Certain red flags signify green actors. They can be as obvious as shoddy headshots or rookie questions. That’s fine. Every expert was a beginner once. However, one sign that really spotlights an actor who either has a lot more work to do or who is currently facing a brick wall in his/her technique is the plague of acting "from the neck up."
It creates a stiff, stilted, narrow, and unrealistic performance.
Unless an actor is paralyzed from the neck down, there is absolutely no reason to act from the neck up. As actors, we’re seeking to create real people and surely those real people should live in their entire bodies as we do.
I dare you to watch any brilliant acting performance where the performer is not using the instrument of their whole body. In fact, watch any scene from "The Godfather." As regal and as stoic as Don Corleone could be, Marlon Brando never acted from the neck up. He gave this character a royal yet sociopathic aplomb, but one which used his entire instrument as an actor.
There seems to be a generation of actors that learned a very bad habit: only acting with their eyes. This is so problematic because it gives the actor the impression that they’re “being simple,” when in reality the performance looks incomplete—and it is. There’s an overt denial of the actor’s entire tool—that of the whole body.
However, the issue isn’t simply that the actor’s entire tool isn’t being used; this situation means that the full experience of the character is unable to come through the actor. It creates a bottleneck in the river of the character from flowing fully through the veins of the actor.
Part of the reason this can happen, I believe, is based on fear. Living the character fully with one’s entire body might feel or look scary. Alternatively, it might feel or look seriously disturbing. However, if Heath Ledger had never done that disturbing, full-body exploration in his technique, we might not have ever had his earth-shattering performance as The Joker.
As an actor, you signed up to be fearless. Though sometimes you can get in your own way; I encourage my students to stop acting from the neck up by helping them eliminate the internal obstacles creating the phenomenon. There’s a stage of my character work with actors where I ask them to locate a specific emotion within their body. As always, it’s important to be very specific as to where it’s located, what size it is, color, shape, texture, etc.
I coached a dear client of mine on a film with a very difficult scene. A husband and wife needed to figure out what was left of their marriage after the death of their only son. Although this actor had children, she never experienced the loss of a child—thank God. After some intense work on the scene, I asked this actress where she felt the loss of her son. Without thinking she instinctively pointed to her throat and upper chest. I then asked her to describe what she felt there: color, shape, texture, etc. She said it was “Hard, green, solid and heavy.” I then asked her, “If it could speak what would it say?” Again, without thought, she said, “Please let me go.” As soon as she uttered those words, a surge of emotion erupted from deep within her body. Without hesitation I said, “Now go into the piece without delay.” It was the best acting I’ve ever seen her do.
Should you find yourself on-set or in an audition acting from the neck up, take a breath, there’s an easy fix. Immediately start to “paint the picture” with your body as if you’re trying to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language.
Let’s not forget that we think in pictures. Rather than appealing to the intellect or ears of your audience members, appeal to their eyes. As a million and one acting teachers have said throughout time, “show, don’t tell.” This remains some of the best acting advice you’ll ever encounter—hence its staying power. Again, just one minute into "The Dark Knight" the audience sees The Joker for the first time—but it’s just his hunched figure standing on a street corner, mask in hand. And with his back to camera, Heath Ledger still manages to create a sense of menace and madness—letting the character come through his entire body.
Joseph Pearlman is a private and on-set coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients like Zooey Deschanel, and also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies including the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. Joseph Pearlman Coaching was voted Best Acting Studio in Los Angeles by Backstage’s 2011 and 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards. Joseph Pearlman Coaching is also located in New York. Joseph Pearlman Coaching offers private coaching and classes from beginner to working professional.