their co-star is giving it their all.


Subtle reactions can actually say more than the lines themselves sometimes. They add layers and bring the dialogue to life. It’s not just about what’s being said, but about how those words are landing. It’s in the reactions where the real power of a scene is often found. If a major moment in the script gets a meh response from another character, it can really kill the vibe.


Take the TV show “Succession,” for example. It’s a great illustration of how much impact reactions can have. The whole series draws you in with the solid performances of its cast. It’s filmed in this unique way where actors never really know when they are on camera, which helps them stay totally in character. Camera operators have the liberty to roam around and choose their focus, allowing viewers to catch the vibe of each character, even during close-knit conversations. Sure, “Succession” is praised for its sharp dialogue and brutal burns, but a big part of what makes it so gripping is what’s going on when no one’s speaking.


Speaking from my own experiences as both a director and a cinematographer, getting those genuine reaction shots can be tougher than coaching actors through their lines. When actors have lines, they have something to sink their teeth into, and emotions to play with. But getting them to convey surprise or sorrow with just a look, in a way that feels real, that’s another story.


Sometimes, it takes quite a few tries to get that reaction just right. So, for me, seeing an actor nail a reaction is just as impressive as delivering a powerful monologue. Both are fundamental pieces of a performance, adding to the depth and realness of a character’s portrayal.


It's essential to appreciate that such reactive subtleties aren't mere embellishments but rather integral parts of the cinematic tapestry. They enhance the emotional resonance of a scene, allowing the audience to connect more deeply with the characters and their journeys. The silent, nuanced expressions and reactions contribute significantly to the unfolding narrative, painting a richer, more intricate picture of the story being told. The delicate dance of facial expressions, the silent exchange of emotions, it’s all part of the complex choreography of acting, adding layers of authenticity and depth, making every scene more relatable and every emotion more palpable.



RAGE, TEARS AND

PHYSICALLY OVERACTING


To delve deeper into the representation of anger within acting, it's insightful to consider how controlled and finely-tuned portrayals of rage can often hold more gravitas than their raw and explosive counterparts. The iconic portrayal by Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" is a splendid example, showcasing a silent metamorphosis into madness that’s as chilling as it is masterful. This speaks volumes about the untapped reservoirs of non-verbal acting in rendering powerful emotions with impactful resonance.


The craft of containing anger, instead of freely unleashing it, can build an immersive sense of tension and suspense that magnetically pulls the audience in. Conveying anger through the subtlety of facial expressions, the eloquence of body language, and precision in movement can leave a lasting impact. It lets the viewers sense the simmering intensity within the character, making the ultimate release of suppressed emotions extraordinarily stirring.


Physical acting, a cornerstone of non-verbal acting, embraces an extensive array of expressions and gestures, extending beyond mere stunts and tumbles. It’s embedded in the way a character moves, interacts, and presents themselves. Take Michael Cera’s characteristic slouch, for instance. It’s more than just a posture; it’s a silent narrative of vulnerability and unease that brings his character to life.


Conversely, reflecting upon the commanding persona in "Emily in Paris," who employs the unique ‘T-Rex arms’ stance, it may strike as humorous initially, but it subtly delineates power and control. It underscores how the physical dimensions chosen by an actor can sculpt the audience’s perception, adding intricate layers to their portrayal.


Nevertheless, while non-verbal and physical acting are potent mechanisms in storytelling, they come with their share of challenges, predominantly the danger of overacting. Excessive expressions during intense scenes, especially those depicting anger or sorrow, can easily tip the scale towards melodrama, losing the essence of authenticity.


For example, tears can symbolize a profound emotional breakthrough for a character, but excessive crying or overly dramatic displays can distort the genuineness of the scene. Subtlety in such contexts often reaches deeper chords within the audience, allowing them to synchronize with the character's emotions more intimately.


