How to intimidate larger people?
October 13, 2009 10:41 PM   Subscribe

Actors (and dangerous people), explain to me what behavioral or visual cues make people look scary. I just saw a play where a scrawny, unassuming character had to stare down someone much larger, and the actor really pulled it off. The fascinating part was the contrast between the dialogue and the behavior: reading a transcript later, you'd think the other guy just got bored and wandered off, but in the moment it was somehow clear that he was permitted a graceful exit out of the goodness of his victim's heart. How did he do that?
posted by d. z. wang to Human Relations (16 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
IANADP (I am not a dangerous person) or an actor. But:
Posture. Body movement. A certain stiffness and severity.
There is a moment in "The Hours" in which Virginia, going up the stairs, turns to give her husbnd a look. And she turns her whole body. It is pretty startling.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:15 PM on October 13, 2009

Hrrm. Some part of this may involve the cues humans use to establish status--things like maintaining eye contact the longest, maintaining one's own bubble of space or pushing into someone elses, refusing to alter ones path...walking down the sidewalk, sometimes walking close to the buildings rather than the street indicates higher status...

There's a book on status that we covered in acting school, but I can't remember the title. Maybe someone can remember it.
posted by stray at 11:16 PM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

For a study in pure menace: Ben Kinglsey's performance in Sexy Beast. Whatever he's doing in that film, that's how you do it.
posted by tim_in_oz at 11:25 PM on October 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Basically if an actor does something other than what we expect them to do in any give moment, they will read as "off". If they're off in a low-status way (like avoiding eye contact, hunching shoulders defensively, shrinking away from others, etc) they will be seen as weak and not intimidating (think Rain Man); being "off" but also confident (with dominant body language, like aggressive staring, looming over others, or focussed behaviour and gaze pointing to a single target) is usually scary.

Intensity of gaze can be scary or intense. Most actors don't blink during closeups. We're like dogs; we read staring eyes as a challenge.
Randomness of gaze can be scary, too. If an actor "switches eyes" (ie, looks from one to the other of their scene partner's eyes) their gaze can be read as shifty, terrified, or terrifying depending on what the rest of their face is doing.
Breath control. A person who is breathing other than everyone else in the scene will stand out- if everyone is panting and frightened, for instance, and the serial killer is taking calm deep breaths, they will stand out as scary.

Here's a big one: Letting the whites of the eyes show above the iris is generally scary. See how you can see the white above the iris of Jack's left eye in this pic from the Shining? That makes him look insane. He does this as Joker, too. Basically his eyes are wide and his head is tilted back- not an expression humans usually make except in intense situations, usually either crazed anger or terror. By contrast, when the whites of his eyes show below the iris and not above, he looks relaxed and normal.

Showing the whites below the iris can still be scary- it makes the eyes look hooded- but context definitely matters more in this case, since the same expression in a romantic comedy would be called wry flirtation.
posted by twistofrhyme at 11:30 PM on October 13, 2009 [11 favorites]

The book your thinking of is probably Impro, by Keith Johnstone, the dude who invented theatresports and has huge section devoted to status and conveying it verbally, physically, masked, etc.

Things actors consider to convey menace. What part of the body are you leading with? chest or pelvis in front is far more intimidating than stomach or head.

How are you facing your opponent? Face on is what animals (including us) use to maximise the appearance of size.

Widening the eyes conveys an adrenaline surge likely to provoke fight of flight.

Teeth-baring - in the form of a grimace or jaw-jutting does the same.

Breaking norms can be very offputting to people, most commonly demonstrated by invasion of personal space.

Basically, we're not so different from dogs or cats etc. etc.

Anything that a) makes you look bigger
b) highlights your most dangerous assets (teeth, claws whatever)
c) indicates that you are angry and ready to fight (cause you want to avoid a fight if possible, and the best way to do that is to convince someone you would fight, and you would beat them).

