This blog post is brought to you by a recent bad experience I had watching a 5-minute clip from Big Bang Theory on the recommendation of a friend who thought I might find it amusing.
Bleagh. This is supposed to be a show about geniuses? It’s not. It’s a show about a dimwit’s idea of what bright people are like. The slowest person in my peer group could out-think and out-create any of these sad-sack imitations of “smart” on any day of the week.
These actors are not bright, and don’t know how to fake it on screen. It occurred to me that I have seen this pulled off occasionally; the example that leaps to mind was Jennifer Love-Hewitt playing a bright scientist opposite Jackie Chan in Tuxedo (2003). She did a good enough job that I was later quite surprised at how relatively free of the ravages of intelligence she sounds in propria persona.
Ms. Love-Hewitt must have been at least smart enough to know that she should emulate the mannerisms of very bright people, and then set about doing it. After thinking about this, I thought it would be entertaining (and possibly useful) to compile some actionable advice for actors finding themselves in a similar situation.
Here goes a list of bright-person behavior signals which, while not universal, are very common…
Bright people have very precise diction and tend to self-assimilate to educated speech norms even if their formal education is minimal. Enunciate as crisply as you can. If the character is designed to have a regional or lower-class accent, dial it down a little. [UPDATE: I may have overgeneralized a bit here. Strongly true of STEM geeks, but maybe not as reliably of other kinds of brights.]
Bright people concentrate. Their casual attention to a task or person is as intense as most peoples’ full attention. So fixate on those targets – not to the point of being glassy-eyed about it, but to the point where stillness and attention dominate your body language.
Bright people spend a larger fraction of their time in an ‘on’ state of mental alertness or conscious thought than non-brights do. This has consequences in visual saccades that are easy to see – with a little practice, you can grade people by intelligence in bank or movie-theater lines by watching eye movements. Look for relatively little time spent in a defocused, half-asleep state – or, conversely, lots of time when the eyes are tracking or making motions indicative of either imaginative activity or memory retrieval. Thus, when you play a bright person, always be looking at something.
Do not fall into the robot trap. Bright people are not emotionless, not at all. They do tend to be more introspective and more controlled, which makes their emotional signaling less obvious. A good way to approach this mental stance is to behave like someone who is seeing wry, dry humor in everything.
The most common minor failure mode of bright people in dramatic situations is that they’ll have visible difficulty tolerating stupid behavior by those around them. The thing to get is that this is not egotism and shouldn’t be pushed out that way unless the character is an asshole by design; playing it not as assholery but as weary exasperation is usually truer.
Bright people move differently. This one is complicated. If they’re naturally physically graceful, the always-on/full-attention trait amplifies that a lot. If they’re physically clumsy, they may still exhibit startling if confined physical competence in trained skills – typing, playing a musical instrument, martial arts, whatever. What ties this together is that they’re good at all kinds of learning, including learning to use whatever physical ability they have efficiently.