Actors are often so busy studying different delivery techniques and learning audition materials, that they often overlook one simple, yet important factor in their acting tool belt – their facial expressions. Although not that important for live-action theatre projects, facial expressions are essential for nailing auditions for feature films and television work (both episodic and commercial projects).
For on-camera work, especially television, facial close-ups are pretty much the norm. Sit down and watch a TV show (preferably a drama), and you will notice that there are countless close-up shots of the actors’ faces, and the multitude of emotions that they are feeling. Because of this, in order to really ace these types of auditions, you must not only be intimately familiar with the material, but you also need to make sure that your facial expressions properly match the tone that you are trying to convey with your performance. To help you do this, here are some handy tips that can drastically change the quality of your auditions.
Tip 1 – Sit in front of a mirror
Easier said than done, right? Regardless if you’re actually preparing for a specific audition, sit in front of a mirror and stare at that gorgeous reflection of yours. Play around with different facial expressions, run the gambit (happy, said, irked, etc). Pay particular attention to every little feature during each emotion – how the lines in your face crease, whether or not you have dimples, and how your eyes and brow react, to name a few. You may feel (and look) a little silly while doing this, but this is the quickest and most effective way to analyze your facial expressions.
Tip 2 – Determine what works and doesn’t work
Now that you’ve been staring at yourself in the mirror, it’s time to determine what actually works and doesn’t work about your face, so to speak. How does your face look when you make certain emotions? Are your facial expressions “normal” looking or a bit odd? How do you look when you laugh? What about when you cry? Most people probably don’t go rushing to a mirror when they are experiencing heightened emotions, and thus are typically unaware of how their faces actually look. But as an actor, you NEED to know how you’ll look when you, for example, cry because when you are on camera, everything will be magnified. Simply put, take note of which emotions/reactions cause your face to look “weird”, that way you can work on avoiding and adjusting how your face responds. Have you ever watched an actor’s face on television and or film and thought to yourself, “ Wow, he does not look pretty when he cries”? Those are the kinds of faces you need be wary of…
Tip 3 – Natural vs. Unnatural
Once you’ve identified which facial features you need to adjust, it’s time to play around with them some more! Actors should be able to whip out facial expressions that are both natural and unnatural. By natural, I mean that for most of your reactions, you should aim to respond like you normally would if it happened to you in the real world (as opposed to a scripted one). A common new actor mistake is to overact when it comes to their reactions, i.e. coming off as extra sad or extra excited in a scene, even though the material doesn’t necessarily call for it. Because of this, your facial reactions, for the most part, should always aim to mirror your real-world reactions.
Of course, you’re still an actor, so you should also be able to create/alter your facial expressions when need be. Sometimes material will require you to internalize certain emotions and feelings. Of course being able to convey such internal conflict, especially on camera, is easier said than done, but it is something that all good actors must strive for. By now, you should already be pretty familiar with your facial expressions, and which ones you need to improve. Although these expressions may come naturally to you, if they look weird on camera, you need to work on adjusting them, which may feel a bit unnatural. Here’s a good exercise – practice crying on command (another important actor skill). When you’re in front of a mirror, break down and have a big cry, aiming for how you would normally cry in the real world. Once you’ve completed that exercise, cry on command again, but this time hold it all in. Let the emotions well up inside you and trickle out in the form of tears in your eyes, but don’t let it all out at once. This more “controlled” cry may seem kind of unnatural at first, but it is the type of cry that one commonly sees on television and film. Give it a try. Once you finish that, try this same exercise with other emotions!
Tip 4 – Telling a story with your face
Back in the olden days when films used to be silent, actors relied solely on their facial expressions and bodily movements to convey their feelings. Because of this, everything had to be over exaggerated, and rightly so. With the advent of sound, there is little need for such hysterics, but the idea of being able to convey a story with just your face has not changed. The overall goal with this mirror training is to literally be able to convey a wealth of information, just by the creases on your face and the twinkle in your eyes. Once you master these techniques, get ready for your close-up!