Actors see vulnerability as a weakness; it’s actually a sign of strength. Vulnerability is present in every human conflict and at the center of meaningful portrayals. Characters that are genuinely open and transparent allow the audience to see them as they are, with both their passions and flaws showing. Such characters are magnetic, compelling, and memorable. However, convincing actors the value of this ingredient is an immense task as they have been schooled from day one to concentrate on strong characters, characters that are forceful, unyielding, and enterprising. While these are admirable traits, they do not produce authentic portrayals that fully resonate with the audience.
In addition, it takes courage for actors to reveal themselves to the audience. Vulnerability is an uncomfortable place and actors erect barriers to protect themselves. Actors are reluctant to expose their own personal flaws. Laying bare their weaknesses, even when disguised by a role can raise one’s anxiety level. Then there is the fear of being judged as to ones dramatic choices and their implementation, especially with limited guidelines on this topic. All these issues create a lot of ambiguity for the actor and stifle quality performances.
What is vulnerability, what does it look like, and how can it be nurtured and portrayed? These questions are seldom addressed in an actor’s training. Vulnerability is a nebulous subject and there is not a great deal of clarity on this ingredient. I will attempt to bring some sense to it.
What is vulnerability? From the actor’s viewpoint, vulnerability has to do with the forces, either internal or external, which move the character toward or into harm’s way. It is the propensity, either within the character or via outside manipulation, which creates the potential for pain. It is a state of being, that of being susceptible to receiving wounds, physical and physiological injury. It is expressed through a variety of senses.
There are several types of vulnerability. Innate vulnerability refers the biological uncertainty with which we are all born. At birth, we are highly vulnerable and as we grow, we develop mechanisms to deal with it. It is in our genetic makeup to be curious, to seek comfort, to affiliate with others. These and a multitude of other motivations fulfill our survival needs, but they can also make us vulnerable under precarious conditions.
Innate vulnerability interacts with the stresses in our environment. For instance, the impulse or tendency to feel excitement, both physical and cerebral can lead one to dangerous sports such as un-tethered rock climbing. The climber risks death for the exhilaration of the moment. Another example is the babysitter’s innate curiosity as to what is making that strange noise in the basement. Her vulnerability is tested, as she has the choice either disregarding her curiosity or investigating the noise. She perceives a threat yet risks harm to discover the answer.
In the above examples, the impact of the hazardous event is a function of exposure and sensitivity. If the rock climber were not sensitive to the thrill of rock climbing, he might not expose himself to this danger. Likewise, the babysitter sensitivity to her curiosity places her in a vulnerable positon where terrible things can happen. As you can see, innate vulnerability usually requires some triggering device or exposure to activate the sensitivity, the vulnerable trait. In addition, this vulnerability is closely associated with the biological motivations of the character. Vulnerable people tend to be more sensitive to triggering mechanisms and crisis exposure.
Cognitive vulnerability, another type, has to do with erroneous beliefs, bias thinking or patterns of thought that predispose the character to psychological problems. An example might be a CEO whose flawed austerity program results in financial collapse of his corporation. His vulnerability might be that he considers himself an authority on everything and rejects the suggestions by his subordinates. Another example regards a company supervisor who demeans women and ends up facing harassment charges. His bias thinking considers them inferior. The final example reflects a predisposition. An employee becomes so paranoid about losing his job that he becomes an illusional psychotic and shoots his boss plus several co-workers. His vulnerability might be that he believes the imagined more than reality.
Psychological manipulation can also influence vulnerability. Here deceptive and abusive tactics are used to change the victim’s perception or behavior. Often the manipulator’s interests are advanced at the expense of the victim. Such methods could be considered exploitative and devious. For the manipulation to work, aggressive intentions and behaviors should be concealed from the victim. In addition, to decide which tactics will work best, the manipulator must know the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim. Another requirement is that the manipulator be cruel enough to have no qualms about causing harm to the victim.
An excellent example of psychological manipulation occurs in the film “Gaslight.” Here Charles Boyer’s character exploits his wife, Ingrid Bergman’s character and her fragile mental state by blaming her for the disappearance of items under her care. Tormented by the thought she is going mad accelerates her vulnerabilities until logic prevails and she confronts her husband in the climatic scene.