Similarly, overemphasized displays of rage can divert the scene into unintentional humour, diminishing the intended depth and intensity. Over-the-top shouting and exaggerated gestures can caricature the emotion rather than portray it realistically. The art lies in maintaining a delicate equilibrium between credible emotional depiction and realism.


In essence, the silent portrayal of intense emotions and the mastery of physical demeanour are pivotal in crafting memorable performances. However, actors must tread carefully to avoid the pitfalls of excessive portrayal in emotive sequences, as it can compromise the truthfulness and resonance of their performance. Often, it is the more subtle and nuanced renditions that succeed in eliciting authentic emotional reactions and leave a lasting impression on the audience, elevating the storytelling experience to higher echelons of artistic expression.



PHYSICALITY


Acting is a multifaceted art, and while dialogue and emotional expression often take the spotlight, physicality is an equally essential aspect of an actor's toolkit. It goes beyond mere movements and gestures; it encompasses the way a character walks, carries themselves, and engages with the physical world around them. Let's delve into the necessity of physicality for actors and how it can elevate performances.


Dancing and Action Sequences: Physicality in acting encompasses a wide range of skills and techniques, with dancing and executing action sequences being two prominent examples. When an actor is involved in these aspects of performance, it adds an extra layer of complexity, especially when their face is visible to the audience. In such situations, actors are tasked with the intricate challenge of conveying their character's emotions and intentions primarily through their bodily movements. Achieving mastery in these domains demands unwavering dedication and rigorous training.


To illustrate the significance of physicality in acting, it's worthwhile to consider the criticism Hayden Christensen faced for his portrayal in the Star Wars prequels. While some critics labelled his delivery as robotic, it's essential to contextualize this critique within the broader framework of the production. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars universe, was known for crafting dialogue that often leaned towards the unnatural and stilted. This unique style of dialogue presented a formidable challenge for actors who aimed to breathe authenticity into their performances.


In Hayden Christensen's case, his portrayal of Anakin Skywalker showcased the pivotal role that physicality and facial expressions can play in conveying a character's internal conflict and emotional depth. Despite the script's constraints, Christensen's physical acting offered glimpses into Anakin's tortured soul. His body language, posture, and gestures communicated the turmoil within his character, allowing the audience to connect with the essence of Anakin's inner struggle.


This example underscores the vital importance of an actor's ability to convey emotion through movement, especially in situations where the script may not provide ample opportunities for nuanced verbal expression. It serves as a reminder that acting is not confined solely to spoken words but encompasses the entire spectrum of physical expression, wherein actors can breathe life into their characters even when faced with challenging dialogue. Hayden Christensen's performance in the Star Wars prequels, despite the criticism, demonstrates how an actor's dedication to mastering the art of physicality can transcend the limitations imposed by the script, ultimately enriching the storytelling experience for the audience.


The Tobey Maguire Dilemma: This dilemma revolves around the distinct challenge that faced the actor in his portrayal of Spider-Man, a beloved superhero character with a dual identity, Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire's performance in the Spider-Man film series, particularly the original trilogy directed by Sam Raimi, offers an intriguing study in the intricacies of character development and the nuances of acting.


Maguire's portrayal of Peter Parker was widely praised for its authenticity and relatability. He successfully captured the essence of a young, nerdy, and socially awkward high school student who gains superhuman abilities. Audiences empathized with Peter's struggles and his journey to balance his newfound powers with his personal life. Maguire's ability to convey Peter's vulnerability, intelligence, and moral dilemmas resonated with viewers, making him a compelling protagonist.


However, the challenge arose when Maguire had to transition from playing Peter Parker to Spider-Man, the masked vigilante with superhuman agility and strength. Some critics and fans pointed out that his portrayal of Spider-Man lacked the same depth and versatility that he brought to Peter Parker. Spider-Man, after all, is known for his wit, humour, and acrobatic combat skills while maintaining a strong sense of responsibility. Maguire's Spider-Man, at times, appeared less dynamic and less quippy than the character is often portrayed in the comics.