Will create the impression that you're up for it.
posted by smoke at 11:51 PM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I remember my Desmond Morris "Manwatching" correctly: the red faced guy who is yelling at you is OK - it's all bluster. The pale faced dude who is holding your eye and speaking with focussed, intense calmness is the one who is going to hit you. (I think this is also true of dogs too: the real biters don't waste time barking).
posted by rongorongo at 1:39 AM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's all attitude. Commit to it. Truly scary people dont yell. They just walk up, look you straight in eye and make you understand that messing with them is a really, really bad idea. The thing is that most people dont want a fight or a confrontation, even the pompous jerks who are posturing for one. They are already afraid. Get that in your head. I've stared down a few bullies in my time and as a short pudgy 40-something nerd who looks about as threatening as a throw pillow, I can say that it does work. But the confidence has to be there, even if it is ultimately a bluff.
posted by elendil71 at 4:26 AM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Showing the whites below the iris can still be scary-

This expression combined with compressed lips is called the teacher look. Photo. Photo. A teacher whether seated or standing can subdue a sixth grader from across the room. And ask a military officer about command voice.
posted by gregoreo at 4:32 AM on October 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

Stillness generally works. Someone who is scared will flinch or fidget or bluster, but a real badass will stand perfectly still and hold his/her ground.
posted by xingcat at 4:33 AM on October 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would add people hovering over you while you are sitting or lying down. Plus, when people block doorways.

When I'm at work, I am creeped out whenever clients lean against my cubicle wall and let their head and upper torso hang over into my space. I don't care if they are a 300 pound man or a 90 pound woman, I'm intimidated.
posted by Eleutherios at 5:49 AM on October 14, 2009

things like maintaining eye contact the longest, maintaining one's own bubble of space or pushing into someone elses, refusing to alter ones path...
the red faced guy who is yelling at you is OK - it's all bluster. The pale faced dude who is holding your eye and speaking with focussed, intense calmness is the one who is going to hit you.
I can second these. I've done something similar when I don't want to be harassed on the street. I put myself in a mental space where I am not in the mood to be messed with. I've done this when I already genuinely was a bit annoyed with the universe and realized sheepishly after several blocks that people were actively getting out of my way.Recreating that body language, I have my head up, with straight posture, and am focused straight ahead. It's a long fast stride with very little unnecessary motion and I don't break pace even when stepping around obstacles. I scan faces, but I don't stop on anybody, just return focus to straight ahead. In fact, in general, if I need to be intimidating, I use my "angry" body language. Not the yelling kind of angry, the quiet fury kind. If everyone's sitting, standing and leaning forward with hands braced on the table works pretty well.
posted by Karmakaze at 6:58 AM on October 14, 2009 [6 favorites]

I remember reading a book by Stanislavsky where he talked about acting drunk, and said the key was acting not drunk. I think the same applies here, if you are not happy and act very (as opposed to barely) controlled, it will give you the right body language without going over the top.

Plus all the excellent points about physicality above.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 7:00 AM on October 14, 2009

When referencing something you've seen in a movie, don't discount the camerawork in producing the effect. Placing the camera above a person makes them look smaller and less threatening; placing the camera below someone makes them loom threateningly. Not saying the actor didn't do hella good threat, but undoubtedly the feeling was enhanced by a smart cameraman.
posted by Billegible at 7:14 AM on October 14, 2009

I doubt camerawork enhanced the feeling if the original poster was watching a play.
posted by bashos_frog at 8:56 AM on October 14, 2009

The scariest mother fucker in a room is not necessarily the biggest, the ugliest, or the strongest but the craziest; and while these usually go together, not always.

and Nthing karmakaze if you go over the top, most observers will then reasonably accurately determine your actual level of scariness, which may not be what you want. For someone who is not actually scary; a quiet restrained anger with a loud and insistent but controlled voice can work like the silence in a horror film, if you're good at it.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:29 AM on October 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

Check out Impro! by Kaith Johnstone. It contains exercises linking status to specific components of body language. Very close to what you described.

Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre
posted by andreinla at 11:59 AM on October 21, 2009

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