Human beings are creatures that copy each other. We especially copy our movie stars - and movie stars are paid to copy us. Movie stars and stage performers have always both reflected and influenced cultural norms. With the advent of TV in the 1950s, this cycle of influence became especially strong. Many people watch TV on a daily basis, and actors have a major influence on our clothing fashions, speech habits, and importantly, our posture. Because the posture of actors is well-preserved in millions of reels of celluloid, this medium provides an interesting study of changing postural trends over the past century.
Classically trained actors are taught how to comport themselves. This training doesn’t necessarily cover the nuances of foot action in walking, or leg architecture in bending, or pelvic positioning that facilitates effortless stacking of the vertebrae, but it does prevent against slouching, hunching the shoulders, and protruding the head forward. An upright comportment is important to an actor for both presentation and performance. An upright stance draws the eye and is much more attractive than a slouchy stance; and being properly upright allows for deeper breathing and better circulation, which benefits the brain, the body, memory, the voice, and more. A strong postural base opens the range of possible characters and physicalities an actor can inhabit, whereas poor posture is a learned habit that limits an actor’s range. A proper stance also allows for mental and physical preparedness, allowing an actor to be in communication with the audience and reacting to the scene, rather than playing a more passive role.
Winona Ryder sitting upright with her pelvis anteverted, next to a crew member standing poorly with hips thrust forward.
The S.F. actor / director / acting coach Robert Weinapple, wrote the following after working with me in the 90’s:
….I found the work amazingly helpful and relevant in my everyday life and my work....
In my work as an actor, I approach each role very physically. I try to find a different physicality for each character I play, including posture, rhythm, ways of moving and center of gravity. The posture work was very helpful in making me aware of all these areas in a way I had not considered before, and I was able to apply this immediately and directly to my everyday character work.
In the show I was working on at the time of the class, I received many comments on the strong and effective physicality of the role I was portraying. In the play’s final scene, a very emotional reunion, I worked consciously in rehearsal on lengthening my spine as I stood (something Esther had specifically worked on with me). My brother, who is a Yoga instructor, commented after seeing the show that it was a stance that is very similar to a Yoga position, and that it had a powerful emotional effect on the audience and enhanced the impact of the scene.
Several friends have also commented that I seem to have a greater presence on stage, and one person has said I seem taller than before, both onstage and off.
Because many actors pass through acting schools, the general posture of actors on stage, TV, and in movies is better than the average in the population. Actors also mimic actors from the past, and for this reason too, often have better than average form. The first actors who starred in silent films lived during a time when healthy posture was the norm. It was second nature for them to move well. As each generation of actors studies those that came before them, they learn to comport themselves with many of the same physical characteristics exhibited by earlier actors.
Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday
To the modern eye, accustomed as it is to seeing people slump and slouch, the positions and movement patterns of older actors can sometimes look stiff and formal. Actually they are healthy, natural, and relaxed. Modern actors mimic these postures, probably from a desire to ‘look the part’ as well as a natural understanding of the benefits given to those with good posture—one of which is surely greater acting success. These lessons are then supplemented and reinforced by the teaching of good upper body positioning in many acting programs.
Classically trained Daniel Day-Lewis standing with shoulders back and an elongated neck in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The cast of Harry Potter on the movie poster, all upright with well-positioned shoulders and heads. Although the lead trio first came to Harry Potter as children, they received training as the series progressed.
At the Gokhale Method Institute, we’ve noticed that actors without classical training tend to have worse posture than actors with formal training.
Johnny Depp, who never received formal training, leaning over rounded and hunched, in contrast to Orlando Bloom who keeps his shoulders back while seated and Naomie Harris who stands with a commanding upright stance. Bloom trained at the British American Drama Academy, and Harris at the Anna Scher Theater School.
Untrained Lena Dunham standing rounded and hunched in comparison to a well-seated and collected looking Katie Lowes, who attended NYU Tisch
We also see a general worsening in the posture of our movie stars in modern times.
Notoriously talented but untrained Heath Ledger sitting rounded and hunched in 10 Things I Hate About You
It is hard to say whether this is because of the changing nature of acting roles, which often seek to portray average people in naturalistic ways, or the prevalence of bad form in the general population taking its toll; both are probably important factors.
Untrained Meg Ryan, in In The Land of Women, sitting hunched with rounded shoulders, mirroring the child actor.
We’re looking forward to reversing the trend of actors having poor baseline posture, as well as having to adopt poor posture to portray average characters! To continue this discussion, please name some actors or actresses whose posture you have wondered about. We will then look for pictures of them to critique here in the comment section.
Join us in an upcoming Free Workshop (online or in person).