Do you ever find yourself losing attention during a show or movie? Could you be distracted by bad acting ? How would you know and articulate this? Part of the joy of watching movies, TV, and theater is knowing that it isn’t real and going along with the created fiction. As an audience, we may want to be entertained or enlightened, but at times we find ourselves drifting off from the story to other thoughts. As an actor and student of human behavior, I have trained my eye to spot acting problems. In this series of posts, I’ll outline how to view acting from an audience perspective – how to appreciate acting.
Much of the commentary on actors performances is related to their appearance and how their fictional characters behaved. Looks can be deceiving – the quality of the acting has little to do with the actors wardrobe or physical traits. We, viewers, do enjoy the good looking / pretty / hot performers. Could Brad Pitt be too good looking for his acting ? (I thought he created a great character in the recent, Burn After Reading) Actually Brad illustrates the superficiality of acting discourse on the internet, below are a few example headlines.
- Is Brad Pitt a great actor or just too handsome for words?
- Who’s a better actor Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp – who’s got more stuffed in their box office
- I never used to be a fan of Brad Pitt movies, until he married Angelina Jolie
So what does one consider in evaluating acting for acting’s sake? What should we as an audience look at, if it’s not topless actors, what is it. Why not just fill movies with models who talk?
Well i thought i’d list out the things i look for, consider and admire. But first i think i should share my definition acting – Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. (usually attributed to Sanford Meisner, though some also say it comes from Lee Strasberg or Stanislavsky depending on the translation). This is related to Shakespeare’s definition of acting in Hamlet, “to hold as it were a mirror up to nature.”
We’ll start with a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for good acting – relaxation.
Definition: to relax – to relieve from nervous tension
10 ways to identify good acting – 1. relaxed actors are good
When you’re looking at an actor, are they physically relaxed, do they look like they can move easily, are they breathing, is their face locked down in some “look” or is a range of expression visible in their features. Even in extreme (imaginary) circumstances, when an actor is relaxed, we can identify more strongly with what’s going on. When i see a tense actor, i think they need to learn how to relax more. A corollary to being relaxed is being able to express – so an actor with so much plastic surgery or botox that their face no longer moves, has taken themselves out of the art form.
Don’t be confused by the word relax, in this context it doesn’t mean pass out, lay down and have a shot of tequila (of which i’ve sworn off since that night out with Dave (Patrón) Mason in 2003). It’s in the sense of an athlete using the necessary muscular action to achieve what’s needed, or animals which are almost always very relaxed. Actually relaxation in this sense is important for many things, at a recent ashtanga yoga workshop with David Swenson, the first thing he spoke about was relaxation. He mentioned animals level of relaxation as a model for us humans, a cheetah is a very relaxed animal, when it’s time to run some of it’s muscles are “tensing” (contracting) at near maximal levels so it can accelerate. If you’ve seen a slow motion video of cheetah’s running (this one’s chasing a ball – Phantom camera 1000fps), their faces are very relaxed. So under this definition they’d still be “relaxed” because they’re using the muscular action needed to achieve the task – catching some gnu (wildebeest) by the neck and killing it (The yogaman left out this last violent part of the analogy). You don’t need to add tension to your face or body to do yoga or run down a wildebeest. It doesn’t work for acting either.
Likewise, a “relaxed” actor could be doing all kinds of things physically and going through all kinds of human emotions with the muscles doing what they need to at the time they do it. There is no need for extra tension. A tense actor is a constipated actor, they are literally blocked up, holding on for no reason.
Sometimes the word “relax” is used to mean “calm down” or “just chill” or “be cool”, that’s not what we want for acting, and I’m not using it in that sense. So basketball fans may say Kobe Bryant needs to “relax” because he’s getting too upset at a game. The problem is, he’s very physically relaxed and is feeling a lot of emotions that just come out. That’s what we want from actors. We’ll come back to the sports analogy and “Kobe’s angry face,” after we describe the things to look for.
How do you spot tension in an actor
- face locked in some expression – if they’re relaxed, expressions will wash over their face
- body held rigidly in some pose – shoulders could be rigid with arms crossed or they look stiff in some way.
- use of un-natural gestures – hands waving, pointing, or arms move up together like a penguin;
- they don’t seem to move like a regular human – doing some kind of actor walk
- voice is choked off, the actor isn’t able to express themselves freely, not referring to volume, but sometimes you can literally here an actor stuck with tension in their voice.
- stuck in some kind of a verbal pattern where every line comes out sounding the same because it’s in the same rhythmical pattern (this may deserve it’s own category, but it is an outgrowth of tension and how the actor memorized their lines) dadadata ba, badadata da repetita repetita … verbal pattern repeats.
(edited down from a youtube video by JalenTV http://jalenrose.com.) This video shows how relaxed Kobe Bryant was during the game and features Jack Nicholson court-side.
After a google search for “Kobe angry face” I thought the video and a sports analogy might serve our purpose of identifying tension and relaxation, that way it’s not about one particular actor. The end of the video shows Kobe’s expression which some have described as having an “angry face” or looking “grumpy.” In the video excerpt from Game 1 of the 2009 NBA finals, did he look in any way physically tense to you? You might use the word intense but he is not locked up in any way. From an actor’s point of view, he is actually relaxed, connected to himself, determined and very present – he’s not “acting” for anybody here – he doesn’t care what anyone thinks – he’s focused on the game. It’s not a static grimace or put on face, he’s relaxed and the expression moves.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that in this politically correct America, there is criticism of Kobe for feeling what he’s feeling when he’s playing the game AND letting it show. Are his internet critics seriously suggesting he paste a big smile on his face – “just add some tension Kobe, we don’t care if you win the game or play well, we just think everyone on TV should smile at us, oh and while you’re playing the game why don’t you worry about what people think about you, we’re sure that will help.” It won’t help Kobe’s brilliant athleticism and it doesn’t help actors.
You don’t see players in the NBA playing tense, the professionals are all physically relaxed. When players get tense, that’s when they miss shots and make mistakes. We talk about these errors as they “choked”, “froze”, or “tensed up.” So, a very relaxed human can perform very complex physical tasks. They’re not holding onto what ever emotions they’re experiencing with unnecessary muscular tension, feelings flow through them.
Same in dance, sure a dancer has to move and put their bodies into positions, but they only use the muscular force they need. Students and amateurs may be tense at the ballet academy, but not the pros. Why should acting be any different than sports and dance? If humans perform better on the court, field, or stage when they are relaxed, should we be surprised that relaxed actors are better or to put it another way when you notice an actor in trouble, are they tense?
Look around you in your day to day environment, who’s tense and who’s relaxed. Who would you rather look at? See if you can tell the difference between tense actors and relaxed actors. What do you think? When you see a performance you really admire, see if you feel like saying wow that actor was so relaxed.