6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

Scarface6 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

Before movies had sound, which actors have now come to use to great effect for conjuring strong emotional reactions from their audiences, performances on film were essentially a mime act. So they relied heavily on body language for performers to communicate things. But unlike the vaudeville-type acts you’d see on stage at the time, silent movies could get right in tight on a person’s face, where the most subtle and expressive movements of a person’s face could be captured and projected for all to see, as if they were right next to the person. This was a pretty big deal. And it didn’t take long for people to realize that the most interesting thing to focus on in an actor on film was in those windows to the soul themselves, the performer’s eyes.

Today, most moviegoers are preoccupied with line delivery and physical gestures, which are of course immensely important and expressive and have just as much ability to surprise and intrigue us as any other choices an actor can make. And I’m far from an expert on acting so I could very well just be full of crap on this from the perspective of actual performers. As a recipient of their craft, though, like anyone else who watches, there are aspects of performance that are specifically enjoyable to any one of us, and for me, it’s in the actor’s eyes. I’ve heard it said that the best actors are the ones who look like they have a great deal of activity going on behind the eyes. In my experience, this is true, although the way to indicate what’s going on behind the eyes is within the front of the eyes themselves.

Certain actors stand out for the level of expression they consistently contain in their eyes. Here are 6 pairs that I’ve come to really appreciate.

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1) Johnny Depp

Edward Scissorhands 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

Tim Burton is a big fan of the German expressionist movies of the 1920s, where silent actors caked on makeup to bring out their eyes, which had to carry the brunt of the expression that they were trying to get across in the story. He likes expressive eyes in his movies so much that it almost seems like a strange joke that he has an upcoming movie that is actually titled Big Eyes. It’s no wonder, then, that his go-to leading man is a guy with perhaps more expressive eyes than anyone in movies in the past 25 years, Johnny Depp.

The three most striking ocular performances from Depp, in my eyes at least, all come from collaborative efforts with Tim Burton. The relatively recent Sweeney Todd adaptation with Depp starring in the titular role relied heavily on Depp’s ability to convey the anger and vengeance at the core of the Sweeney character but also the pain and sadness that were the source of his anger. Thirteen years prior to playing Sweeney, Depp portrayed the infamous B-movie director Ed Wood in Ed Wood, where his facial expressions bring out the comedic as well as sympathetic aspects of the character, a delicate balance between making him an outright joke and not allowing his absurdity to breathe at all. His strongest work, understandably due to his lack of dialogue, comes in Edward Scissorhands, where Edward basically communicates most through merely the movement of his eyes. It’s a heartbreaking performance that relies purely on this silent expression to make its deep, emotional impact.

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2) Adrien Brody

Adrien Brody 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

While his roles haven’t lived up to the standard of the parts he was getting 10-15 years ago when he was a young rising star, Adrien Brody continues to have one of the most compelling faces in movies, and while his famously prominent nose captures the attention at first, our gaze is soon drawn to his eyes, which have a whole lot going on, to say the least. His Oscar win for The Pianist was an appreciation in no small part to the level of expression he was able to capture without seeming to reveal much of anything, eyes that expressed less than his hands could do on a piano.

My favorite Brody role, with his take on Salvador Dali in Midnight in Paris coming in at a close second, is his brief appearance in The Thin Red Line as Corporal Fife. I’m not sure he says a word in the entire sequence of shots that feature his, but his face is unforgettable. It’s hard to even describe in words, but if there’s one word that would capture it best, that would be fear. Just outright terror in the face of war. And it’s the kind of crippling terror that doesn’t even require us to know what he has seen or what’s passing through his mind in that moment. We’re instantly empathetic to what he’s feeling. At least that’s the kind of impression it’s had on me since seeing it. It’s a shame he hasn’t had the opportunity to turn in work like this in the years since.

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3) Helena Bonham Carter

Sweeney Todd 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

There is always something interesting going on with Helena Bonham Carter’s face. Another favorite of Tim Burton’s, so much so that the two have been partners for the past decade, while her work on Burton films has been terrific, she has put in fantastic recent performances ranging from the understated role of Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech to the comic relief of Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables. Her Les Mis performance was one of the underappreciated highlights on the musical, with subtle flicks of her eyes providing either surprising sympathy or deviant cunning to her sung lyrics.

