Right. I just finished talking about your body, and now I want to talk about – your body. Yes. In an entirely different way. Let’s stop thinking about what it looks like and start thinking about what you can do with it. This discussion relates more to stage than screen, simply because usually your whole body is visible in theatre, and in film there is often more of a focus on your face. However, I believe the best actors, regardless of medium, know how to use their bodies. If you’ve ever thought, “What should I do with my hands?” then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
You might want to ask yourself, “What is a great actor’s body? What do great actors do with their bodies when they act?” Of course, this is all terribly subjective, but in the interest of being discussing simple things that you can work on as an emerging actor, I would argue that great actors have these bodily traits in common:
1. They are grounded;
2. They are aware; and
3. They are connected.
And before you say, ‘yep, I have all of that in spades’, keep in mind that a lot of people think they have these qualities when it’s unfortunately not the case. Whether you’ve already achieved these things or not, there’s always more to be done. You can always get better. So it’s worth giving it a go.
Let’s break this down a bit more.
1. Back down to earth: Getting grounded
As an emerging actor, it will be helpful for you to concentrate on developing a grounded body. You may have noticed that one of the hardest things to do as an actor is just to stand completely still in the middle of a space and say your lines. You will probably want to sit down, hold something, walk around, or fidget. You may even just find yourself swaying on your feet or wriggling your toes just to avoid that feeling of stillness.
What is groundedness?
Groundedness is… there are about a million definitions. I would define it as a sense of stillness and connection to the earth. This might sound a bit airy-fairy to you but it’s actually extremely important.
Think about it. Have you ever watched an actor who is constantly rocking back and forth on their feet, pacing around the stage, tapping their toes or wiggling their fingers? Or a simpler example… have you ever seen small children drink cordial and then run screaming around a playground? That’s what it’s like to watch an ungrounded actor. As audience member, it can be distracting, irritating, or at worst, make you feel unsafe.
It’s important to note that it’s possible to play an energetic, highly dynamic character while still maintaining a sense of groundedness. More than just stillness of body (or efficiency of body if your character moves a lot), groundedness requires a stillness of mind. Your sense of groundedness should not suffer when you work with dynamic characters, or even ungrounded characters – you, as an actor, must always be grounded, even if your character is not. This can be a difficult concept to grasp but it is worth keeping in mind, even if it doesn’t make sense just yet. I promise it will one day.
You’re grounded! (Sorry, I just had to.)
As you’ve probably figured out, being grounded is a concept that is both mental and physical. So physical practices with Eastern origins tend to be particularly useful because they often work with the philosophy of uniting the body and mind. Yoga and a number of martial arts (tai chi and aikido are often recommended) are particularly good for developing groundedness, but you could try anything that requires a focused mind or steady breath while doing something physically challenging. Doing just one or the other (physical challenge OR steady breathing) is not enough! You will never be doing just one of those at a time while you’re acting, so practising one at a time will not help you.
Once you are grounded, you will find it easier to act and react freely, without ego or habit getting in the way. It can also effect your voice; you may find it easier to project and attain different vocal qualities.
2. What the bleep is my body doing? Body Awareness
Your second focus for your physical training should be body awareness. An extremely developed sense of body awareness is essential for an actor, largely due to the limits of communication. For example, if a director says to you, “I don’t like that thing you’re doing with your leg”, you have to be able to analyse what you’re doing and change it, without relying on a mirror or monitor. Believe me, it happens. Directors are not always as good at communicating as you’d hope.
Apart from just being able to respond to requests, strongly developed body awareness will help you make better choices in your character work. You’ll be able to recognise your physical habits and decide whether they are appropriate for each character, and you’ll be able to create physical differences in characters that other people wouldn’t necessarily think of. Most actors work with just voice, facial expressions, and internal character work (mental/emotional). There are very few actors that work consistently with physical choices – but the ones that do are memorable and often very successful. They don’t have to be big physical choices, like a limp, hunch or a facial tic – just small things like ‘my character tends to have tight calf muscles’ can completely change the way you play a character. It opens a world of possibilities.
How do I get it?
For developing body awareness, I would recommend anything that involves learning choreography. Mimicking someone (and particularly if you can get feedback from a teacher or work with a mirror) develops your understanding of how your body works and looks (it is very common to have a gap between what you think your body is doing and what your body is actually doing). Yoga and martial arts often involve a choreography of sorts as they often work with sequences (kata, vinyasa, etc), so if you’re already doing those, that will help – but I’d really recommend you try some dance styles as well. Dancing will really extend your abilities, and at the very least will look good on your resume. There are so many different types of dance available now, so there’s really no excuse not to try. Even a six-week course will begin to make a difference.
3. Can you hear me now? Getting a connection
Sometimes, as actors, our heads are so packed full of information that we forget that there’s more to us than a brain and a mouth. We become ‘talking heads’. If we notice that our hands and arms are terrifyingly limp, we start to gesture, and then we look like a gesticulating politician – it all seems pre-rehearsed and none of it seems genuine. If it gets really bad, we forget how to walk and we move same arm/same leg. Getting up in front of people to act can be so terrifying that you forget how to be a human. Or sometimes you’ve just got so many lines in your head that you can’t think of anything else.
This is very, very common. I would go so far as to say it is prevalent. I was on set with a well-known actor not too long ago and I was astonished by the way he kept waving his hands around all the time – lucky they were just shooting his face! So we need to connect our bodies back up again. How do we do that?
What… I just use my muscles?
It’s actually really simple (hurray!) – use your core. You need to engage your core muscles when you’re acting, pretty much all the time. Then roll your shoulders back so they’re sitting properly in their sockets – this will engage your arms. Then make sure your knees are unlocked (take a tiny knee bend) – this will engage your legs. You don’t need to be tense, just lightly engaged. Your muscles need to be in a state of relaxed readiness, like you’re about to run a race. That state of ‘dynamic stillness’ will allow your body to react (and act) naturally, as needed. (Also, don’t over-plan your movements, particularly gestures. Let them arrive, or not, as is fit in each moment of performance).
So that was easy, right? Engage your muscles and you’re done? I know it can be a little weird to get used to, so you may want to do some core-focused exercises like pilates. Actually, most exercise formats encourage engaging your core to some degree, so just start to pay attention to whatever your instructor recommends when it comes to your core. It can vary a lot, but it’s ok to work with different states of tension – as long as you don’t experience any pain! I repeat, no pain! I recommend doing shopping, housework, etc while engaging your muscles in the ‘dynamic stillness’ state, and observe the effect. Often you will start to discover an ease and grace that comes from having a connected body.
OK, so there we go. Another tricky subject as everyone will have their own opinion and it can stray a little into airy-fairy land, but worth talking about so you can begin work on your physical training. Please note, I am not a qualified physical practitioner of any sort, I am speaking purely from my own experiences as an actor, so please be safe and seek advice from a professional where you’re unsure. Enrolling in a class is the best way to learn.
Now that we’ve covered body, we can move onto voice! Woo!