This disparity between Peter Parker and Spider-Man in Maguire's performance underscores the importance of character growth and evolution in a series. It serves as a reminder that an actor's ability to effectively convey the transformation of their character over time can significantly impact the overall narrative and audience engagement. In the case of Spider-Man, the character is meant to evolve from a young, inexperienced hero to a seasoned and confident crime-fighter. When this progression is not as pronounced in an actor's portrayal, it can leave a noticeable gap in the character's development.


Subsequent iterations of Spider-Man, played by different actors like Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland, have focused on presenting a more seamless blend between Peter Parker and Spider-Man, emphasizing the character's growth and development as he embraces his dual identity. This approach has resonated well with audiences and contributed to the success of the newer Spider-Man films.


The Tobey Maguire Dilemma, while highlighting a unique challenge in acting, also serves as a valuable lesson in the importance of character consistency and growth in storytelling. It reminds us that an actor's ability to evolve their character can profoundly impact the audience's connection to the narrative and the enduring legacy of iconic roles like Spider-Man.


The Mastery of Character Development: Character development stands as a linchpin in the art of storytelling, and an actor's physicality emerges as a pivotal element in effectively conveying the evolution of a character. A prime illustration of this can be found in Mark Hamill's iconic portrayal of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy. Hamill's portrayal of Luke showcases a masterful demonstration of character development, as he transforms from a timid and inexperienced youth into a confident and heroic figure. This journey not only captivated audiences but also served as a poignant testament to the immense impact of character growth in crafting a resonant and unforgettable narrative.


Mark Hamill's portrayal of Luke Skywalker is a testament to the power of storytelling through character evolution. In "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope," Luke begins as a humble farm boy living on Tatooine, with dreams of adventure but limited experience beyond his home planet. Hamill's performance during these early stages conveys Luke's innocence, curiosity, and yearning for something greater. His physicality is characterized by uncertainty, awkwardness, and a sense of vulnerability, mirroring Luke's own journey of self-discovery.


As the original trilogy unfolds, so too does Luke's character. Hamill's ability to use physicality to convey this evolution is nothing short of remarkable. As Luke trains as a Jedi, faces formidable challenges, and confronts the dark side of the Force, his posture, body language, and movements all undergo significant changes. The once unsure and hesitant youth becomes a self-assured and heroic leader. Hamill's portrayal mirrors this transformation through subtle but powerful shifts in his physicality, showcasing the growth and maturation of Luke Skywalker.


The journey of Luke Skywalker resonates deeply with audiences because it mirrors the universal theme of personal growth and transformation. Hamill's portrayal, enriched by his adept use of physicality, allows viewers to connect with Luke on a profound level. We witness not only his outer journey but also his inner evolution, all conveyed through his physical presence on screen.

The significance of character development extends far beyond Luke Skywalker and "Star Wars." It serves as a reminder of the essential role actors play in bringing characters to life through their physicality. Whether it's a transformation from weakness to strength, innocence to experience, or vulnerability to resilience, an actor's physical portrayal can breathe life into a character's journey, making it relatable, inspiring, and ultimately unforgettable.


In conclusion, Mark Hamill's portrayal of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy serves as a masterclass in character development, where physicality is a powerful tool for conveying a character's evolution. This portrayal exemplifies the enduring impact of character growth in storytelling, highlighting its ability to create narratives that resonate deeply with audiences and stand the test of time.



In essence, acting is a multi-faceted journey that encompasses a myriad of skills and techniques. Non-verbal acting, the art of reacting, and the controlled portrayal of emotions are all essential elements. Physicality, too, plays a crucial role, allowing actors to convey authenticity and character growth. The art of acting, when executed with nuance, subtlety, and professionalism, creates performances that resonate deeply with audiences, making storytelling an immersive and captivating experience. It is the actors who master these facets that leave an indelible mark on the world of entertainment, offering moments of profound connection and emotional resonance that linger long after the screen fades to black.


- M. Young



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