Episode 60: How Important is Physicality in Acting?

Episode 60: How Important is Physicality in Acting?

Getting Physical: Insights and advice on the role of physicality in honing your acting skills

Brian and Joe delve into the physical side of acting, with tips and guidance based on their own personal experiences, on how embracing your physical self will take you from ordinary to outstanding in that audition room.

7 things you will learn about:

• The importance of acting with your entire body

• The role of awareness: Tuning in to your body

• How doing it right can alter your stage presence: Al Pacino

• Society conditioning – and how to break free of it

• Opening up: Physical activity to unleash your acting power

• What can actors learn from Olympic athletes?

• Body map: How listening to your body will seriously hone your acting skills

Full Transcript

One man – One mission:  To rid the world of low-standard and mediocre acting, once and for all.

Brian Timoney, the world’s leading authority on Method Acting, brings you powerful, impactful, volcanic acting and ‘business of acting’ techniques in his special Acting Podcasts.

It’s Brian Timoney’s World of Acting – unplugged and unleashed.


Brian:  Hi everyone, it’s Brian Timoney here and I’ve got Joe with me – welcome, Joe.

Joe:  Thank you very much for having me. Hello everybody.

Brian:  Right, so, Joe, we’re going to talk about physical acting: the use of the physical self, the physical body in the process of acting. And this is something that I think is really important.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  Let me start with a comment from – there’s a casting director in LA who’s cast lots and lots of high-profile feature films in Hollywood, and I asked him, ‘What do you think – what is one of the main differences, do you think, that separates a really good actor from maybe a run-of-the-mill actor come in to do an audition?’ she says, ‘Great actors use their entire body.’ Now, let me just repeat that because I think this is really important – she’s casting films, so we’re not talking about some physical theatre experiment person here, we’re talking about film, where, when you go in and audition for a film, as we know, Joe, most of the time you’re sat in a chair and you’re…

Joe:  Yes, it’s shot maybe from about the chest up.

Brian:  Right

Joe:  You know, if you think about it, it’s usually what we call a “medium close-up”.

Brian:  And she said, ‘That’s the trap.’ She said, ‘We go and just watch the performance in the camera, from the chest up. I watch their whole body.’ She says, ‘Really good actors will embody the whole thing. It’s not just happening in their face, their head; it’s happening through their whole body and they’re using their whole body to do it, and I watch that.’ and I thought, ‘That’s really interesting…’

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  Because when you think about it, at the end of the day, in a film there’s all different kinds of shots and you are using your entire self. And if somebody’s only performing from the chest up, the neck up, it’s like, well, it’s not going to come out, it’s not going to be quite right.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  So, there’s that form of physical acting, of being aware of your physicality and using it, and also we can go to the extremes of physical acting performance – you know, there’s certain kinds of theatre that are physically demanding. We’ll talk about, for example, Vakhtangov is more physically demanding, I would say.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  And the use of the body in acting.

Joe:  Of the body, yes. So, you’re new to the business/you’re old to the business/you’re new to the profession/you’re new to the craft/you’ve been around a while – what does the body actually mean to us, in terms of acting? I mean, what does it actually mean, the body?

Well, basically, from what I understand through our process of work, is that you’ve got to be aware what your body is doing. So you’ve got to be almost some kind of Olympic athlete in terms of understanding. I’m not talking about the fitness level; I’m talking about the understanding of what the limbs and the body is doing all the time, without then actually consciously thinking of it. You’ve kind of got to know everything that’s happening in it and then forget that it’s happening in you.

So that’s why so many – you know, if you think about great action actors – and I’m talking right across the realm, from, say, Arnie Schwarzenegger to someone like Jet Lee or Jackie Chan or Jason Statham – whichever way you say it – you know, actors that are very aware of their physique. The reason why someone like Jason Statham is more inclined to do a lot of physical film acting is he was an Olympic diver – did you know that?

Brian:  No, I didn’t know that.

Joe:  Yes! He was an Olympic diver and a gymnast – so he is very body-aware. Now, you’ve got to ride a fine line; it doesn’t mean that everything is like finished with a flourish, you know, like you just finish the floor move…

Brian:  A 10!

Joe:  And it’s a 10 and you just do a little flick [laughs] – no. It means that you are aware of your instrument. You know, we’ve said this time and time again. I also like to give examples of people who aren’t ordinarily what you might call physical actors in terms of visually…

Brian:  Well, I think Pacino is a very physical actor…

Joe:  Oh, totally, yes. And I was going to say someone like Melissa McCarthy or Jack Black, who are bigger, really much bigger people.

Brian:  Yes – Jack Black’s hugely physical, yes.

Joe:  And yet they’re so physically aware, so physically in tune with their body. And yes, Al Pacino is so in his body.

Brian:  It’s funny because when you watch Pacino, I’ve often said that Pacino – because ,as far as size is concerned he’s quite a short guy, he’s not massive – but he often acts like he is massive.