In portraying vulnerability, it is not enough to be vulnerable. You have to be vulnerable to something. It could be curiosity, the need to be with others, or the inclination to care for and help one’s fellow human beings. It could also be sexual desires, the need for love and security, or need for rules and social acceptance. What is it that pulls or pushes the character away from his chosen path? Identifying the target, the needs, wants, or motivation greatly enhances the portrayal and clarifies the vulnerable characterization.
The menace awaiting a vulnerable victim is not always revealed immediately. It may be delayed and hidden as something else only to attack when the character’s guard is down. After the transition through vulnerability and safety seems secure, this state of mind doesn’t go away completely. There is usually a residual lingering affect, subtle yet perceptible. The delay increases the tension, as the audience is aware of the impending menace. Such a behavior leaves the audience on edge to care enough about this person and the harm he or she might incur.
A good example of delayed harm occurs in the film “Wait Until Dark” with Audrey Hepburn. She plays a blind housewife whose vulnerability is her desire to be independent and resourceful in spite of her handicap. She is conned by a ruthless gang impersonating police officers that enter her basement apartment looking for a doll used to smuggle in heroin. They find nothing and come back later leaving a man inside to spy on her. Her desire to show she can be a self-reliant woman makes her vulnerable to a violent physical confrontation that follows and one of the most frightening scenes in screen history. Vulnerabilities need not always be faults or negative, good traits can also lead to trouble.
Think of vulnerability as a character detour, one that turns into unfamiliar territory. It could lead down a bumpy road or into a dark abyss. What makes the character vulnerable is the precarious inclination to venture this way; not knowing exactly what lies ahead. It’s a struggle of the mind and it incites emotions and behaviors reflective of the vulnerability.
What does vulnerability look like? What behaviors best describe this state of mind? Vulnerability has numerous faces, yet there are some commonalities. The most common trait is uncertainty. Being sucked or pushed into a potentially harmful situation creates emotions based on the uncertainties of what lies ahead. It heightens sensitivities to ones surroundings. Feelings deepen and innate motivations overpower rational thinking. It overrides logic and sometimes our conscience. There is usually a sense that something is wrong, but it’s not clear.
Vulnerable behavior is almost always non-verbal. Mostly, it has to do with internalizations and how these thoughts and feelings portray the transition toward or into harm’s way. Something is beckoning or pushing the character toward a vulnerable place. By identifying these forces we can come up with the emotions, intentions, motivations, and the behaviors that best represent the detour.
Vulnerability transfers us into unfamiliar territory and as a result our senses heighten. The eyes become more watchful and cautious. Uncertainty may be evident in the eyes as the character questions, “Should I proceed or turn back?” Other behaviors might include a body leaning toward the target, a lingering gaze, or a pondering pose. There are a multiple of behaviors that convey vulnerability and they require awareness, research and practice. But most important, authentic vulnerability surfaces when the actor is totally immersed in character’s choices, choices such as character’s intention and emotion.
Onscreen examples are helpful when examining the wide range of vulnerable behaviors available. Look to acclaimed or award-winning actors for guidance. I think Gary Cooper, for one, demonstrates a vulnerability that spans his entire career. It is especially evident in his romantic scenes. The wavering eyes comment on almost every facet and his speech reflects the uncertainties he faces. This subtle behavior leaves his emotions open and transparent. He can and sometimes does get hurt.
Meryl Streep is another actor that displays a wide range of vulnerable behaviors. Known for her meticulous preparation, she is has been nominated for 17 Academy Awards and winning three times. She is an astute technician of the craft. In the film “The Bridges of Madison County,” she plays Clint Eastwood’s married lover. When he arrives at her farmhouse, it stirs feelings and desires missing in her dull farmwife existence. She is vulnerable to the excitement he brings yet struggles with such a taboo relationship. The vulnerability displayed in this movie is a nuance of voice and gestures. It is a quietly expressed by the lingering gaze and a neglected body longing to be held and loved.
