At the crossroads of emotional suppression and subtle hostility, playing a passive-aggressive character demands a deep understanding of human behavior and an ability to project conflict subtly. This type of role, while delicate, provides an exceptional opportunity to explore layered emotions and complex dynamics. Here’s everything you need to know about the intricacies of playing a passive-aggressive character, plus tips and techniques to navigate this challenging terrain and deliver a convincing performance.
“The Wolf of Wall Street” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Passive aggression is a behavioral pattern in which someone expresses hostility and negativity indirectly rather than openly talking about their feelings. This complex behavior often stems from an inability or unwillingness to communicate dissatisfaction directly, creating a conflict between what the person says and what they actually do. In essence, passive-aggressiveness is a covert way of resisting demands, undermining others, or expressing resentment, all under the veneer of politeness or apparent compliance.
Characters displaying this trait might seem docile, flexible, or even friendly on the surface, but their underlying actions reveal resentment, stubbornness, or a silent protest. Understanding these contradictions is essential for actors aiming to accurately portray a passive-aggressive role, thereby adding depth and authenticity to their performance.
“Oppenheimer” Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Universal Pictures
Passive-aggressive people are hallmarked by a range of subtle traits, which can often be challenging to portray as they require a nuanced approach. These include:
- Indirect expression of hostility: This may include procrastination, stubbornness, or deliberate forgetfulness.
- Resentment or disagreement: Rather than confronting the issue openly, the passive-aggressive person may express being upset more subtly through sullen behavior or sulking.
- Paradoxical behavior: The passive-aggressive person is known for giving backhanded compliments, which are seemingly pleasant or flattering on the surface but carry an underlying sting of criticism.
- Emotional withdrawal: Pulling back, especially during moments of conflict, is another common sign of passive aggression.
- Playing the victim: Another trait is the tendency to play the victim by portraying oneself as misunderstood or underappreciated, thereby shifting the blame and responsibility to others.
As an actor, identifying and embodying these traits can help you to portray a truly compelling passive-aggressive character and bring a level of complexity that elevates the narrative.
“Twilight” Courtesy Summit Entertainment
- Analyze the script. Your character will have reasons, both clear and hidden, why they behave in passive-aggressive ways. Analyze the script thoroughly to discover when your character is triggered into behaving more passive-aggressively.
- Understand character motivation. Immerse yourself in your character’s psyche to understand their motivations. Why are they choosing to act out their frustrations in this indirect way? What fears or desires are driving their behavior? Developing a rich backstory can provide insight into this.
- Study passive-aggressive behavior. Do you have a friend or family member known for saying one thing but meaning another? There’s no better teacher than real life, and real people can offer insights into how these traits are exhibited in the everyday world. Study their behavior, watch examples of passive-aggressive characters, and consider their words and actions and how you can incorporate that into your craft.
- Think of the hidden meaning. When delivering lines, focus on incorporating the hidden meaning behind your character’s words. Use tone, inflection, and body language to imply resentment or dissatisfaction, even when the words are polite or non-confrontational. Don’t forget about subtext: What your character is actually saying may not be what they mean, or it may be masking something deeper.
- Practice being passive aggressive. As much as this may irk the people in your life, try to master the art of the backhanded compliment. Practice expressing anger or disapproval through a smile. Use pauses effectively—a well-placed silence can often be more powerful than words in conveying underlying tension.
- Act it out. Remember to interact with other characters in a way that hints at your character’s unspoken frustrations. Use physical cues such as crossed arms, avoidance of eye contact, or a forced smile to show the difference between what your character says and how they truly feel. These small but impactful nonverbal cues can truly elevate your performance and deliver a convincing portrayal of a passive-aggressive character.
These passive-aggressive characters in film and television provide excellent studies for actors aiming to portray this behavioral pattern.
- Bella Swan from “Twilight”: Throughout the series, Bella is often seen withholding her feelings, especially when it comes to her relationships with Edward and Jacob. She avoids direct conflict and often uses indirect means to express her dissatisfaction or distress. Her struggle to communicate her feelings directly contributes significantly to the series’ tension and drama.
- Cersei Lannister from “Game of Thrones”: From thinly veiled threats disguised as polite conversation to her mastery of the backhanded compliment, Cersei uses passive aggression as a weapon and form of manipulation in her political maneuverings.
- George Costanza from “Seinfeld”: George is often seen employing passive-aggressive tactics in his daily interactions. He is quick to feel slighted, yet often avoids direct confrontation, instead resorting to deceptive or manipulative tactics to get what he wants or express his discontent. His interactions often include elements of deflection, dishonesty, and sabotage.
- Pam Beesly from “The Office”: Pam Beesly often displays passive-aggressive tendencies, such as when she leaves an anonymous note calling out a colleague for not cleaning out the microwave. In the early seasons, Pam offers an excellent example of passive aggression in her reluctance to directly confront her feelings for Jim and her dissatisfaction with her engagement to Roy.
- Walter White from “Breaking Bad”: In the early seasons, Walter frequently uses passive-aggressiveness as a tool, especially in his interactions with his wife, Skyler. Just think of Season 3, Episode 3, when he tells her: “Do what you have to do, Skyler. This family is everything to me. Without it, I have nothing to lose.” Walter clearly resents his family and the illegal actions he has taken to provide for them—but he refuses to directly say so and paints himself as the victim.
Studying these characters can provide actors with an understanding of how to bring a passive-aggressive character to life. The subtle interplay of aggression and avoidance can make these characters among the most complex to play—but also some of the most rewarding.