When I was a boy, I took boxing lessons. This was at a time when boxing was still a mainstream sport: colleges had boxing teams, and boys in my hometown of Washington, D.C. would hang around Goldie’s Gym and learn how to make the left jab, the right cross, the uppercut, and, when they had more experience, Kid Gavilan’s famous bolo punch.
What I learned from my boxing lessons, however, was not punching so much as seeing. We were taught to train our eyes fiercely upon our opponent, to scan his every muscle and every twitch, and try to figure out the strategies that lay behind every shift of his head and target of his gaze. We were trained to make decisions by the millisecond: to “hit him when he blinks” and throw the right cross at just the moment his left hand started to droop. The most important muscles in boxing, we discovered, were not in the upper arms but the eye sockets.
It’s the same in acting. Like boxing, drama is based in conflict. And while that conflict rarely escalates to actual fisticuffs, it almost always involves characters engaging in actions that seek to force, persuade, or seduce other human beings into doing things they would otherwise not do. Taking these actions, however, initially involves a moment-to-moment examination of the behavior of those persons who have become the target of the character’s interest. And that’s where the eyes become crucial. Whether characters are trying to capture one another’s affections (as with Romeo and Juliet), or defeat one another in an argument (as Cassius with Brutus), or persuade another character to reverse course (as Lady Macbeth does with her husband), the actors playing these roles, if they are to act convincingly, must be seen by the audience as continuously trying to penetrate the mind of the other character, so as to adjust their own efforts and tactics accordingly. When that happens, the actor uses his or her eyes exactly as a boxer does—to hunt out another person’s intentions, defenses, desires, and fears.
Nor does the boxer use his eyes merely to perceive the incipient actions of his opponent. He also uses them to intimidate. The darting glare of Rocky Graziano and the ferocious gaze of Rocky Marciano conveyed images of unconquerable strength associated with the champions’ adopted names (both were actually named Rocco). The goofy, cockeyed smile of Muhammad Ali, when he floated “like a butterfly” and mockingly circled his bedraggled opponents, dared them to step into a flurry of punches. Our eyes are both perceptive and aggressive: tools that help us not merely see what lies before us but to change what we see.
Seeing is therefore purposeful, not passive. We read people’s intentions by interpreting what we see them seeing. We make eye contact with them to assess their sincerity and evaluate their emotional commitment to the words that come out of their mouths. Famous studies stress the importance of eye contact in job interviews, and experiments clearly reveal that applicants who engage in it are rated as “more alert, assertive, dependable, confident, responsible, and possessing greater initiative” than candidates who are seen as “looking down their noses” or acting “shifty-eyed.” Indeed, as British director (and prominent acting theorist) Declan Donnellan puts it, “Acting is a question of what we see. For the actor, we are what we see.”
Thus what actors do with their eyes characterizes their roles. When truly engaging with the other characters in the play—that is, when anticipating, judging, admiring, scaring, attracting, dismissing, and penetrating them—an actor’s eyes, and the way she employs them, will tell us as much or more about her character as does her costume, makeup, diction, accent, movements, and, in many cases, even her words. For, as in life, the way we look at people may tell us about them, but it also tells others about us.
Human evolution has given our species a gaze that is particularly easy to read and interpret. “Humans wear the mark of their shared intentionality,” explains developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello, by “a small but significant feature—the whites of their eyes, which are three times larger than those of any other primate, presumably to help others follow the direction of gaze. Indeed, chimps infer the direction of gaze by looking at another’s head, but infants do so by watching the eyes.”
Yet strangely, the most common problem we see among inexperienced actors is that they tend to perform with glassy, vacant eyes, saying their lines with eyelids half-closed and a gaze focused on the floor or out into empty space. If they were boxers, they would be lying on the mat in the first ten seconds of the bout. If they were seeking a job, they would be shown the door. And when they are playing characters, the audience will have a hard time not falling asleep—for if the play’s characters don’t feel it necessary to look at what’s happening around them, why should we? As Stanislavsky said, “Empty eyes are the mirror of an empty soul… It is important that an actor’s eyes, his gaze, his glance, reflect the size, the depth of his creative mind.