Joe:  Yes! He is so – yes!

Brian:  You know what I mean?

Joe:  The walls bend with his size!

Brian:  It seems to me like Pacino is a big guy trapped in a small guy’s body because the way he uses his body, it’s epic!

Joe:  Epic is the right word – it’s epic, yes!

Brian:  He really opens up and uses every part of what he’s got. And you’re under the impression that he’s much bigger than he is, because he comes across as much larger than life than he is.

Joe:  Yes. And also, if you think about it, Brian, as well, which we’re really into, through the Method Acting and through technique and understanding, he lives through the body; he doesn’t just occupy it – he lives through it. you know, there is a scene in – oh, my God, this is going back some – The Insider, and he plays like this producer guy who’s investigating the smoking phenomenon with Russell Brand (not Russell Brand, sorry – Russell Crowe. I don’t know what Russell Brand – nothing wrong with Russell Brand; it wasn’t that Russell, it was a different Russell!) And there’s a moment they’re having a production meeting, and the scene plays out and it seems like not very much is happening. And it’s not a close-up; there’s four or five actors working at the same time. And the character of Christopher Plumber says something to Al Pacino in this film, in The Insider, and Pacino’s physical body turns. It collapses. He’s in shock of the information that he’s received. Now, his face is still kind of like he’s still got a game face on, but his body has collapsed internally. And I was just like that scene alone was worth watching the film. If you get a chance, you watch it – because he inhabits the body completely and he’s like massive but he’s such a tiny man, you know? And that’s just what we’re discussing.

Now, how do we get that understanding of the body, Brian?

Brian:  Well, here’s the thing: unfortunately, most people have been conditioned – the use of their body and their voice has been conditioned out of them. You know, we’ve talked recently, because we are fathers recently…

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  …and if you watch what we’re like when we come out of the womb, we have no problem expressing ourselves…

Joe:  Yes! [laughs]

Brian:  …and making noise or using our bodies. You know, we’re very free. However, we’re conditioned over time to sit down and not to be loud – and what happens is that over time people’s instruments get constrained by society, really. And the big challenge for any actor is to undo that conditioning so they are using all of their instrument, because when you think about it, when you’re playing a character, you’re not revealing your life, your physical being; you’re trying to reveal their life. And that means that your instrument, your body has to be capable of revealing how they move, how they express themselves, how they express emotion, how they convey emotion.

So that is the big challenge and I think that…

Joe:  I hope you’re listening, guys, because that was brilliant.

Brian:  [laughs]

Joe:  I really hope you’re listening because that was excellent. Sorry, Brian – yes, but I have to call it as a see it.

Brian:  No, I think that it’s a very important point. And how do you get to that point? I think there’s a combination of things; I think that any good training should prepare the actor physically, but also I think there’s things that you can do, over and above that.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  I think that opening the body up – for example, through the use of yoga, or any physical activity that requires – swimming I think would be quite a good thing to do as well. But anything that requires you to use the whole body.

Joe:  The entire body. Again we’re back to dancing as well, learning a dance technique that allows you to free yourself through the body.

Brian:  Yes, absolutely. Because really what you’re trying to do is to open up the body, to be able to be free. And I think that when you first come to acting, the body invariably – very rarely do you get somebody come in where they’re all physically free, unless they’ve done previously…

Joe:  Previously something like – we go to Jason, who’s a diver and a gymnast, yes.

Brian:  Yes. And I think that that is what you need to do, is to get the body open and physically free in order to prepare it even for training.

Joe:  Yes, yes – prepare your body so that it’s ready and open to accept the physical demands of acting. And we can go back to, again, when we think about good examples – again, Daniel Day-Lewis, who combines very physical acting…

Brian:  Oh, yes.

Joe:  You know, if you see him in The Last of the Mohicans and The Boxer, and My Left Foot where he has nothing but only the left foot to communicate and his eyes – you know, when you think about like the physical demands that he’s made on his body and using that to the best of his ability, that’s really going to give you so much more, you know?

Brian:  And I think that, as an actor, you need to think/have that athlete mentality. We’ve talked about this before, because athletes obviously are using their entire body to do what they’re doing – so are the actors, right?

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  I saw something quite interesting: Tom Daley, the diver, the Olympic-winning diver, he, in the run-up to these games in Rio, he basically worked with a top-notch diving coach, and she is known for having very unusual practices. And whenever I hear that, I think, ‘She’s probably brilliant…’

Joe:  Yes, she’s probably amazing, yes.

Brian:  Because the thing is, to get to a point where you are doing something different from everybody else, you need to take different routes.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  And anyway, what she got him doing was she got him doing ballet.

Joe:  Wow. Okay. Yes, that makes sense, yes.

Brian:  It makes sense, when you think about it.

Joe:  Of course it does, yes!

