An Analysis of 5 Actors’ Onscreen Trademarks (and Why You Should Embrace Your Own)

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Photo Source: Gabor Kotschy/A24/20th Century Studios/Gareth Gatrell

Trying to figure out what casting directors want is always a challenge. Is it a winsome smile? An engaging laugh? Someone with serious swag? “So many actors get preoccupied with what they think the filmmaker is looking for,” says CD David Rubin (“Big Little Lies,” “Where the Crawdads Sing”). “And frankly, what we’re looking for is them.”

So, how can you cultivate what makes you, you? The key is to identify the traits that set you apart. Obviously, having a one-of-a-kind look or memorable mannerism is helpful for typecasting purposes—especially for those looking for one-off guest or costar roles—but there are many other ways you can stand out by just being yourself. “Traits that are unique to you are what make you intriguing,” says headshot photographer Marc Cartwright. 

Studying other actors’ onscreen trademarks and idiosyncrasies can help you discover your own. Here’s a look at several iconic performers’ mannerisms that make them unforgettable. 

Robert De Niro’s squint

“You talkin’ to me?” In one reportedly ad-libbed scene from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” De Niro solidified a look, vibe, and performance style that would become his trademark across 50 years of work. As his character, Travis Bickle, stares at himself in the mirror, trying desperately to cross the chasm from pathetically disturbed to confidently menacing, De Niro squints his eyes and squishes his face, rendering disbelief, disgust, and a quiet kind of anger threatening to explode.

Why it works: It’s this possibility of emotional eruption that’s inspiring for performers. When playing anger, it’s easy, obvious, and often unsatisfying to merely scream. Instead, De Niro shows us the genuine power that comes in trying not to scream and avoiding emotional (and/or physical) violence. Much like crying onscreen often comes from trying not to cry onscreen, De Niro reveals the power of playing against an emotional truth or objective.

Florence Pugh’s frown

Pugh is still a young star, but she’s already discovered a trademark so ubiquitous she’s had to comment on it. As many of her characters reckon with the sheer hopelessness of their situation, the corners of Pugh’s lips rotate downward at an angle that feels exaggerated, even impossible. It is a frown beyond frowns—a raw, bruised feat of physicality that feels like we’re watching something so intimate that it’s almost discomfiting.

Why it works: You’ll often hear acting teachers tell you less is more, to throw everything away, to “do nothing.” Pugh’s frown is certainly not “nothing,” but it isn’t affected, either. It’s her body’s last resort, an expression that shows what can no longer be contained within just the brain and heart. It’s vulnerability at its most visible, a complete eradication of the veneer between the actor and the truth.

Keira Knightley’s jaw

Whether she’s in a pirate story, watching a romantic partner silently profess his love, smiling, or seething, Knightley is going to clench her jaw. Her chin juts forward, locking in place just beyond the front row of her teeth, and makes for an immediately arresting, idiosyncratic look no matter the genre or time period of the project. There’s simply nothing like it.

Why it works: Like De Niro’s squint, Knightley’s expression implies an eruption of lava underneath the surface, a last-ditch attempt at control that will shatter at some point. Watching her try to compose herself, seeing the cracks appear and the tears coming despite her efforts to control them, is compelling stuff, and a helpful reminder to work against your toughest material rather than leaning too far in.

Brad Pitt’s Appetite 

In “Ocean’s Eleven,” Pitt is eating in almost every scene. And if you look at his résumé—”Burn After Reading,” “Moneyball,” an offscreen phone call in “Fight Club”—you’ll find this peculiar habit throughout. So, why is he always eating in scenes? It’s hard to believe craft services wouldn’t stock his favorites.

Why it works: Before you harangue your director for a turkey club in your big scene, consider Pitt’s strategy more generally as a work of business or even a “sub-objective.” This acting choice goes back to the idea that human beings don’t want to deal with what’s in front of them directly; we fiddle with our thumbs, we talk about the weather, or we chow down nervously on some chips. Pitt’s constant munching gives him an occupation, a false but easy thing to do instead of responding immediately to the matter at hand. It’s a lot harder than it looks.

Owen Wilson’s awe

It’s rare that someone can do an accurate impression with just one word. To perform a serviceable Wilson, though, all you need is “wow.” Wilson delivers this word—traditionally one syllable, but for the actor, generally two to three—in many of his films. But even when he’s not actually saying the word, the spirit of “wow” permeates throughout his performances. Wilson is in constant awe of what’s around him, his face opening widely to accept it all with openheartedness.

Why it works: This might be the only acting advice on this list that’s also good life advice: We should all be this curious, this affirming, and this accepting of the wonders life has to offer us! Beyond that, it is a generous actor who approaches their material and scene partner with such openness and respect. To watch Wilson act opposite his costars is to watch selflessness incarnate, a reminder of the joys and discoveries that are possible if we’re willing to see them.

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 22 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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