I remember the first time where the power of acting really moved me in ways I never expected. I was a teenager watching, Good Will Hunting for the first time, and I witnessed the magnificence of Robin William’s acting. There was something about it that was so captivating: something I could never quite put my finger on at the time. Something magical. Recently (after deciding to watch the movie again for the millionth time) I think I found the secret. Even during the most intense and emotional scene, the guy doesn’t move. Almost never. He is still even when he shouldn’t be. He just sits there in his stillness, and yet still manages to pack a punch with every word he says. You lean in and listen as if he were right there next to you.
The intentional use of stillness in acting can be a powerful and expressive tool to convey emotions, thoughts, tension, and subtext. It involves a deliberate choice by the actor to momentarily pause or limit movement in order to emphasise a specific moment, emotion, thought or narrative element within a performance. Sometimes it feels counterintuitive to deploy stillness; however, proper usage of this technique is undeniably powerful.
Whether you are an acting veteran and a fresh eyed beginning, learning the art of stillness can take your craft to new heights, and impress those around you whilst doing as little as humanly possible.
The Demystifying the Mystery of Stillness
In the realm of acting, where movement, emotion, and expression often take centre stage, the concept of stillness might seem counterintuitive, yet ever since I realised the potential of using stillness as a tool, I have been obsessed.
I’ve rewatched some of my favourite shows, monologues, scenes and they all have essence of this stillness. The actor barely moves, and yet I can’t look away. I can’t focus on anything else, and then when they do move, there’s such power in it. So what does stillness mean for an actor in technical terms? After talking to different actors, directors, and coaches, the summary I give for stillness in acting is:
Keep in mind however that stillness is not just a lack of action, where the actor displays a lack of energy, laziness, or absence of craft or skill. If anything it is the opposite, stillness is a dynamic and purposeful technique that draws the audience’s attention to the internal world of the character, allowing for a deeper understanding of their thoughts and emotions.
Why Stillness is So Powerful, and How to Use it
Stillness in acting can be likened to a pause in a musical composition; It’s a moment of suspension that adds weight and significance to the surrounding actions and dialogue.
Just as a well-placed pause in a conversation can convey meaning and anticipation, the strategic use of stillness in acting allows us actors to communicate complex emotions and thoughts without uttering a word. In these moments, the audience is compelled to fill in the gaps with their own interpretations. And this, in turn, fosters a deeper engagement with the narrative.
So how do us actors achieve such a state? For an acting tool that requires you to do less, it sure does require much. Here are eight actionable steps you can take to achieve stillness when you act.
#1 Internalisation and Emotional Connection
Before you can effectively use stillness to convey emotions, internalise the character’s emotional landscape. Take time to immerse yourself in the character’s history, motivations, thoughts, beliefs, and conflicts. Understand what they want: what drives them, what holds them back, and why they do the things they do. By establishing a strong emotional connection with the character, you can authentically channel their emotions through stillness.
#2 Stillness as Active Choice
Stillness should never be mistaken for inaction. It’s a conscious, active choice made to emphasise a moment, an emotion, or a thought. Consider the context of the scene and identify the points where stillness could serve to enhance the narrative. Is it a moment of tension before a revelation? Is it a reflective pause after a moment of realisation? Maybe it’s your character putting up a barrier while they internalise bad thoughts. By recognising these opportunities, you can utilise stillness to punctuate the scene effectively.
#3 Use of Breath and Physical Awareness
Breath is a potent tool that can help maintain focus and authenticity during moments of stillness. Pay attention to your breath as you hold a pose or maintain eye contact. Allow your breath to mirror the character’s emotional state. Is it shallow and rapid due to anxiety? Perhaps it’s slow and controlled in a moment of calm? Or is it all over the place because the characters feelings are in disarray?
By syncing your breath with the character’s emotions, you enhance the stillness with a subtle yet powerful layer of realism. The same goes for your physical movements. Stillness is not just doing nothing with your body, but rather being intentional with your movements. Move (or don’t) as your character would move in the scene and space.