The character is not always aware he or she is vulnerable, only that it creates uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty. Other characters may not see this vulnerability, but the audience usually does. In addition, characters will at times attempt to hide their discomfort. If need be, blocking and/or camera angles can display or shield this behavior with regard to other characters.
Characters are not vulnerable all the time and certainly not at the same level. The dynamics, duration, and frequency of vulnerable behaviors will vary and depend on how they fit into the story. Some behaviors may be subtle and only milliseconds in duration while others could be emphatic and last for minutes. These variables will depend on the crises and the character’s sensitivity, the triggering mechanism and the threat involved. These episodes stand out best when contrasted against normal behavior.
Foreshadowing is a consideration in playing vulnerability. When the trait is perceived in earlier scenes, then it becomes more believable later when fully displayed. Finding places to insert a tinge of vulnerability makes the character more authentic and well-rounded. It also allows the audience the opportunity to anticipate the impending harm.
Vulnerability does not always lead to painful results, it simply implies being sensitive to potential suffering. The character may abort the mission or some outside force comes to her rescue before damage is done. Common sense might prevail or new information changes the character’s mind. Often, uncertainty overpowers the vulnerable quest and the character retreats. Yet these aborted efforts reveal a great deal about the character, especially when they summons up courage to try again.
To nurture and portray vulnerabilities properly requires first knowing how it looks in quality performances. Performances by highly acclaimed and award-winning actors offer clues as to how it can be done. Pay special attention to the target, to what the character is vulnerable, as well as the potential threat. You will discover a consensus of behaviors that typify an uncertain state of mind. These are found mainly in the eyes, next in gestures, and in ones speech. One director stated that one is most vulnerable when almost motionless. This behavior allows the audience to superimpose the impending danger.
Next step is to apply this knowledge to your own exercises or scene studies. You will find that your research into acclaimed performances will open up ways to reveal your own vulnerabilities and liberate authentic behaviors. Select a scene and determine the vulnerability, and the relevant suffering the character might incur. Now play the scene through numerous times overtly and opening up until you have control of the vulnerable transition and the resulting pain, to where you can turn it up and down, on or off.
Next, play the scene numerous times feeling the pain, yet persevering and finding ways to suppress it. Do this until you can let the character experience pain, hide it, and yet persevere. Do this at various dynamics, durations, and frequencies. You can increase your awareness by playing around with this dramatic ingredient. By doing so, you can make vulnerability an instinctive part of your acting repertoire.
Vulnerability, like all elements of acting, requires balancing your portrayal with that of other performers. The importance and function of your role has a bearing on when and how much vulnerability you exhibit. A minor role in diminished function may not require vulnerable traits. Exhibiting them could distract the audience away from key story points. Likewise, too many vulnerable characters weigh down the drama with many entanglements that pull the story away from key plot points. Thus, this acting element has to be used judicially, and in collaboration with the story and its characters.
To liberate your vulnerable capabilities, you must do these exercises on dozens of scenes to reach an authentic level where the audience sees and feels the character’s vulnerability. By attacking this subject in a structure manner, you will hone in on what is most important and be able to expand your performance to include this valuable trait. Likewise, it will get you beyond the self-absorbed renditions and produce readable authentic behaviors that resonate with the audience. In addition, by sharing your vulnerabilities along with that of your characters, you will enrich your craft as well as your career. Vulnerability, what are the possibilities? It’s your choice.
One last note. Acting is like building furniture. It’s a matter of putting the pieces together in their proper place. Vulnerabilities are the nicks and scratches, the joints coming apart, and the finish in need of dusting and polish. Vulnerabilities give the piece character, touch on its history, and foreshadow its future triumphs or demise.
Erik Sean McGiven has taught acting workshops as well as done private coaching and over the years developed a systematic approach to acting as presented in his book “The Rudimentary Elements of the Dramatic Performance.” Articles relating to this approach are listed online at http://www.erikseanmcgiven.com/writings/acting/, and cover topics such as eye acting, facial expressions, gestures, dramatic choices, acting styles, comedy acting, and character development. There are also articles on networking, scene study workshops, and the audience as a collaborator. Erik works in the entertainment industry as a writer, producer, and production designer
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