By Brett Hershey
We’ve all experienced it. An actor appears on screen, takes the stage or struts into the audition room and instantly commands attention.
How did he do that?
As an Alexander Technique instructor, I’m keenly interested in what fuels an actor’s power and what drains it. Why are some actors cast in alpha roles and others as beta characters (or not at all)? Is power something we are born with or can it be cultivated?
We sense people’s power immediately. Like animals, we are highly perceptive motion detectors. Our brains are programmed to evaluate another’s power and they do it in a blink of an eye. This happens in all our daily interactions, but it’s especially poignant in auditioning and performing. In fact, casting directors have told me that eighty percent of casting is done from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you start your audition.
I’ve had directors/producers send me actors whom they want to cast for a powerful role – such as president, queen or mob boss – but the actor seems too weak or diminished. He or she couldn’t project power.
Some might prescribe a trip to the gym, but true power is not derived from sprouting gargantuan muscles. How is power cultivated? How is your acting power? Are you maximizing your genetic range or is there some room for improvement?
Here are 7 ways to boost your power:
1) Balance Your Head on Top of Your Spine.
Your head weighs 12-14 lbs. There is nothing that ‘holds’ the head up. It is designed to be poised on top of the spine. If you’re head is out of balance, then you are off your center, and that is perceived as WEAK.
And FYI the top of your spine is not in your neck. In fact, there is no neck joint. Your spine meets your skull inside your head. Put your finger in your ears. That is where your atlantic-occipital joint is located. Live from way up there.
True power is generated by exquisite coordination of oneself – mainly, having an excellent relationship between head and spine, and moving from this central organizing principle. Think of the way Brad Pitt moved in Fight Club.
And power is demonstrated by not compromising this ‘good use,’ no matter what activity we are performing (watch Tich Nat Hahn ties his shoes) or who comes our way (a queen’s poise is unaffected by their subjects or surroundings).
EXERCISE: Look in the mirror or at your photos and notice the poise of your head. Are you jutting it out? Tucking your chin forward? See if you can release it slightly forward and up. To feel this ‘release’ sensation, roll down with knees bent in a standing position and let your head dangle toward the floor.
2) Stop Nodding, Fidgeting and Wiggling.
To quote Cool Hand Luke, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.” This is often so true with acting. Ever notice how still powerful characters can be?
Think of Vital in the Godfather. People came to see him. They moved around him. The squirmed and fidgets in their seat as they waited for him to make his decisions. Yet, he did very little. He often just listened.
And incessant nodding is a clear sign of weakness. It’s not just agreeing with someone. It’s sending off the signal: Do you like me? Are we okay? Is everything okay? Ironically, if we don’t nod when we listen, we actually can hear more because we are doing less and therefore more receptive to input.
EXERCISE: Notice how much nodding, fidgeting, and wiggling you are doing in your life and in your scene work. Try reducing it or eliminating it and see how it affects the power dynamic of your interactions.
3) Use The Biggest Levers in Your Body.
Put your hands above your hips and feel around the back to your spine. Notice that there is no joint there! I call this the fictitious, pernicious waist joint. Did a fashion designer come up with this? Bending from your waist is like using the emergency brake on your car every time you want to slow down or stop – awkward, clunky and eventually you’ll blow it out.
Instead, use the biggest levers of your body, the HIP JOINTS. To find those, put your hands on your glutes (i.e. your butt). Now feel under to where the legs attach to the pelvis. These are the most powerful – yet often underutilized – joints in the body.
When changing altitude, use these joints along with the knees and ankles. To increase your power, think squat and lunge, even when picking up your phone, purse or keys.
EXERCISE: Try picking up your keys off a low coffee table with your legs straight. Then try leaving your head, neck and back alone and just fold through the ankles, knees and hip joints. You can put a hand on the back of your neck to minimize the tension there and transfer it to your legs.
4) Walk into Auditions Contralaterally.