Brian:  And when she told him, ‘Oh, yes, you’re going to do some ballet classes and you’re going to incorporate…’ he was going, ‘I thought she was crazy, but I did it.’ And you can see how that worked.

Joe:  You can see that, yes.

Brian:  So he’s looking, you know…

Joe:  To push, to free…

Brian:  …to pull away, to free up his instrument, to free up the body in order to do what he needs to do – and I think the same applies to actors. Now, you might think, ‘Oh, going to a ballet class or something like that, a dance class, I’ll be out of my comfort zone’ – but actually that’s fine. You should do it! Because it’s going to force your body physically into a different area where it’s probably not comfortable, but it’s going to actually start to open the instrument up, ready for it to be physical.

Joe:  To be physically challenged and to be physically – you become more physically aware of what your instrument is doing – how it moves, what are your habits, where the aches and the pains…

Brian:  Listen; if you’re only standing and sitting during the day, then you’re not using your body physically.

Joe:  No.

Brian:  So you’ve got to find – acting’s a physical process; I don’t care if it’s film or theatre or what – it’s all physical.

Joe:  It’s all very physical, all of it, yes.

Brian:  And you have to find a way of starting to engage physically in your body that is outside the normal range of movement, because a normal range of movement for most people is very, very limited – it’s standing and sitting. Same goes for the voice, by the way, because most people only use a fraction of the range of their voice.

Joe:  Of the full range, yes.

Brian:  And so what happens is they can become quite monotone if they come into acting, rather than using a full range of what they’ve got available.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  So, the more I talk about this, Joe, and the more advanced certain acting practices that I go into with actors – for example, we do the Vakhtangov…

Joe:  Vakhtangov, yes, of course.

Brian:  …which is for graduates, which is a very physical process. The more that you can incorporate that’s physical into your acting, the more dynamic it becomes and the more interesting it becomes.

Joe:  Yes. And the more powerful the performance becomes. Remember; you’re bringing this in order to enhance all of that, you know. When you’re starting out – and some actors, young actors out there might be saying, ‘Oh, yes, great. I’m in my body. I run, I do this, I jog, I lift weights and all that’ – yes, but it’s about being able to move within that context, really being able to be free to try something. If you’re thinking about what can you do, well, it’s not just about being able to have buff arms and really big legs; it’s about being able to move within that, being able to freely move. It’s a bit more complicated than that because the only thing is, Brian, I wanted to say, the difference between us and the Olympian athlete is a lot of the times they’re trying to quieten the emotion; they’re trying to take all the emotion out – whereas we’re putting all the emotion in and being physical! You’re having two experiences: you’ve got to be in your body and you’ve got to have the emotional experience because the character that you’re creating might be hurt and upset and all of these things. And Olympian athletes, they try to take that out. It’s like they try to take the emotion out so that they can keep calm and collected – whereas we’re like, ‘No! We want the mess as well!’

So you’ve got two bigger problems: you’ve got to be able to inhabit the emotional context and what’s happening to you and actually let us see it, and you’ve got to be able to have your body free to have that.

Brian:  Well, the other thing to know is that when people are communicating, it’s only a very small proportion that is verbal communication – you know, we’re talking in the range of like seven percent, which means 93 percent it’s through the body and the voice.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  So you can’t ignore the fact that the more in tune you are with – because people are picking up physical cues from you, physical behaviour and habits: the way that somebody holds themselves, the way that somebody reacts to something emotionally, physically, all tells a story. You know, it’s interesting, the body because in a way, the mind can lie to us; we can have a conversation with the mind about what’s happened to us and why it’s happened to us, but your body…

Joe:  It tells you everything.

Brian:  …is your whole history.

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  Everything that’s happened to you is in your body.

Joe:  We always say, you know, ‘Your body is the map of your life.’ I say that to students all the time, when they first come in: ‘Your body is the map of your life. You may think in your brain that you’re hiding it, but we can see what you’re carrying and how it lives, in your body, because the body can’t lie. You know, if you’re in pain, if you’re in discomfort, it’s telling you!’ It’s not like I’m some kind of Shaman who can see – no; your body is telling us what your experience is.

Brian:  Yes.

Joe:  And therefore you’ve got to be able to live within it and then connect to it emotionally as well. It’s not the mind; the head isn’t going to give you the response – that’s just going to help you understand things. But the body’s going to give you the understanding that you need fully, because it’s got to be lived through.

Brian:  Yes. So I think the use of physical acting, the use of the body is extremely important and has to be a part of the acting process of learning how to act. So, yes, I think that brings us to the end of that particular subject, Joe. I think it’s an important one but a good one…

Joe:  Yes.

Brian:  So, we’ll speak to you again on the next one.

Joe:  Take care.

Brian:  Take care.


You’ve been listening to Brian Timoney’s World of Acting. For a full transcript of today’s show, go to www.worldofacting.com.

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