Michael Caine is one of the most prolific and successful film actors of the past century. He’s acted in over 140 films, including such classics as Alfie, the original versions of The Italian Job and Get Carter, as well as many recent hits such as Dark Knight and Inception.
The man knows his stuff.
About twenty years ago he wrote an excellent book on film acting called, appropriately enough, Acting in Film. It has been revised numerous times since its original publication and contains a plethora of useful tips on film acting.
This book is especially helpful for theater actors trying to work in film, which is when I first read his book. I had been working in theater for about five years and wanted to branch out into film and television. His take on preparing for a day of film acting, on being professional, on getting emotionally ready for a scene were all invaluable.
In theater, you are acting for the back row of the theater. In film, you are acting for the camera, which could be as close as two feet from your face. How would an actor’s performance in the theater change if the audience were a mere two feet away?
A film actor also has to realize that the camera can do some of the acting for you.
For example, a low angle shot gives your character an air of superiority while a high angle shot shows your character in a weakened state. A camera that dollies in toward you can give that moment a greater gravity and immediacy than if the camera were static.
Many successful film actors have mentioned that, in the most important and emotional moments of the film, some times the best choice is to show no emotion at all, because the audience will layer their emotions onto your blank face. If the actor were show an emotion different than what the audience is feeling, the critical climax to the scene or film is lost.
In an interview Gene Hackman once said he tried to do less with each role. He was amazed how “little” he had to do to be an effective film actor. He didn’t do this because he was lazy, he was doing this to find the lowest level of “performance” required to elicit the right emotion in each scene.
At the end of the day, when it comes to film acting, it’s all in the eyes.
As Michael Caine talks about in his book, you cannot lie to the camera. If an actor feels the emotion internally, it will show in the eyes. If not, your eyes will betray you.
There are two actors that act with their eyes extremely well. The first is John Noble as Dr. Walter Bishop on the creepy show Fringe. The other is Stana Katic on the hit humorous cop show Castle.
Let’s start with Noble. Why this actor has not won an Emmy Award for his performance on Fringe is an artistic crime.
His character, a brilliant scientist with a history of mental issues, relays such a wide variety of emotions, it is astounding. His character can, at one moment, be arrogant and self-righteous, and then he’ll become crazy, even dangerous. He’ll be as juvenile as a little boy one second and then turn into a wounded, fragile and broken man whose entire world could collapse with the touch of a feather.
And all of those levels, all of those emotions are relayed through his eyes.
His shattered past, his struggling emotions, his faulty memory all first appear in his eyes before his mouth utters a word.
He is brilliant.
Stana Katic’s character, detective Kate Beckett on the show Castle, resides in a far more light-hearted creative universe than that of Noble, but her effectiveness of bringing subtly and sincerity to her character’s emotions through her eyes is equally effective.
In Castle, Katic’s character is fighting two internal conflicts. The first is the pain associated with the unsolved murder of her mother, an event which propelled her to become a police officer. The other is her unwanted, yet uncontrollable attraction to the lead character of Richard Castle, the playboy mystery writer, played with a perfect mix of humor and charm by Nathan Fillion.
Katic, graced with beautifully expressive eyes, is always in character. Not only does she nail the two sides of Beckett’s hard exterior/soft interior role without turning it into a cliche’, but Katic often uses off moments, where her character isn’t the primary focus of the scene, to relay humor, confusion, attraction, repulsion, regret, intrigue and exasperation with a look or a glance.
And its not as if those moments are done for her own acting indulgence. Instead, they relay the inner, vulnerable part of Kate Beckett that she’s trying to hide from the outside world. She gives the audience insight into her characters emotions, making the viewers feel like we have inside knowledge about her that even her own team doesn’t know.
It’s a wonderful piece of acting and instantly makes the audience root for her.
These are just two current examples of actors who do a great job of acting with their eyes. I’m sure you can find many others.
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. This has never been more true than when it comes to acting.