The weakest form of human locomotion is walking homo-laterally, that is same arm, same leg. This immediately signals that something’s wrong, which could be a good choice for a creepy predator on CSI, but it doesn’t projects power.
Humans are designed to walk contra-laterally, or opposite arm, opposite leg. However, it’s not just opposite arm, but opposite torso. In fact, the arms are just along for the ride. This easy spiral movement through the torso is hallmark of good coordination, health and confidence.
Due to fear, most actors walk into auditions with their torsos frozen. It immediately (and subconsciously) turns off casting directors. Instead, let your torso move with each step and notice how it changes your confidence as well as your performance.
EXERCISE: First try walking homo-laterally. Then try walking contra-laterally, but with the torso stiff or frozen. Now try walking with exaggerated movement through the torso, and let the arms swing freely, along for the ride. What happens?
5) Allow Your Breathing Mechanism to Work.
Nothing zaps energy more than holding your breath. And yet interfering with the natural breathing mechanism by sucking air in or forcing air out, also diminishes your power.
The secret is to let your body breath. Sounds simple, but it can be challenging. Some suggestions:
Soften the eyes. Let the world come into your eyes rather than you looking out at it.
Unlock the jaw. Remember that your jaw is double jointed – it releases out and down.
Release your knees. Locking any joint can create a domino effect, locking other joints and stiffening the body.
Stop sucking in your stomach. It doesn’t make you look better and it cuts off the breath as well as constricts all your vital organs.
EXERCISE: Sit comfortable or lay on the floor with a book under your head and knees bent. After an exhale, set an intention not to consciously inhale. Instead, wait until your body brings in the air. After it does, then wait for your body to exhale. See how long you can let your body breathe you, instead of you breathing your body.
6) Make Strong Physical Choices, Even for Weak Characters or Moments
A common complaint I hear from the other side of the camera is that actors tend to make weak choices. There are, of course, situations in which playing with the lack of power is effective. However, actors too often lapse into powerlessness, by collapsing or constricting themselves. This can easily close us off the actor, and prevent the audience from coming on the journey with them.
Excess tension and collapse are perhaps an actor’s greatest threats. They cause performers not only to lose their power, but to lose each other, to lose the moment as well as their audience. And when actors do ‘try’ to be powerful, they ‘reach’ to generate the emotion and/or ‘push’ it through the congestion, coming across as muted, inauthentic or even melodramatic.
These actors tend not to get cast. Take note of the posture and movement quality of the actors who make it to the screen, especially in the lead roles. There are exceptions, but most have good to excellent use. It’s rather Darwinian – selection of the fittest or those that are in the best psycho-physical shape.
EXERCISE: Recall a sad story from your life. Tell it to a class, video camera or a friend. Tell it the first time, collapsing and constricting into yourself (slouching, hunching, tensing, etc.). Now tell it again, and stay up and available to your audience. Fight against the urge to ‘go down.’ Compare the footage and/or check in with the audience to learn how the two approaches came across.
7) Practice Good Posture in Your Life
I find that if actors are using themselves well in their lives, they can play both powerful characters and weak characters. Actors with poor posture have a hard time rising to the challenge of alpha stature. It’s much easier to shrink yourself down than to suddenly bolster your strength.
In regards to nature vs. nurture, we are not all created equally. Each of us is given a genetic range of psycho-physical power. We can’t change our height or bone-structure (non-surgically), for example. Yet, we can strive to maximize the range of psycho-physical power that we are given.
EXERCISE: Practice Constructive Rest every day by lay on your back for 10-15 minutes on the (carpeted) floor. Place a book under your head (to bring it level with the spine) and bend your knees with feet on the ground. Don’t do anything. See how much tension and stress you can UNDO by releasing into gravity.
Brett Hershey is a full-time, AMSAT certified Alexander Technique (AT) Instructor and Consultant in the Los Angeles area. He is highly effective at improving posture, eliminating pain and increasing performance quality of entertainment professionals – actors, directors, producers, supermodels, stand-up comedians, dancers, etc. as well as students from all walks of life.