(This post continues my last one.)
Quick: which of these two actors seems more alive to you in this moment?
If you said Eisenberg, on the left, look again, and this time, pay attention to what is happening inside of you when you look.
See what I mean?
I am always astounded at the power of still photographs to reveal exactly how much an actor has going on.
If you said Eisenberg initially, you may have been attracted to a certain alertness and sense of expectation in his face. And none of that is bad (as long as it isn’t preventing something from happening in a deeper place, which can sometimes be the case). But what makes an actor compelling, involving, gripping, what makes their performance sticky, so that it stays with you and you wake up the next morning and it’s still there, somehow inside you, is the still-waters-run -deep quality evident in Segel, on the right.
My belief is that this has to do with mirror neurons: when we watch someone perform, our nervous system is replicating, for us, what they are experiencing, in our mirror system. That’s why the screen kiss is such a phenomenon, we all get to experience the thrill of the kiss, without any of the baggage or risk that may come with it.
When an actor is viscerally activated, in his or her core (visceral means “pertaining to the gut, the belly”, believe it or not), and we watch him, we get viscerally activated as well, thanks to our mirror system. So we experience the actor in a deeper way, and he or show leaves a more lasting impression than otherwise.
The miracle is how do we know this? We can’t see inside the actor’s gut. But I believe that we are exquisitely attuned, through evolution, to recognize this visceral activation, this vulnerability, perhaps because it signals that someone might be about to do something unexpected, something totally out-of-character, perhaps something dangerous. How do we recognize it? Through careful attention to the face, the eyes, and to the voice, and how it is produced, and where in the body it comes from. It’s something we learn to do so well because we were so entirely dependent on our parents as small children, and pleasing them meant everything. So it’s something we do without even being aware, when we do it.
Try it. The next time you consume some acting, whether on TV, at a movie, or even onstage, as you watch the acting, watch yourself, your core, that space behind your navel where you get butterflies in the stomach, and see which actors get in there, and which don’t. It will likely be an eye-opener.