I’m not sure her face has ever been more devastatingly expressive, however, than playing Mrs. Lovett opposite Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd. The thing about Helena Bonham Carter in these musicals is that she’s not going to overpower anyone with the sheer strength of her voice, but handles the music in a manner at times beautifully delicate and at others delightfully crass. Her Mrs. Lovett seems to fit the latter description for the most part, but the end of the film reveals her rather tragic feelings for Sweeney, expressed with a look on her face that says far more than her words and music could on their own. Also, her demonic portrayal of Bellatrix in the Harry Potter movies was possibly the most enjoyable thing in that entire series.

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4) Robert Downey Jr.

The Avengers1 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

While his bravado and general charisma receive much of audiences’ attention, Robert Downey Jr.’s has a vastly underrated skill in conveying the softest emotions beneath his tough exterior. It’s a vulnerability that makes Tony Stark, particularly in this latest installment of Iron Man 3, one of the most unique and beloved superheroes, because it demonstrates his innate humanness in a genre that sometimes emphasizes the superhuman features of its heroes. And these are the most interesting of movie characters—the kind that present themselves one way, usually confident and daring, while subtly showing the tiniest signs that they’re terrified inside. In a sense, they’re just like us. And Tony’s distant relative Ned Stark would tell him that a person can only be truly brave when they’re afraid.

For Downey, though, expressing himself in subtle ways is not new territory. This is, after all, the guy who was tapped to play Charlie Chaplin, a giant of the silent era that relied on physically conveying the emotions and thoughts that are easily trotted out verbally in movies today. We also see his eyes working overtime in A Scanner Darkly, even though it’s a rotoscoped or animated version of him. And then of course Tropic Thunder was a master class, proving that you can, in fact, sometimes recognize an actor purely by the use of his eyes, even when the rest of him looks and sounds completely different.

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5) Rooney Mara

The Social Network1 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

I’m sure that we haven’t seen the best of Rooney Mara’s career just yet, but her quick rise to stardom has been incredibly impressive. Very quickly after playing the memorable girlfriend character in The Social Network she was cast as Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, apparently garnering director David Fincher’s affection for her dedication to her work, and trying to sort of slip into the skin of this character made famous by Noomi Rapace. Mara made it her own though, capturing the hardness in the eyes of this character, a hardness that is shown to be deliberate by the few moments of vulnerability she subtly reveals in the later moments of the film.

I love her as Erica in The Social Network though. A lot of hay gets made of that opening scene for just how much dialogue writer Aaron Sorkin crams into so little time, but what impresses me most the more I watch it is the degree to which Mara is dialed in to this character, who in turn is far more dialed in to the conversation than her distracted counterpart, played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg. She shows how much she hurts, but her face also demonstrates a real toughness that comes up again later on when she encounters Mark Zuckerberg again. The moment she finds out about the blog he writes about her is beautifully heartwrenching; the look on her face in this scene is one that’s hard to forget.

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6) Al Pacino

The Godfather Part II1 6 Actors With Exceptionally Expressive Eyes

This isn’t a part of Al Pacino I’ve seen for some time, which may be a matter of age and energy or just the fact that there aren’t nearly as many good parts for experienced talent like his in today’s cinematic landscape as there were for young men in the 1970s. But man, watching Pacino in movies like The Godfather and Scarface is kind of astounding. Both his characters themselves and his character choices got increasingly intense, with Michael Corleone starting out as a more mild-mannered guy with fairly kind-looking eyes become the same guy who kisses Fredo with an intense look that I’ve never seen replicated. And then the falseness in his eyes in that opening scene in Scarface is one of the most exciting introductions to a character that we instantly feel as though we know, even though we’ve just met. Tony Montana may be a legendary character but the act he puts on in the immigration office is just a riveting performance.

Perhaps the quality of dialogue as written and style of performance dictated by direction is determined by forces outside of an actor’s control. In many cases they’re manipulated like any other object a filmmaker uses to tell his or her desired story. But the truth in a performance on film takes place almost entirely in an actor’s eyes, and movies allow us the opportunity to get close enough to a performer to look deeply and determine whether we think they’re being truthful or false.

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  • Alex Lowe

    Tom Hardy did everything with his eyes in TDKR and I thought it was so effective.

  • Steve

    Where is Michael Keaton on this list? Seriously, if a guy can act with his eyes, it’s him.

  • Tim

    Elijah Wood didn’t make this list??? Why???