Los Angeles acting teacher Bill Howey goes so far as to suggest that the secret to enhancing your acting success is to unleash your quirky, sometimes embarrassing personal behaviors. If you hide them, you're holding back, he says. Start by observing your own "unconscious or instinctive and often involuntary actions and reactions," he writes in an essay for his students. "Reactions like your look of disgust at someone's appearance."
I asked him for other examples, and he came up with a few: The way a balding guy runs a hand over his head when thinking. The way your tongue probes the hole of a missing tooth. The way a woman checks her lipstick when passing her reflection. The way you might sit down on a couch then get up for a pillow because you're not comfortable. The way you adjust a shoe that doesn't quite fit. The way Howey himself pulls at his beard. The way Stella Adler, in a video he saw, got so excited when making a point that she grabbed her hair. "These things pull us in," he says. "They resonate with our behaviors." It's about making your characters more fully human.
See What It Gets You
Allowing personal behaviors to emerge can serve you in a variety of ways. For example, one of Howey's students, Jessica Duffy, has been working on a scene from The Owl and the Pussycat. She says she was frustrated because her scene partner was taking too long to pick up his cues. How do you fix that problem when your character is driving the scene? "You fill that space with behavior," Howey advised her. "What would you be doing in life? You'd look at the pictures on the wall, wander around, try to figure this person out."
The first thing San Francisco Bay Area actor Darren Bridgett ever worked on in Richard Seyd's class was not censoring his own crazy behavior. "We spend a lot of time hiding things we think are unattractive," he says. He also worked on the flip side: daring to just be, not trying to be interesting and entertaining. "You compose your face in the mirror in a way that's acceptable to you, and you walk around like that," he says. "But as an actor, you want to be aware of the things you hide."
He remembers the times he saw actors truly behave: Harrison Ford crying in a movie, "making dumb, sobby faces…he wasn't controlling." That iconic, undirected moment in On the Waterfront when Marlon Brando impulsively picks lint off Eva Marie Saint's sweater. "You use yourself; you constantly strive not to define yourself so narrowly," says Bridgett. It's not, he concedes, an easy thing to do, and to do honestly.
When New York actor Cassie Beck was cast in Adam Bock's The Drunken City, she was happy to see in the script that her character bites her nails, because Beck herself is a nail nibbler. Though she noticed in rehearsal that she wasn't biting her nails, in performance she realized she was. "I tried not to plan the moment," she says, "but to remind my body that I could. Sometimes I didn't bite them, sometimes I did, depending on how it was going." She notes there's a fine line between making a choice like that and letting your behavior be real and impulsive, not using it as a crutch.
"We're always looking for actors to lose that sense of self-consciousness, be more what they are when people are not watching," says University of California, Irvine, professor Richard Brestoff. He often leaves the camera on between takes so students can see how much more natural their behavior becomes, and how much they leave out when they're acting.
Of course, you don't want to cling to your own chronic annoying mannerisms. "Personal behavior adds to the character; mannerisms detract," says Howey. If you don't know which is which, take a risk: Try it out in class or rehearsal. You'll be told whether what you're doing is putting the focus on you the actor or on the character. Duffy found she had a habit of rerouting her sense of intention through copious hand and facial gestures; when she gave up those mannerisms, her acting became more powerful.
Would My Character Do That?
New York actor and audition teacher Vincent Gerrard says he doesn't like to limit his students, so he encourages them to use their personal quirks to their fullest potential, to see how those quirks can be brought into roles. If they don't fit the character, then eliminate them.
But how can you be sure a personal behavior fits your character? "That's the fight the actor has—to select the behaviors that are unselfconscious for the character," says Brestoff. "That's what's hard." For example, after being startled by something, you yourself might not rearrange your clothes and smooth your hair, but if you're playing Nora in A Doll's House, she might do just that, unconsciously. "It's for the director to say yea or nay, but it's for the actor to personalize the character—the most difficult thing we have to do—so those behaviors that are unconscious are correct for the character."
Brestoff recommends three ways to get comfortable with revealing your personal behaviors:
1. Lee Strasberg's "private moment" exercise, which he devised based on Stanislavsky's belief that great actors act as if they're being unobserved: Bring to class a few moments of a very personal, uninhibited behavior you'd never normally do in front of anyone else.
2. Uta Hagen's "self-observation" exercise: Re-create two minutes of everyday life at home alone "in the execution of a simple task in pursuit of a normal objective."
3. Improvisation: "If you have a goal but don't know how it's going to go, what the lines are, then a lot more of those unselfconscious behaviors take place," Brestoff says.
He adds, "The actor needs to ask, 'Is that really appropriate behavior for the character? Does it fit?' As long as you're asking those kinds of questions, you don't have to come up with the answer; the director will do that." But you do have to give yourself permission to take those initial risks, Brestoff says. "Otherwise you'll play Torvald cold and correct, and human beings aren't like that." If you go for just the character's dominant traits, you'll fall into cliché and miss the character's texture. Personal behaviors reveal the mysterious, surprising layers of a human being.
Brestoff encourages his students to capture those kinds of behavior in class, then look at the script later to remember what they did when. But it's not about repeating the behavior, he cautions; it's about reconnecting with the impulse that led to the behavior.
Beck notes that contemporary playwrights like Bock often say "Don't act," which she sees as essentially the same idea: "Bring your own tics and quirks and mannerisms to the piece and relax." That is, if your nose itches, scratch it. "When you're relaxed and true on stage," she says, "those things will happen naturally."
"People can always tell if you're trying to hide ugly personality things," Bridgett points out. "They can see if you're trying to 'present' a certain thing rather than just being there."
"Stop being anonymous," writes Howey. "There is nothing more unique than your instinctive behavior." I asked him what he'd say to actors who fear they'll bring the character down to themselves rather than lift themselves up to the character. "All you have is you," he replies. "You play every character as fully alive as you can, and you have to bring you to it." Warts, itchy noses, and all.