Facial expressions are one of the most important aspects of a performance or audition. Many actors spend hours in front of the mirror contorting their faces into the perfect smirk, scowl, or eyebrow quirk. But facial expressions are layered, and there are smaller, subtler ways actors use their faces that can make or break a performance. They’re called “microexpressions,” and unfortunately, rehearsing them is a major challenge.
But don’t despair. Your facial muscles already know how to make every microexpression you’ll ever need—they just take a little coaxing.
Microexpressions are subtle, unconscious motions our faces make when our emotions manifest through physical expressions. They’re the reason people can figure out how you’re feeling even if you haven’t said a word.
Microexpressions are typically involuntary, which makes them difficult—even impossible—to fake. They’re less about muscle control and more about the emotions we’re experiencing at any given time. To master microexpressions, actors must first form a connection to the genuine emotions of their character.
While there are infinite ways emotion can show up on your face, there are only seven main categories of microexpression:
Of course, there is plenty of nuance within each of these emotions, but all of the subtleties will fall under one of those seven larger umbrellas.
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in “Past Lives” Credit: Jon Pack
Mastering microexpressions is vital for embodying characters to the point where audiences forget they’re watching a performance. That said, a natural performance is anchored in the character’s emotions in the moment rather than focused on trying to nail a microexpression. If the actor is truly able to feel a character’s emotions, the microexpressions should happen organically.
“After well-planted emotional preparation, a performance should be like a blank canvas where the actor doesn’t know what’s going to happen moment by moment with their partner(s), just like in life,” says acting coach Joseph Pearlman. “In my view, it’s crucial for actors to prioritize authenticity and emotional truth, which comes from connecting with the character’s emotional roots within themselves. In other words, to look inside themselves versus trying to figure out the character from an outside perspective.”
Although microexpressions should elevate and enhance a performance, there’s also a risk of overemphasizing when preparing for a role. “While some [acting professionals] find them beneficial for adding depth to performances, there’s a concern that focusing too much—or at all—on microexpressions can make the already self-conscious actor overly self-conscious of themselves in their work,” Pearlman cautions.
As the old adage goes, acting is reacting. That can mean a lot of things, but it’s especially true of microexpressions. While scripts mostly dictate each character’s words and broader actions, microexpressions can be particularly helpful in communicating a character’s internal process as they receive new information. For example, think of the change in Keira Knightley’s expressions and body language in “Love Actually” as she gradually realizes the motivation behind her husband’s best friend’s video footage from her wedding.
Or watch the end of “The Graduate,” after Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross) board a bus after fleeing her wedding. Without any words, their faces transition from elated to worried as they consider the consequences of their choices.
Microexpressions can also lend important subtext to a scene, imbuing the script with added meaning beyond what the words convey at face value. An excellent example of this is Daniel Kaluuya’s character in “Get Out,” Chris Washington. Chris tries to make a positive impression on his girlfriend’s family and friends, but he becomes increasingly uncomfortable by how they treat him. Outwardly, he’s perfectly amicable, but his microexpressions indicate growing unease.
In each of these examples, the microexpressions are a subtle yet crucial part of the actor’s performance, helping the audience resonate with their emotional experience even though they never come out and tell us what they’re feeling.
Nicole Beharie on “The Morning Show” Courtesy Apple TV+
As soon as you start thinking about microexpressions during a performance, you run the risk of overdoing them, thus making your character seem less authentic. Luckily, there are a few tricks and techniques actors can use to encourage genuine microexpressions during a performance.
Embrace the moment: In Pearlman’s eyes, there’s no benefit to thinking specifically about microexpressions. Instead, he advises actors to work on inhabiting the emotion of a scene—the microexpressions will come organically.
“Concentrate on being fully present in the moment,” Pearlman says. “Rather than trying to control expressions consciously, actors should immerse themselves in their character’s emotions and let genuine reactions [and] expressions arise naturally.”
Incorporate mindfulness exercises into your preparation: “Mindfulness practices and inviting the emotion of the ‘character’ up through the actor’s body can contribute to authentic performances,” Pearlman says. “By understanding their character’s emotional journey in their bodies, actors can effortlessly express emotions organically during scene work.”
Backstage offers lots of resources for actors looking to cultivate mindfulness in their work, including this four-part series on meditation for actors.
Study Laban Movement Analysis (LMA): LMA is a theory used primarily by the dance community to help analyze and understand human movement, but it can also have benefits for actors hoping to better embody a character. Incorporating LMA into your role preparation may help you internalize the way your character holds and moves their body, resulting in a more thoroughly inhabited performance.
Brian Cox on “Succession” Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Microexpressions may be involuntary and therefore impossible to perfect, but that doesn’t mean that actors shouldn’t incorporate them into role prep. On the contrary, it is precisely because microexpressions are involuntary that it’s important for actors to prepare enough that they can fully immerse themselves, resulting in authentic microexpressions.
According to Pearlman, the key to emotional preparation is thorough character and text analysis. Actors need to prepare enough that they experience their character’s emotional journey as if it were their own. “The best question is not ‘how would the character feel,’ ” Pearlman explains, “but rather, ‘If it were me under those circumstances, how would I feel under the influence of those circumstances?’ ”
If that sounds extremely personal, it is. Everyone’s involuntary microexpressions in response to a given emotion are going to be unique to them. Anyone can pull a face, but only you can produce the microexpressions authentic to you and, by extension, authentic to your character.
If you want to become a master of microexpressions, don’t shy away from what your character is going through. Buckle in to go on an emotional journey right alongside them, and react as you would if the events of their story were happening to you. Once you’ve embraced their emotions as your own, it won’t be hard to convince an audience that your microexpressions are genuine—because they will be. After all, according to Pearlman, “the personality of the actor is 90% of the performance!”