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Stillness: Lessons from Redford, DeNiro and Penn

This past week Robert DeNiro turned 70, Sean Penn turned 53 and Robert Redford turned 77.  In honor of their births, let's take a closer look at their work and see if there's anything for us mortals to steal, for as the old saying goes, 'good writers borrow, great writers steal'.  The same certainly applies for actors. 

Robert Redford is easily the biggest movie star of the these three actors.  Redford is one of those rare actors who is actually under appreciated for his acting skills because he is such a big star and so handsome.  While his style is very different from DeNiro or Penn, it is in it's own way, just as highly crafted. 

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The main thing that stands out in Redford's work is his mastery of stillness.  Stillness is a tremendous asset to the actor but an often overlooked one.  The key to mastering stillness is to not confuse it with stiffness.  Stillness is not a lack of fluidity, but rather a containment and control of a vibrant energy.  Redford's stillness is full, as opposed to stiffness which is vacant.  Think of Redford as an eagle perched on a branch.  It sits still but remains vibrant, powerful and majestic.  Redford's stillness is full of thought and intention, which gives the viewer the impression that he is a deep thinker and very smart, which is a great technique to fight against the usual stereotyping of good looking people, whether man or woman, as being less than bright.  

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Stillness also draws the viewer in to the actor, it forces them to watch closely, for any movement is magnified and takes on greater meaning when it's surrounded by stillness.  It also helped in creating contrast with Redford's scene partners.  Think of the success Redford had opposite Paul Newman in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting". Newman's energy, both physical and emotional, was more chaotic and hot as opposed to Redford's which is controlled and cool.  Another example of this is in "All the President's Men" when Redford was opposite Dustin Hoffman, another more energetic and emotionally volatile actor, which further heightened and was heightened by Redford's controlled, yet full, stillness.  The lesson here is that contrast creates chemistry.

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Stillness is also a big part of Robert DeNiro's repertoire as an actor but in a very different way.  If Redford is a majestic eagle on a branch, DeNiro is a hungry bengal tiger in a less than sturdy bamboo cage. DeNiro uses stillness and silence to create a very unsettling effect on his scene partners and the viewer. DeNiro's character in "Taxi Driver", Travis Bickle, often holds a steady look at another character for an awkwardly long period of time.  He doesn't say anything, but projects an immense sense of unpredictability and violence boiling just under the surface.  To strengthen this sense, DeNiro breaks off the stare and glances away for a brief moment, as if to think for a second, and then returns to it, fortifying the sense of the chaotic just under the surface.  It's a fantastic technique, one that is in many ways DeNiro's trademark, that he's used in most of his performances to great effect.  The key to the technique is that the silence and the stillness are filled with an energy and an intention.  When DeNiro stares at someone he isn't just looking, he's projecting his psychological intention upon them.  He wants something from them, or wants to do something to them.  As a viewer, you feel that intention just with his look and the holding of it.

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DeNiro's Vito Corleone (Godfather Part II), Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) and Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas) all have that same sense of controlled menace to them, that at various times roars to the surface and gives external life to the beast cultivated within.  Similar to Redford's stillness being well balanced by Newman's more chaotic energy, DeNiro's stillness, silence and ferocious inner life are often balanced by actors that are more outwardly chaotic and frenetic.  The obvious example being Joe Pesci playing opposite DeNiro in "Raging Bull", "Goodfellas" and "Casino".  Pesci's inner life is constantly being given voice and to great comedic effect, while DeNiro's remains silent, only showing itself through physical violence not words, with great dramatic effect.  The balance between the two strengthens their performances, and as stated earlier, contrast creates chemistry.

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Sean Penn is an interesting contrast between DeNiro and Redford in that he is often filled with an unsettling energy that is in constant motion.  If Redford is an Eagle, DeNiro a Tiger, then Penn is a Shark, constantly in motion and with a voracious appetite.  Penn's kinetic energy feeds his characters and attracts the viewer in similar ways that Redford's stillness draws them in.  The big difference being that when Redford moves it takes on great meaning, but when Penn stops moving is when he has tremendous dramatic power.  A great example of this is his character Matthew Poncelet in "Dead Man Walking", Poncelet is always fidgeting, always looking around, always smoking, raving or bullshitting, but when he finally stops, and Penn looks up and you see his eyes, he is still for a moment, and we connect with him, we see his humanity and his soul, for a brief second.  Then he goes back to the movement, but it's that movement that makes the brief moments of stillness so powerful and revealing.  The moments of stillness with Poncelet are when we see him stop acting and start being real, and those moments are what makes Penn such an astounding actor.

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You can see this throughout Penn's remarkable career, even in a comedy like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High", Penn's stoner/surfer dude Spiccoli is not the typical stoner, slow and sloth like, he's always fidgeting and moving.  It isn't until the end of his character arc when Mr. Hand actually teaches him something by getting him to sit still that we see Spiccoli isn't just a brain dead dope but a complicated and caring person.

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The same technique can also be seen in "Mystic River" where Penn's character gets more and more still as the drama heightens and he is begins taking action.  The more still Penn becomes, the more menacing he is, and that is heightened by his frenetic energy that fills his character leading up to the stillness.

One final example is Penn's work as Harvey Milk in "Milk".  Milk is driven by a righteous cause and fueled by the injustice he sees in the world.  Milk's internal engine is running at full speed and he is constantly in motion campaigning or politicking, but the only time he slows down and gets still is when he is genuinely connecting with another character as opposed to trying to convince them to join his cause or to get out of his way.  The stillness makes Milk human, and the audience connects to him because we see him truly, genuinely connect with another person, whether it be his lover, a friend, a staff worker or a troubled young man on the phone.  Penn's use of constant movement make his moments of stillness pack the dramatic power that he is famous for.

Redford, DeNiro and Penn are all very different actors.  For instance, DeNiro and Penn are both notorious for completely inhabiting their characters physically, changing their appearance, their speech and their gait, whereas Redford is more of a leading man who must use his craft much more subtle ways in order to give a standout performance. Regardless of their differences, they all share one thing in common, mastery of the power of stillness.  We should learn from their fantastic work and try to integrate stillness into our acting tool box.