Jonathan Banks at the Primetime Emmy Awards - Arrivals at the Microsoft Theater on September 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, CA. Photo Credit: Kathy Hutchins /

Acting is a study of human behavior, and one of the most accessible and powerful ways to learn about people is through keen observation. Acting instructors emphasize the word “observe,” knowing that life provides a steady stream of creative inspiration to those who pay close enough attention. Noticing an individual’s idiosyncratic mannerisms as they deal with life’s struggles, joys, and sorrows—their facial expressions, voice tones, personal style, and posture—can prove to be a valuable asset in an actor’s arsenal.

Just ask Emmy Award-nominated actor Jonathan Banks, who played former Philadelphia police officer-turned-career criminal Mike Ehrmantraut in “Breaking Bad,” as well as the spinoff prequel “Better Call Saul.” Banks is used to portraying sinister types, but when it came to getting into Mike’s dark psyche, he crafted his character from observations of people in his life.

“I used, partially, people that I grew up with, people that I feared or respected. You know, it always sounds a little too dramatic to me when somebody says, ‘My neighborhood, I grew up this way; it was tough,” Banks told the The New York Times. “I got banged around quite a bit, got punched in the mouth a lot. It gives you a certain amount of, I don’t know that it gives you toughness, but it leaves no surprises when all of a sudden you’re in a fight or you get beaten or whatever. As far as Vietnam, the sniper part of Mike’s life: I have several close friends that went. And one of my friends they just [were] put into Arlington Cemetery about a month and a half ago. There are a lot of guys that came back that I know that were hurt badly by their experience in combat. That’s something I never experienced. I borrowed from people that I saw.”

While incorporating people’s gestures and habits can add new layers to a character, it doesn’t take away the creative force and ownership of an actor’s performance. As Banks says, “Mike is mine. Mike is mine ….”

Similarly, Tyler Perry based his famous Madea character on his relatives—his mother Maxine, and his Aunt Mayola to be precise. “The nurturing part of Madea comes from my mother who would open the doors of our home to you no matter who you were,” he told Essence. “My aunt inspired the pistol-packing, the wig, and the voice. She overpronounces her words and puts an ‘r’ on everything to make it sound proper.” In turn, Perry says Madea is “exactly the PG version of my mother and my aunt, and I love having the opportunity to pay homage to them.” 

Combining observation with imagination to create a compelling character can start unexpectedly, say, while taking a walk in the park or riding the bus to work. Perhaps a person will catch your eye with some unique mannerism, a coworker who tends to look downward when she speaks, or a man in the checkout line who unabashedly examines other people’s purchases may turn out to be inspiration for the next acting opportunity. 

But we tend to spend hours each day driving around, working in an office or in a classroom with our stream of thoughts at the forefront of our minds: thinking of what we need to do today, as well as sifting through our internal thoughts and feelings as we navigate life. So it takes some effort to consciously shift our thoughts toward those around us.

Here are some observational exercises to more keenly tune you into the gestures, expressions, posture, and voice of those around you: 

Observational exercise #1

Go to a location filled with people and observe them (respectfully and discreetly). If possible, sit down with a notebook and jot down what you notice about any number of individuals who peak your interest. Take the time to observe how they move, speak, gesture; how they react to situations, noting your impressions and feelings. No need for punctuation or complete sentences—this is a spontaneous exercise, documenting what you see as it happens and not censoring yourself, so it’s available for you to read later on. 

Observational exercise #2

Building upon observational exercise #1, dig a little deeper into one individual who interests you most—without staring, of course. Give them a name—let’s say “Marco.” Imagine Marco’s personality based on his mannerisms. Imagine what is happening in this chapter of his life. What led him to this present location? What does he do for a living? Consider what kind of family he comes from. Do they live together? Where do you think he’s going after he leaves today? Is he struggling with a specific problem? Does he have a pet? Allow your creativity to flow and jot down your thoughts, always building upon your observations about this individual.