This article, more than most others I have written, requires a disclaimer. Below is a group of dangerous ideas regarding how I believe actors can use their eyes as a storytelling tool. It is not based on a method of acting. It is not a guaranteed way to be a better actor. In fact, consciously trying to do anything with your eyes while acting will probably make you worse. Much worse. So please read with caution.
One of the biggest mistakes early career actors make is maintaining excessive amounts of eye contact with their scene partner. I get it. Your acting coach has told you over and over again that “Acting is about listening.” And it is! But it’s also about responding to what you hear. We respond with our voices, bodies, and eyes.
Allow yourself to break eye contact while listening and responding, it’s natural.
Rehearsal exercise: Find the keywords in your partner’s dialogue that prompt you to respond; avoid eye contact until you hear them.
Conversely, don’t shy away from eye contact. A sure sign of bad acting is when an actor darts their eyes constantly and can’t commit to what they are thinking about. Don’t be afraid of being direct. Clear thoughts will lead to clear acting, let your eyes take care of themselves.
Directors often say “Just have the thought.”. This is intended to allow actors to let their body, face, and eyes respond naturally to whatever is happening in the scene. But how do you “Just have the thought.’?
Breath: Take the focus of reacting off your eyes and into your body. As humans we organically respond to new information with our breath.
Emotion: How do you feel about what you’ve just heard? Don’t sit in that feeling, but allow it to inform your next move. Your eyes will follow.
Focus: I often see actors staring at a prop or person, not breathing, trying to force an emotional response out of their body and on to the stage. Try shifting your gaze from your scene partner, to a prop, and back again. You might find that the small change generates something interesting in your performance.
An actor’s eyes are a powerful tool for endowing other characters with status. If you are playing a servant, consider avoiding eye contact with your master until it is absolutely necessary. If you are playing a master, consider only making eye contact with those you believe are of equal status. If a character is beautiful, you might look at them in awe, or jealousy could make make you look away. Remember to keep these choices functional so that your performance doesn’t become self indulgent and ruin the story.
Your eyes are the gateway to your soul. They are also a murky pathway to abhorred acting. Make sure you are confident in holding eye contact, but don’t overthink it. Like with most acting training, there is a period of self awareness, but then you have to let it go. Don’t get caught up thinking about your eyes, you’re insecure enough.