Spock, Snowden and Hawking: The Inner Volume of Silence
There is a common misnomer when talking
about acting around the concept of "doing nothing". It's when an actor is still and not speaking and we are left to stare at their face hopefully wondering what they are thinking. Sometimes this is just a moment in time or can extend through an entire performance. The direction or coaching can often be heard as , "I don't want you to do anything. No acting!" To many a performer this direction can drive them absolutely crazy. It's a bit like trying to meditate when unpracticed. Instead of clearing your mind all it does is invite anxiety.
On the outside an audience member may watch such moments and think, "Well, I could do that!" Perhaps true. With the right director and self-discipline anyone can stand or sit still and supposedly let the audience come to them. For this to work, of course, everything around said performer must be built entirely around them forming a context around that stillness. An entire world working overtime so that we have already built in our minds everything going on in their head. We, the audience, are complicit in that performance. But that is more directing and editing than acting.
(The Kuleshov Effect of editing and emotion)
Acting is doing, as they say, so when it comes time to "unplug" all that apparatus many an actor is left grappling internally.
The misconception of "doing nothing" is that literally the actor thinks they should go to zero. Zero thoughts, zero intentions, just go blank. As an exercise it can be useful and I'll explain why. But as a building block to performance it offers us...well, zero.
As the title of this post suggests, I have three current examples of characters who use their immense stillness and silence to fill the screen. All three are intensely different in their situations and approaches and yet all manage to captivate with their presences.
We had the unfortunate loss recently of the great Leonard Nimoy who famously portrayed the Vulcan character, Spock, in the sci-fi franchise 'Star Trek'. The Vulcan race were written as people of pure logic. Therefore any actor taking on such a character is faced with the obstacle of being wooden and robotic. When Nimoy took on the role he came with a background of being trained as a "method" actor. To over-simplify, the Method uses various techniques in order to spark memory in the actor to bring them back to a point where they are re-living the emotion of an event. Then, when that emotion is awakened they apply the feelings to the given scene they are performing.
As you can suspect, "doing nothing" must have been a daunting notion to the young Nimoy. To his own admission, each time he spoke they had to go back again because his delivery was too laced in opinion and emotional bias even if subtle. When simply saying "fascinating" he had to subtract any trace of the sublime normally attached to such a dynamic word. It can be a bit like surfing. You're told to relax and ride the waves as they are crashing all about you.
What's provocative in his performance isn't "doing nothing" but rather the contrast of one who feels so much and contains that in his body and speech. You see, when we are told to do nothing what is actually taking place is a very complex and dynamic resistance. We innately have a reaction, an opinion or a want to do something. When those options are removed from your toolkit you are left with simply intentions. If built inside the actor, as it was in Nimoy's training, then we are seeing the residual trail of all those intentions and it can actually be felt on-screen. But without building an internal engine of profound desires that are sublimated then all we are watching is the actuality of an actor doing nothing. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, "Nothing is as nothing does."
The second example is somewhat unconventional as it comes from a documentary and not a "performance" as we have come to understand it. In 'Citizen Four', Edward Snowden has set an ultra-secretive meeting with journalists from the Guardian newspaper. A former contractor for the NSA, he is about to unveil classified documents to the journalists with the potential of great reprimand to himself and his loved ones.
On the outside, Snowden looks pretty casual. He even laughs lightly here and there as he schools the reporters in the expansive spy-craft of the NSA. The scenes play out like a real-life version of 'The Conversation' decades before. As Snowden talks he stops suddenly to hear a distant fire alarm and wonders if they've been detected. He checks the hotel phone to see if it's un-plugged, takes out laptop SIM cards and is constantly inquiring about their safe guards. But these are all actions.
What's most provocative about Snowden is watching him listen. Again, while it appears he is simply still and non-reactive there are a thousand thoughts and emotions running
through him. It's not that he doesn't have anything to say, far from it, but rather that he is learned to be so calculated on what information he is getting versus what he is giving up. That means there is a palpable tension between what one is doing and what one is feeling and saying.
When Snowden speaks it is casual with a light, Texan lilt that seems almost by design to comfort the voices struggling inside of him. In the film he is aided by the context of circumstances, music and editing but make no mistake that there is a complex and troubled star at the center of this tense documentary.
My third example actually had the benefit of winning the Academy Award for Best Actor. This may seem like low-hanging fruit as an instructive but Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in 'The Theory of Everything' got a few knocks for winning. It's not that his performance wasn't excellent, it was, but the common theory of the Oscars is that playing handicapped is a handicap. I would like to take a moment and focus less on the Eddie's portrayal of ALS and its debilitating arc over the picture and more on what he was left with as an actor when so much physicality was removed.
Again, we start with a character with A LOT to say. My goodness, it's not called 'The Theory of Everything' for nothing. Redmayne, by nature, is an emotive actor. It is no surprise to me that the film took the angle of a love story. That in itself creates a provocative contrast. An imposing intellectual brimming with ideas who's existence depends on love. In watching the performance one can get caught up focusing on the ticks of Redmayne's physicality. A tremor in the hand here and then the crooked knee...to suddenly losing whole aspects of his body's ability to function.
If the complex research and development of Hawking's condition were at the heart of his performance I don't think he walks away with a little gold statue.
It's the creation of an essence that makes his Hawking so stunning as the film wears on. It's the removal of options as a performer. As his ability to speak normally gets worse and worse you see behind Hawking's eyes a flicker. His passion that was built on determination and ambition is welling inside of him and has to filter itself through the tiniest holes of expression.
In fact, when interviewed, Radmayne was asked if it was hard to perform the demanding physical task of embodying that debilitation. Eddie effused quickly, "No! It was the stillness that was exhausting!" Stillness. Exhausting. Yes. Because it was the immense restraint of "not doing" in the face of so much passion and ambition. With much to say and the diminished ability to do so down to the blink of an eye. Even in that curled, frozen physique he was channeling all his emotion and intelligence through a pin prick. By all accounts, even as he was wheeled in towards the end of the movie, he was communicating through just being.
When actors start out they are excited and brimming with ideas. This can lead to a somewhat spastic explosion of unorganized thoughts and feelings careening across the stage and on set. The direction, "just do nothing" can be quite valuable in order to simplify and steady them. It invites reflection and brings forth the realization that we are always making choices whether we like it or not. Inevitably, after such a direction, the actor can't help but start to enact decisions either pre-formed or in the moment.
But to the professional, "doing nothing" is a delicate and deliberate state. It's a letting go and allowing the built intention of the character come through in the guise that nothing is going on. It's having a world wrestling inside you and controlling its ability to speak.
It may be saying nothing but it's telling us everything.