Why Is Body Language Important in Acting?

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Photo Source: “Moulin Rouge” Courtesy 20th Century Fox

From Nicole Kidman’s wink as seductive Satine in “Moulin Rouge!” to Jeremy Strong’s visceral bathroom breakdown as Kendall on “Succession,” actors use body language to convey emotions and messages about their characters. Understanding the power of this form of nonverbal communication can help you be a more effective communicator and a better actor.


What is body language?

Margot Robbie in “Barbie”

“Barbie” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Body language is a type of nonverbal communication that relies on hand, face, and body movements and positions to share messages. Body language examples include:

  • Hand movements: clapping, drumming fingers, snapping, holding palms open, clenching fists
  • Facial expressions: smiling, frowning, raising eyebrows, squinting
  • Body movements, positions, and use of space: crossing legs, placing hands on hips, keeping the trunk of the body open or closed

These types of nonverbal communication often have a great influence on how others perceive us. In fact, more often than not, speaking is in the minority of how we send messages to others. “There is a large body of evidence and literature which shows that most of our communication is nonverbal. Tone of voice and body language transmit as much or more meaning to others than the content of our speech,” says actor, doctor, and body language researcher Alexis Del Vecchio.

Body language can be subtle but powerful, since it can supplement, support, or even contradict a verbal message. “One example would be someone who says they are open to discussing a conflict, yet have their arms crossed,” Del Vecchio says. “The message to the receiver is that actually your body is not in alignment with what you are sharing verbally.” 

“Another tool is mirroring, used in acting and negotiation communication: subtly mirror the body language of the person you are speaking with,” Del Vecchio adds. “They will feel like you are invested and interested in what they have to say. Try it next time you speak with someone you’re trying to build rapport with! It will feel awkward at first, but you will be amazed by how much that person may open up to you.”  

Other nonverbal communication examples include physical appearance (physical features, clothes, and hairstyle), paralanguage (tone, speed of voice, and loudness), and any other kind of “behavior of the face, body, or voice minus the linguistic content.” 

Sign language is another form of nonverbal communication that uses standardized movements and grammatical structures to share messages. Alternatively, body language does not have grammatical rules and it is often interpreted differently by different people.

Body language in acting

The Afterparty

“The Afterparty” Courtesy Apple TV+

Body language in theater, film, and TV helps performers convey emotional depth and the inner consciousness of their character. “Body language is important in acting because it in itself can tell a story,” says nurse Mary Spinosa, a drama therapist and executive director of Theatre With a Twist.  

There are countless hand movements an actor can do to send a message to an audience. They may look up and lift their hands dramatically in the sky to portray desperation. They might constantly flip their hair if their character is meant to be seen as an airhead—think of Karen from “Mean Girls.”

Similarly, an actor’s facial expressions tell the audience about the character’s emotional state and how they should react. The evil villain’s scowl and furrowed brow tells the audience to beware, just as the romantic’s loving gaze invites the audience to recognize their feeling of awe. An actor’s facial expressions may also reveal a situation’s complexities, such as when an actor says something with what seems like sincerity but breaks the fourth wall to turn to the audience and roll their eyes. 

An actor may also use their body movements to communicate. They might create a feeling of urgency by running hurriedly offstage, worry by suddenly falling down, or joy by spinning around with their arms outstretched, à la Julie Andrews as Maria in “The Sound of Music.” 

While body language is critical to a stellar performance, actors must be careful not to overdo that aspect of the craft. “If the cues are too grandiose, the audience gets their own cues that the actors are trying to compensate for not knowing lines or actions,” Spinosa says.

How to use body language as an actor

Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett in “The Last of Us”

“The Last of Us” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO 

Body language happens both consciously and unconsciously. Learning to use your body consciously to tell a story onstage may not come naturally to you at first—but these steps can help.

  1. Study body language examples: Whether it’s Nick Offerman as jaded survivalist Bill slowly embracing a new world (and new love) on “The Last of Us” or Margot Robbie’s high heel scene as the titular Barbie, take some time to study how the acting greats use their bodies to communicate.
  2. Learn body language techniques: From Laban Movement Analysis to Viewpoints, familiarity with movement techniques for actors allows you to use your body to send powerful messages to the audience. You can even delve into pantomime to discover the power of the body as an instrument of communication. 
  3. Do body language exercises: Many exercises and activities can help you develop a unique body language style and enhance your acting skills. These include walking like your character, using body language to counteract what your character is saying, and practicing microexpressions.
  4. Act like your character: While you don’t need to go full Method, try using your sense memory to generate an authentic emotional response to your character’s given circumstances. From there, use your body to convey what you feel as your character. If they’re confident, try strutting with your chest out and a small smile on your face. If they’re devastated but trying to hide it, allow that emotional battle to play out on your face and body. 
  5. Keep practicing: It may seem like a lot of work at first, but according to Del Vecchio, acting is “ALL about body language!”