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The Language of the Face: An Interview with John Sudol


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John Sudol has worn many different hats in the Entertainment Industry, as an Actor, Director, Casting Director, Teacher, and he also ran his own Theatre Company in Seattle. For the last 12 years, John has been exploring and teaching a method that he calls “The Language Of The Face”.

The first seed was planted after an audition when John couldn’t give a Director what he wanted. The Director gave John a re-direct a few times, and John left the audition feeling frustrated that nowhere in his tool-box did he have a tool to give the Director what he wanted.

Later, when John became a Commercial Casting Director, he realized that one of the hardest things for an actor to do, was to come into the audition room and give a certain reaction, and even harder was for the actor to give a series of reactions. He noticed that the actors who were successful were doing 4 things:

  1. What was on their face when they did a reaction was recognizable
  2. What was on their face was appropriate; not too big or too small
  3. They moved from one reaction to the next, one thought at a time
  4. They had the ability to repeat exactly what they did

THE 7 UNIVERSAL EMOTIONS

Through research, John found that there are 7 universal emotions that people anywhere on the planet will recognize:

  1. Surprise
  2. Fear
  3. Anger
  4. Sadness
  5. Disgust
  6. Contempt
  7. Happy

As John talked to actors about what they studied, he found that most actors were learning the art of “doing”. They took Improv classes, Acting classes, Voice and Diction classes, Movement classes. But most actors had not studied the nature and experience of an emotion, from subtle to extreme, and how that translates to the face. We all have been taught how to “manage” our emotions…we are taught when we feel it, how we feel it and where we feel it. But, we are never taught, “this is what it looks like”. John said if he knew how to interpret what that Director was asking of him, he could have said, “Oh, you’re talking about loss”.

If there is a distortion between what you feel and what your face is revealing, booking becomes very difficult. People often don’t realize what is on their face.

  • Some peoples face doesn’t say anything
  • Some peoples face talks a little bit
  • Some peoples face talks a lot
  • Some peoples face doesn’t shut up

Most actors are taught that there are two means of emotional communication; through the body and through the voice. But there are three means of non-verbal communication:

  1. The Body
  2. The Voice
  3. The Face

Stanislavski didn’t want to deal with emotions because he thought they were unreliable. One day you will be thinking of a certain situation and feel angry, and the next day you will be thinking about the same situation and feel sad. But, John believes that emotions are incredibly reliable if you use the correct trigger and you know how to guide them.

The actor who comes in and knows how to repeat it, repeat it, repeat it, does it intuitively. If the correct trigger is used each time…the “loss” trigger each time…and focus on that “loss”, that guides you to “sad” and you will have “sad” every time. The actor will know what it feels like and will know how it’s changing on their face. The trigger always has to come from the emotional side first, always stimulus-response. You’re creating it, but your instrument is in alignment with that emotion.

THE 4 MYTHS

  1. It’s all in the eyes
  2. You can move your eyes left and right, you can look up and down and you can role them around in a circle. But the eyes themselves are not expressing emotions. It is the muscles around the eyes…the lids, the brow, the cheekbone, the lips…that reveal the emotion.

  3. On-camera acting is a matter of making stage acting smaller
  4. The difference between a theatre actor and an on-camera actor is not about being too big or too small, it is about working truthfully. There is always a stimulus and response, and are you being appropriate for this venue…what is the “tone” of the show. The “tone” is different on a Nickelodeon show from the “tone” on a CBS show. And the theatre actor may find that what they are doing on-stage is appropriate for the broader acting style of a Nickelodeon show.

  5. If I create it truthfully, honestly, organically it will appear on my face appropriately
  6. Most actors are taught that if they listen to the other actor and focus on the circumstances, that what appears on their face will be appropriate. But, if an actor is feeling an emotion, but it is not coming across on his face, then he thinks he is doing something wrong.

  7. Just think the thought and it will be revealed on your face

Thank goodness this is not true! We have a lot of thoughts that are not automatically revealed on our face. A thought is important and is the impetus to action. But, a thought not connected to a strong idea or opinion will not change your face. But, if you have a thought that has a strong enough opinion, it will change your face. On the flip side, a facial reaction without a thought is an acting lie.

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