What to Do With Your Hands While Acting

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Photo Source: “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing

As humorously yet accurately portrayed by Will Ferrell as the titular Ricky Bobby in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” it can be difficult knowing what to do with your hands on camera. Even the most seasoned actor can find themselves bearing a striking resemblance to a Tyrannosaurus rex without a proper hand plan. Assuming you’re not trying out for a role as the famously short-armed dinosaur, learning where to place and support your hands is critical to refining your craft.

How to use your hands effectively while performing

Breaking Bad“Breaking Bad” Courtesy AMC

If you’ve ever thought, I don’t know what to do with my hands while acting, never fear—you’re in good hands here. To use your hands effectively while performing, try using these techniques:

Study natural hand movements

Observe how people (including yourself) move their hands while speaking, keeping in mind that hand movements vary across cultures and individual preferences. Hand movements are often used to communicate nonverbal messages, particularly ones imbued with deep emotional meaning. Someone conveying a heartfelt message might hold a hand to their heart, use a “go-on” wave to encourage a companion to keep speaking, or hold their hands stiffly by their sides if feeling uncomfortable. Generally, people use their hands naturally to emphasize whatever emotion they’re feeling.

RELATED: 7 Movement Techniques for Actors 

Observe how actors move their hands

Look to your favorite actors and watch carefully to see how they move their hands. Keep an eye out for situation-specific movements—for example, Bryan Cranston uses wilder, more extravagant gestures to portray silly Hal in “Malcolm in the Middle,” but packs a lot of power in minimal movements as Walter in “Breaking Bad.” If you’re planning to audition for a specific genre, watch media in that genre to discover the subtleties of hand movements. 

Or if you want a wider swatch of performative possibilities, watch films, TV shows, and tapings of plays across multiple genres to gain a broad understanding of just what people do with those pesky hands. For example, you can study Viola Davis’ Oscar-winning performance in this scene from “Fences,” paying particular attention to when she uses her hands to emphasize a point, plead with open palms, or sell a tone change. 

Use hand gestures to sell a scene

After studying how other people use their hands in real life and on set and stage, practice applying relevant gestures to your acting toolkit. Legend of the stage Spencer Tracy says that George M. Cohan “taught me to keep my hands out of my pockets. Don’t be a lazy actor. Don’t start hiding your hands.”

Watch this scene from “Hereditary,” paying attention to all the ways Toni Collette adds to the intensity of her character’s outburst with hand gestures. 

Tie hand gestures to character work

While planning out hand gestures ahead of time can make your acting feel artificial, do spend some time considering how your character would use their hands while talking. If your character is moved emotionally, they might put their hand on their chest. If they’re appealing to a crowd, they might clench their fist and hold it in front of their body. If they’re a cadaverous yet foppish pirate captain, they might wave their hook in the air at the perpetual child whizzing by. Figure out what feels right for your character and work those nuances into your physical performance. 

In “The Big Sleep,” Humphrey Bogart’s private detective Phillip Marlowe often touches his earlobe when he’s thinking, a small touch that adds a personal quirk to the character. 

Consider your environment

Stage actors need to learn to project their voices; similarly, they often use grand hand gestures to convey emotion to every audience member—even the ones at the back of the room. Alternatively, actors performing on camera are often encouraged to lower their voices and minimize their motions to avoid chewing the scenery.

If you’re used to the dramatic gestures of onstage acting but are trying to calm down your motions for the camera, take Sir Ian McKellen’s advice from a 1981 interview with Dick Cavett. “I try and tie [my hands] up to my thoughts and my imagination and my face,” he said. “But then after having achieved a certain relaxation, I might decide to signal something to the audience, which they should receive. Like they should understand, although I am very calm, the character is a little nervous. So I will throw out body language.”

Hang loose

Although it might be tempting to keep your arms stiff or even put your hands in your pocket, aim for a state of relaxed movement instead. It can help to reconceptualize their purpose: think of your hands as additional tools for communicating a message rather than a hindrance to your performance. Body language and relationship experts Allan and Barbara Pease recommend aiming for supplicant gestures—palms turned up, gesturing toward yourself, and shoulder shrugs invite the audience to empathize with you. 

Trust your instincts

Above all, what you do with your hands while acting should feel natural; noticeably inappropriate hand movements detract from a performance much more than sedate ones. Trust your gut and you may find yourself earning a big hand from your audience.