What Real People Can Learn From Actors
Lessons from Hollywood that might actually help us
Actors do weird things - most often out of view. That suave leading man might crack an egg on his head while on Fallon, but the public’s view of Hollywood’s top talent is more often a highly choreographed set of moves showing them as supremely clean and constantly on trend. So it may surprise you to know that behind the scenes and between movies, these people are spending hours laying on the floor focusing on breathing, posture, or what animal spirit to emulate in their next role.
Jack Gyllenhaal running around LA pretending to be a coyote preparing for Nightcrawler? Check. Robert De Niro studying crabs before filming Taxi Driver? Double check
It can be weird. It can be wild.
However, it’s very easy to relegate the off-screen actor work to mere happy hour trivia. What if there is something here you can use to improve yourself? An actor spends his whole life trying to free up his body, because really it’s all he can use. You don’t want to see Robert De Niro in a movie. You want to see Vito Corleone, Jake La Motta, or maybe even Jack Byrnes in Meet the Parents (oh, Jack talk Thai).
In order to pull that off successfully, they try to get rid of all their habits, good and bad, so as to try and have only the character’s good and bad habits. It includes posture, voice, twitches, gait etc: Daniel Day Lewis’ Bill the Butcher vs Abraham Lincoln, for example.
An Oscar might not be in our future, but we can certainly cultivate better self-awareness if we steal the best of what actor-training has to offer.
There are those shows that you turn on and it only takes 15 seconds to think “wow this is terrible, that guy is an atrocious actor”. Odds are “that guy” is so concentrated on how he’s going to say his lines – if he’s going to yell or wink or cry – that he isn’t listening one bit to the actor across from him.
Remember when you were in middle school and you thought of a question and kept your hand raised for five minutes? Usually by the time you got to ask it the teacher was on a completely different subject. Now think about how often that happens when you’re talking to someone, especially someone you just met.
She starts to tell a story about how she got backstage at Coachella, and all you can think about is letting her know that your friend’s brother is the backup banjo player for Mumford & Sons. You wait for the story to end so you can say something you think will sound cool, when in fact it’s now irrelevant and the conversation screeches to a halt.
Instead listen to the story and think about responding to the last thing she said. What if she ends the story with “and that’s how I ended up living in Australia for a year”? If you’re really listening then you’ll pick up where she left off and talk about Australia or living abroad in general. Being interested is receiving information from someone else and then asking questions about it.
Take a look at all the elderly people walking around hunched over. No way you’ll ever end up like that, right? Now realize that all those over 60 spent more than half their lives without computers or cell phones. And now take a look at how you’re currently sitting at your desk, reading this article. Or look over at the other guy in the coffee shop: is he reading his phone with his neck at an impossible 90 degree angle to his body? At this rate we’ll be lucky to stand up at 80 years old.
Actors strive to have great posture, and then from there adapt it to suit a character. It could be a limp, or depression-induced hunch, or even a strut a-la Travolta. If they’re playing a leading man-type, they know great posture is immediately more pleasing and sculpture-like to the eye on screen. There’s a reason people make heroes out of movie stars.
How to go about this yourself? If you think “sit up”, you’ll straighten, tense, and then slump back down in 10 minutes. One popular movement/posture approach is the Alexander Technique, and it teaches direction. Imagine your head is being held up by a balloon. Feel your neck lengthen, your shoulders drop, and your body balance. There’s a floating sensation.
Now if you’re sitting, keep the floating head and sit on your butt-bones. It could be at the front of the chair or firmly against the back of it. Your feet are fully on the ground, and you can feel your toes, heels, and balls of your feet all making contact. This is how your body wants to be – solid and fully supported, not crunched up like a ball - and it will reward you with relaxation and energy.
Remember back to the last time you got stressed. It could have been your intern claiming Gmail was down which is why you couldn’t reach him all weekend. It could have been United telling you they have no idea where your bag is.
In these moments, what happens to your body and your breathing?
You tense up, your shoulders are practically at your ears, your breathing gets super shallow, and your every word seems to squeeze out of your throat. How in the world are you supposed to communicate effectively when you’ve created every possible physical obstacle to doing so?
When actors are in a scene and are screaming their heads off in a fully enraged state and seemingly about to commit a crime of passion, you can usually understand clearly every word they’re saying. Through all the sobbing about a dead loved one, there is still the script and the words moving the story along; actors need to be able to recite it coherently.
The same goes for you when you’re stressed You want to make sense. You want to be able to listen to what the other person is saying and respond effectively. You also want to stay in control. You do this through breathing — in effect giving yourself time.
First off, when people say “take a deep breath” to get you to relax, has that ever worked? You’re usually so tense that you inhale and it’s almost painful. One trick is to fully breathe out before breathing in, blowing out all the air left in your body so that your first “deep breath” has to be a big one. So in those moments, before responding to whatever stimulus has riled you up, breathe out and breathe in. You can even think “I. Have. Time”. And then decide how you want to respond.
Actor’s are usually unstable beings, warped by an industry where skill and success are only loosely correlated. But the best ones know how to prepare and put on a show when it matters. If we toss out the alcoholism, divorces, and meltdowns, there’s a lot we can adapt to our own lives.