The Power of Stillness in Acting

Photo credit: Fabrizio Maffei /

The “Actor’s Foundry” webinar led by master teacher Matthew Harrison delves into the topic of stillness in acting. Stillness, in this context, goes beyond simply not moving while in frame, but is more so defined as internalizing the character’s emotions rather than outwardly expressing them. Stillness refers to the way characters hide their feelings. “The way you hide your feelings tells the audience who you are,” Harrison explains.

Internally compressing vs. Externally expressing emotions

“The whole point of stillness is the compression of the conflict or the emotion,” Harrison insists.

If an actor fully expresses the character’s emotions with physicality, then those emotions are easy for the audience to observe. For example, the outward expression of rage might be manifested with stomping and yelling while knocking over objects. On the other hand, to whatever degree a character refrains From outwardly expressing those emotions, the intensity of those emotions does not simply disappear; Rather, it gets tucked inside, but is no less powerful. “There’s this vibration happening on the inside of the actor, and it vibrates inside of you [as an audience member] because you have to actually become part of it because you lean in [to understand the performance]. That’s what stillness is,” Harrison asserts.

The ratio of compressed to expressed

While stillness and outward expression are at opposite ends of the spectrum, in both instances, the intensity of feeling is 100 percent. However, Harrison emphasizes that an actor might choose any ratio of compression to expression. Let’s say an enraged character holds back 25 percent of his charge. That rage would be revealed as 75 percent physical expression and 25 percent hidden, equaling 100 percent total. In other words, no matter what ratio an actor chooses, the end result should always amount to 100 percent intensity of feeling. Ultimately, the goal of stillness is for the audience to be able to read all of the character’s emotions and expressions, even when deliberately hidden.

Code for “You need more stillness.”

The following director notes indicate that an actor’s performance will benefit from more compression:

“Can you bring it down a bit?”

“Let’s do it again, and not so much this time.”

“It’s a little theatrical.”


Harrison translates these notes as, “Yeah, it’s actually not real. Like, you’re acting … and so can you just do it for real?” While it can sting a bit to hear this feedback, if taken to heart and addressed, the results can be transformative.

The power of stillness

Harrison insists there is tremendous power in withholding the outward expression of feelings: “Stillness in a frame, stillness in your acting can be your best friend in a lot of ways because when you’re still in the frame, the audience has to work, they have to lean in and become active in your work to figure out what’s going on with you … And when you’re still in a frame, sometimes the power of your eyes, and the stillness of your eyes, and what’s happening in your socially The engaged system allows us to really penetrate the two dimensions and become part of your thinking and become part of who you are.” Examples of stillness in film include the Oscar-winning performances of Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea” and Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies.”

Too much stillness

Stillness does not fit all circumstances. Harrison warns, “A lot of actors use stillness as a crutch or as a trick to try to get through a scene when really nothing much is happening. And a lot of actors [expressively] underplay scenes.” Expressive acting is no less powerful than stillness when it’s called for in a scene. “Behavior and movement and physicality and articulation and expression can be your best friend,” Harrison explains. “It can really telegraph to the audience the fullness of who you are, what you’re doing, and what’s going on inside of you, and can be appropriate for the scene, and can be the right thing to do and the right approach. ” That being said, resorting to too much expression or too much stillness can become somewhat of a habit.

So, he urges talent to know their tendency. There’s a delicate dance between the two approaches that needs to be taken into consideration. But knowing what fits the scene can be difficult to figure out. The misunderstanding some actors have is that they do nothing. “And if they do nothing, and they sit still, then it’s just a lie. Then they’re simply boring.”

Elements to Consider

Harrison boils it down to this: “Your job [as an actor] is to be compressed or expressive based on the demands of the scene itself. And the compression of emotion can be a fabulous, interesting thing to watch.” Here are elements to consider when deciding which path to take: the genre and the style of the production, the character, the specific scene, the emotional truth, and whether it’s a tight or wide shot.

Also keep in mind, the character might be wildly expressive at some point in the production, and at other times be quite compressed depending on the number of factors at play.

Stillness Exercises

Harrison shares two stillness exercises he uses with his students:

Stillness Exercise 1:

Pair up with a partner and sit across from one another. Look at your partner and do not move for five minutes while maintaining focus, without doing anything.

Stillness Exercise 2:

This is a group activity. Harrison describes, “Each actor had to sit in front of the class and be rivetingly exciting and make us either weep or laugh … But they had to stand in class for three to five minutes doing nothing. Finding this stillness thing and how to get still was so fascinating. But it was predicated on the idea that it’s stillness on top of explosion… so it’s stillness over electricity. It’s calm over chaos … It becomes a matter of electric calm or controlled chaos. And so stillness is not stillness; it’s externally physicalized still on top of internalized chaos and confusion.”

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