How To Have More ‘Weight’ As An Actor

Photo Source: Photo by Niels Smeets on Unsplash

When I was at drama school, I frequently got the note that I needed more ‘weight.’ When I asked if that meant I needed to eat more, I was told no. Rather, I needed more ‘gravitas’ on stage. Sadly, I was unable to find anyone who could articulate a sound methodology by which this might be achieved.

Years later as I struggled to define the same issue I in my own students’ work, I began to see a pattern in those with gravitas and those without, which in turn forced me to create a solution.

My drama school teachers were correct in that actual physical weight had nothing to do with it. But it also had nothing to do with stillness, which was another suggestion offered. After half a decade of trial and error with my own students, I had finally developed practical tools with which to transform them in a way that I hadn’t been able to transform myself years earlier.

It turns out that drama school had been teaching me about gravitas the whole time but nobody found a way to put it all in one place for me. So here is the three-minute lesson I wish I’d been given on the first day at drama school. I hope it helps if you’ve been struggling with the same note.

Gravitas in performance is made up of three parts:

The voice is composed of breath and vibration. It is verbal (speaking, singing, etc.) or non-verbal (moaning, grunting, growling, etc.). Breath hosts the emotion, but it’s vibration that carries it out and to others.

Without an adequate amount of vibration in your voice, no amount of emotion will suffice and no amount of stillness will give you gravitas. You can stand still and cry a river and still not elicit a response from the audience.

READ: The Important Difference Between Speaking and Communicating

Though one may be still and have gravitas, stillness can exist without gravitas and gravitas can exist without stillness. Do not confuse or conflate the two. That would be like assuming someone who’s pretty is loving and that someone loving is pretty. Though there may be a correlation between the two, causation is by no means guaranteed.

Gravitas is born of certainty. Make a decision and follow it through to the very end. It requires a groundedness that comes from lowering your center of gravity to somewhere around your hips instead of your chest. The higher the center of gravity, the ‘lighter’ you appear. The lower your center of gravity, the ‘heavier’ you appear. Somebody carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders does not float into a room speaking in a high pitched voice.

If you’re holding or restricting your breath—which many actors do, especially in moments of heightened emotion—your center of gravity will be higher because it’s centered around your lungs, which are located in your chest. Breathe out. Relax your belly. Allow each new breath to slowly enter and fill you right down to your pelvis. When you routinely find your breath reaching that deep into your body you will understand gravitas and your audience will perceive it.

Too little attention is paid to the actual mechanics of choices in acting. The need for interesting and bold choices is frequently mentioned and examples of potential end results are frequently offered to actors. But when it comes to the act of seeking out truly unique options and arriving at the most appropriate choices in any given moment, actors are usually left to discover this for themselves. Unfortunately, without ironclad definitions for choices, one can search a lifetime and still not find a solution.

If you merely react to a situation, you will not have gravitas. When you make choices that force others to react you will have far more weight. Simply responding to the events happening around you makes you far more passive and therefore lighter when it comes to choices. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a strong character on the page will automatically give you weight because it won’t. Not without the steps above.

Incidental characters can have weight and lead roles can be light. Large people can be light and small, thin people can have gravitas. It all depends on how you choose to speak, move, and think.

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.