#4 Subtext and Intention
Stillness can communicate subtext and intention more effectively than spoken words. Consider what lies beneath the surface of the dialogue. What are the unspoken thoughts and desires of the character? Use stillness to emphasise these hidden layers.
For example: a character’s smile may hide sadness, and their gaze may betray longing. Perhaps they are trying to hold back laughter, or even hiding disdain for the character they are talking to but for whatever reason can’t express it outwardly. By employing stillness, you allow the audience to decipher these subtleties and engage in the narrative on a deeper level.
#5 Timing and Rhythm
Like a well-composed piece of music, acting requires a sense of timing and rhythm. For me, I see stillness (and acting in general) as jazz, where stillness can play a crucial role in the pacing of a performance.
Experiment with different durations of stillness to create tension and rhythm, the same way a jazz musician plays around with the rhythm of the music they are playing. A brief pause might build anticipation, while an extended moment of stillness could signify introspection or revelation, then no pause at all could reflect panic. Perhaps your character just heard awful news, or have been given an impossible choice. Would they react straight away, or would they take a beat and pause?
Varying the timing of stillness keeps the audience engaged and allows you to control the emotional arc of the scene and character. Remember also there is no “correct” time to use stillness necessarily. If it feels right then flow with it, but keep in mind that if you use stillness every time it may become monotonous. Experiment with timing and rhythm and after a while you will get a feel for when it is time to react, or a time to be still.
#6 Active Listening, Reacting, and Contrast
Stillness is not limited to solo moments. It can also be a potent tool in scenes involving dialogue or interaction with two or more characters. Practice active listening and reacting whilst keeping still. By immersing yourself in the other actor’s words and responding through thoughtful stillness, you create an intense exchange of emotions and unspoken communication.
Your stillness becomes a mirror for the emotions being expressed, emphasising the connection between characters. It is as if the stillness itself becomes a conversation all on its own. Also the stillness of one actor, allows space for the physicality of their scene partner. This helps give the scene depth, creates power structures and defines relationships. Take the opening scene from Inglorious Bastards for example:
#7 Creating Physicality and Gestures
Stillness doesn’t necessarily mean complete immobility. Consider incorporating subtle physical movements and gestures to enhance the stillness. These actions should be deliberate and purposeful, contributing to the character’s emotional state, attitude, or the scene’s dynamics. A slight shift in weight, a gentle touch, or a carefully timed gesture can amplify the emotional impact of a scene.
Take this scene from No Country for Old Men for example. The subtle gestures, movements and eating of nuts (you’ll see), show the audience how each character is feeling, and their attitude to one another, with out ever saying so:
#8 Rehearsal and Experimentation
Just like any skill that will level up your acting game, stillness may take some time to perfect. Even more-so if you’re a crazy extrovert like me and have a natural inclination to give or express an action for every feeling, word and thought that I have.
Mastering the art of stillness requires practice and experimentation. So rehearse your scenes with various levels of stillness and explore how each choice influences the scenes dynamics. See how it feels using next to no stillness first, then experiment with different postures, facial expressions, and breathing patterns to find the most compelling and authentic approach for each moment. Once you have had a play a round with it, take that stillness to a max level. From here, you should find a range—and therefore temperance between the two extremes.
It’s not about freezing because you forgot your lines, froze due to stage fright, or felt like taking a break on stage (or screen). Stillness is about making a deliberate and impactful choice that enhances the emotional depth of a performance. When we, as actors, are still and present, we let the scene unfold and become what it is naturally. If a scene is supposed to be tense, we don’t need to act tense, we just have to be. If the scene is funny, we don’t have to be funny, we just have to follow the beats. It is a powerful technique however you do not have to use it all of the time. How much stillness you incorporate will depend on the character, scene, and story you are telling. Some characters can suffer some too little movement, where others will thrive.
It is human to express yourself physically, but it is also human to hold in and internalise your feelings too. This is why I believe us humans find stillness on stage and screen captivating: it is the closest we would get to real life. Stillness often lies in the realm of realism, therefore it is subconsciously, something us humans recognise and can relate to. So use the tool well, experiment, and witness the difference stillness can to your performances.