Acting with your body
Does your body do weird things when you act? Flailing arms? A lot of leg slapping? Are you trying to figure out acting with your body and what to do with your arms and legs while acting a scene or monologue?
Instagram follower “_madelinedaunt” recently asked the following question:
“I struggle with not enough vs too much body movement (arm gestures)!”
Super glad this question was raised because it comes up in almost every coaching session or scene class and so many actors struggle with it, young and old! It’s also kind of a massive topic so I will try to hit on some of the main things to keep in mind.
A lot of actors work both on stage as well as on camera. If you’ve always done a lot of theatre, you know to use your body, sometimes in big way. If you work or audition for video/tv/film projects you may know you don’t won’t always need to move around very much. But size doesn’t really cover it. It’s not helpful to say go big on stage and keep it small on camera. It simply isn’t that black and white.
I see actors so afraid to move in in their audition tapes they actually look frozen and stiff. There’s no life. And I’ve seen stage performances where there are huge arm movements going on but they are general and not connected to anything inside the actor.
When it comes to acting with your body, the big/small thing is just the framework. It’s a place to start.
Your movements must be connected to what the heck you are playing/acting/living in the scene.
But how? Should you practice acting with your body in the mirror? Film yourself? Nope. (Well, not yet anyway.)
Find out if you really know what you are playing. When you play clear actions/intentions as well as create deep and personal relationships to the persons, places, objects and events (the PPOE) in the scene, your body will naturally follow.
(If you don’t know how to play an action/intention in acting check out these videos first. Then watch the series on the PPOE as well.)
I always play an intention game on the first day of acting class with a new group of actors. First they play two lines of dialogue with no action, then again with an action I give them. They always discover that when they really connect to playing their action, their body starts doing things they never planned.
I remember watching an actress surprise herself when she played the intention “to mother” in a scene and followed an impulse to gently stroke the other actor’s hair. Even actors self-conscious or confused about acting with their body discover that their faces change, their tempo and quality of movement is different…actors catch themselves off guard and are able to really be spontaneous.
This work is done on stage as well as on camera, but is adjusted accordingly.
When I was in my early 20s preparing for my first lead in a feature film, the actress Lori Petty gave me great advice she said she learned working with Robin Williams when she first started out. I never forgot it:
“Adjust it, otherwise you’ll look like you’ve been shot in every scene.”
So yeah, don’t get shot in every scene. Play action and create relationships to the PPOE and then if you are on camera simply keep that in mind.
IMPORTANT NOTE: When thinking about acting with your body on camera, this doesn’t necessarily mean your performance will be “small” (watch almost any scene with actor Willem Dafoe, google it after you read this) but it will be adjusted in most cases. You can learn a lot also by googling Michael Caine Acting on Film and watching some of his videos. Even if it is only your face on camera, your whole body is acting so that your face is connected. Many film and tv actors fail on stage because they have never had to act using their bodies.
So once your movements are actually hooked into what you are playing (or “living” hopefully since that’s what it should look like) then you keep an eye out for weird body habits.
This is when taping yourself can actually be helpful. You can film a scene and catch stuff like slapping your leg every time you make a point. Or tugging on the bottom of your shirt when you (the actor not the character) get nervous. Do get a coach to help you with this.
I don’t recommend working in the mirror. It’s too hard to not censor yourself. Filming is usually better so you can view when you are done, just be careful here because you are not always the best judge of your own work.
If you discover with a coach that there are places you seem to be cut off from your body (not using the full extension of your arms, not connected to your legs, etc) or that you have chronic habits like hunching over that you can’t break on your own, I highly recommend trying out the Alexander Technique (as I did!) and working with a trained Alexander professional.
While spontaneity is key, some body movements when you act will actually be rehearsed in advance.
(I want to proceed with caution and clarity here.)
Some scenes require certain movements to take place (like answering the phone, etc) so you would obviously rehearse that specific action to figure out how to make it work. But masters like Meryl Streep are adept at using their physicality to really tell the story.
Is your character lying? How might your character use their body to cover up their lie? Do they avoid eye contact? Rub their eyes? Look for something in their bag?
Or perhaps they are nervous and pick at their nails or play with a necklace. These are things you can discover in rehearsal that will not only help you tell the story, but help ground you in a scene.
Don’t get locked into these things. You will stay loose and most importantly, you will keep listening. When you really listen, you body will know what to do in response.
More on acting with your body one day. I have a lot of thoughts!