“Behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea… and ideas are bulletproof.” – V

The actor’s instrument–his or her body, face, expressions, voice–is his or her stock and trade. Actors use every fiber of their being to make an audience laugh, cry, or make hearts pound in horror. And a skilled actor takes great care to get in touch with his or her body language, facial expressions, idiosyncratic quirks, and personal energy to illicit a desired emotional reaction from the audience. But what if one of your most fundamental and discernible attributes was taken away from you? This is the challenge many actors are faced with when they are required to wear a mask or heavy facial makeup to portray a particular character. Take Hugo Weaving in the 2006’s dystopian thriller V For Vendetta. He was nominated for the AFI Best Actor award, and you never see his face in the movie! He wore a fixed mask portraying the character V–a mask that has been adopted by various revolutionary groups over the last few years. How did he accrue such worldwide acclaim without the use of his facial features and expressions? The film’s director, James McTeigue, credits the fact that Hugo had a background in theater, and “he also has great physicality and a fantastic voice.” Regarding the challenge of working with a mask, the actor himself explains, “I just had to trust my intuition about any physical movements, whether they were head movements or body movements.” And he goes on to say, “I always enjoyed mucking around in masks when I was at drama school, so I relished that idea.” The fact that Hugo had experience working with masks was a huge plus in his being cast and in his performance.

There are several mask exercises an actor can practice. For example, actors can try donning a full-face mask and perform a silent, internal monologue or dialogue using only their gestures, actions, and pacing to convey the words they are thinking as they unfold in their minds. This exercise can help tune an actor into the artful balance of keeping the masked character alive and in motion, and just as importantly, punctuating with instances of stillness. This kind of practice tunes you into the movements of a character similar to the way a dancer portrays a role. It can be especially challenging as both facial expressions and voice are taken away from the actor.

Another exercise is to do the same, but add your voice. Try donning a mask and doing a monologue or scene in front of your acting class or in front of your friends on a Friday night. What kinds of emotion can you illicit from your audience with just your voice and movements and mannerisms? Can you make them laugh? Or probably tougher still, can you make them cry? Can you make them think or question their own beliefs? Sometimes it’s the smallest, isolated gestures that are the most powerful. Similarly, having the mask look straight-on at the audience at a choice moment can create a strong connection with the viewers.

One only need visit a museum to appreciate the importance masks have played throughout human history–in theater and otherwise. Masks come in endless varieties, and each mask calls for a unique physical expression and manner of speech. This allows for boundless interpretation as the actor executes his or her lines. An actor can keep things interesting by playing an opposing emotion to a mask’s nature. A frightening mask that grows to perform in a nurturing, kind manner, for instance, can captivate an audience.

One of the things you might take away is that wearing a mask can liberate your courage; in other words, you might say or do things you wouldn’t normally say or do without the protection of a mask. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” And you also might find that you’ve been using your body in a limited manner. A nuanced hand gesture or a simple cock of the head can take on great significance when perched behind a mask; those gestures can likewise be very effective sans the mask.

As an actor you need to be in touch with your body, your mind, your emotions, and your unique personality. And any exercise that gets you in touch with the enormous potential of your physical and emotional and spiritual expression is a good one!

So let us know how your exercise goes; would love to hear!