You’re one or the other. No actor is born in the perfect equilibrium between those two positions. We move to that equilibrium over time, and the closer we get to it, the better actors we become. But we don’t start out there. You naturally fall on one side of the fence or the other.
The overactors are the ones who chew the scenery. Who perform like silent film actors from the early days of Hollywood. Who apparently want to be absolutely sure that you understand what they are trying to communicate, and so go bigger and broader than a circus clown.
The underactors? The majority of the population, they are the ones who’ve seen the overactors at work and been embarrassed on their behalf. They’re the actors you can’t remember after the performance. They use film school techniques that never even make it to the footlights, much less beyond them into the audience. They aren’t terrible, they’re just uninteresting. The overactors at least keep you awake.
The actors who occupy that space between the overactors and underactors have the best qualities of both types. They have energy and life and keep you interested in watching, but they never push their performances to the point where they become unbelievable. In fact, they can go further than the overactor and still keep the audience with them precisely because they have grounded their performance in the underactor’s naturalistic sensibilities. They are natural without being milquetoasts.
Which are you? If no one has ever told you, you may not know. But if you have an opinion as to which type of actor is the “worst” to be, it’s probably a safe bet that you’re the other one. For instance, if you’re inclined to say, “Well, if I’ve got to be one or the other, I’d rather be the overactor, because at least I won’t be boring!”, then you probably are an overactor by nature.
Or if you have someone you can persuade to be honest with you, ask them. “If you had to call me one or the other, would you call me an overactor or an underactor?” If your friend doesn’t understand the distinction, then ask this, “When you’ve seen me perform, have you ever thought I was exaggerating things just a bit? Going “over the top”? Trying too hard?” If the answer is “yes”, you’re an overactor.
Why does it matter? It’s important to understand your own tendencies, because they help you to know what you need to work on as you learn your craft. If you know you’re an overactor, for instance, you’ll be more open to a teacher asking you to get more in touch with your inner life. If you don’t know that about yourself, you’ll reject his suggestions. If you know you’re an underactor, you’ll push yourself on the stakes question a little more than you otherwise would.
Even after you’ve honed your skills, you’ll always need to pay attention to your natural inclinations on an ongoing basis. I’m an underactor by nature, so I have to consciously give myself permission to let loose, to go out of my comfort zone, to make things bigger and to trust that if I go too far, my director will let me know. Knowing my own limitations actually frees me to be more creative!
(Incidentally, can you tell who is the overactor and who is the underactor in the photo above?)