Watching actors ply their craft is the best way to study body language without being nosy. Of course, some actors are better at it than others. And sometimes even an Oscar-winning performance may come across as unconvincing. If you want to study an actor, pick one in a performance that really moved you. Then watch the performance again to try and pick out what he or she did that so stirred your emotions. Was it the reading of his lines? Or was it how she managed her face and body to work with the lines?
Warning: sometimes, with an art, if you study it too much, it loses its magic. If you dissect a performance that you love, you may find the next time you watch it that it doesn’t touch you as it once did because you know now how the actor pulled off the trick. But with this is in mind, I think you will learn a lot if you take the risk to analyze a performance.
Here are some examples that have made an impression on me:
Years ago, I saw a program with Michael Caine where he was giving acting lessons to a group of young actors. He told them that a way to convey strength was to look into the camera with a steady gaze and not blink. He demonstrated this, and not only did it convey strength, it conveyed a big dose of creepiness too. Then he started to blink and explained how that action made him appear weaker.
In my writing, I can use words like “steady”, “fixed”, or “locked” to describe someone’s gaze as strong or intimidating. To describe weakness or nervousness or timidity, I write that someone blinks or does not look other people in the eyes or has a gaze that wanders or darts around.
On the newest version of the TV show “Nikita”, the character Amanda was a great villain. I didn’t see the show much, but I picked up quickly that this was a villain you could really boo for. I began to wonder why and paid more attention to the performance of the actress Melinda Clarke. As Amanda, she was very, very still and usually had a blank face. When Amanda move, it was in precise, robot-like movements. If her face changed expression, you immediately noticed because it usually didn’t. The stillness and blank face signaled strength, but also strangeness and evil, someone so unemotional that you did not want to be around her.
I can use words like “still”, “unmoving”, and “stiff” to describe someone strong and evil. But if I want my character to be strong and good, I can use words like “calm”, “tranquil,” or “quiet”. Same body language, but different words clue in the reader about how to imagine it.
I didn’t know the actress’s name, so I went to the IMDB – International Movie DataBase. The biggest photo of Melinda Clarke shows her with a wide smile. She looked so unlike her character on “Nikita” that I had to check her credits to make sure I had the right person. Now that’s the way to act with body language.