A few thoughts about the eyes...
First of all, this subject is admittedly technical. Most actors know about Michael Caine's Acting in Film, and about the importance of the eyes in any camera acting. But using your eyes effectively isn't always intuitive, particularly with actors with a lot of training. It's not a matter of stripping away your approach to scenework as much as it is giving it a framework that is more effective for the camera.
Most acting classes teach the importance of being present with your scene partner. You face your partner, define your objectives, and listen. Whatever language is used to translate this connectivity into terms that actors can incorporate, the general result tends to be an approach to every scene the same way. Actors give us their eyes a lot. Nothing wrong with a connected actor, mind you, and the point is not to diminish this connection, but more often than not giving us your eyes for an entire scene is less interesting for the camera. If you find ways to break that up according to what is appropriate for the scene, the eyes become the means to clarifying and intensifying a scene. And that means finding ways to not give us your eyes.
Next time you are preparing material, try asking a couple of questions about each scene:
Is there a pivotal moment?
Is there a discovery, or realization?
Does a third character enter the scene?
How direct or evasive is your character? And does that change?
Is there an internal moment of reflection?
Is there a point of focus other than the other person(s) in the scene?
These are all about the eyes. Give yourself the right framework, setting them up effectively, and the underlying connectivity will strengthen. More on each scenario:
Take any scene where something pivotal happens, and see how it changes to not give us your eyes either before or after. A wife suspects an affair, a husband admits to it. A detective questions a suspect, the suspect gives something away unintentionally. Whatever the scenario, pivotal moments become electric when your eyes suddenly lock onto us, or the opposite. It's also usually a great tool for not playing the end of a scene.
Discoveries are not always in the stage directions, and smart actors sometimes find ways to reveal character through very subtle discoveries. How much does he or she know beforehand, and when exactly does that change? These moments are rarely given the proper setup, but when they are and we see it in your eyes, it can be very effective. It may sound technical, but scenes tend to play themselves when the setup is right.
One of the most common situations - a third or even fourth character enters a scene but we don't get who they are, where exactly they are, or what they mean to you. Placing that person just to the other side of camera (as opposed to further to the reader's side) in an exact spot with a very clear choice of who they are is all in your eyes. Knowing when and where they'll enter and pinning them with your eyes is being specific. It gives us story, tells us something about the situation, and immediately feels like you're reading with more than one person. How you negotiate moving that person to the reader is a judgement call, but your eyes are the key to making it work.
Evasive or Direct?
Is your character an alpha dog or is he or she awkward? How easy is eye contact for them? It can be difficult for both, I think. Do they have other things on their mind? Is this the third most important thing going on for them until something is said that catches their attention? I don't mean to suggest that the inner life of a character be diminished, quite the opposite. People are evasive for many benign reasons as well, so it doesn't always have to mean you have an agenda or something to hide. But thinking in these terms can be a great way to give us who someone is in the context of story. Check out The Girl in the Cafe for a great example of this.
How fully do you play internal moments of reflection? There are heaps of scenarios where a character talks about something in the past, or about themselves in reflection. How deeply are they reliving it? How does it change it to give yourself a single point of focus, just off camera? This can be a great way to free up an actor stuck in their head. Framing a moment or even a chunk of dialogue this way usually deepens an actor's connection to the character, too. Maintaining a single point of focus tends to be the key, though - again, all in the eyes.
Other Point of Focus
First thing you do in a room is figure out where exactly that point of focus will be when the moment comes. A detective points to a piece of evidence - is that something you're going to get from a reader? The level of importance is a factor, but even very subtle glances can get muddy and unclear if your eyes don't know exactly where to go. Specificity in this respect means your brain isn't processing crap like this when you get to that moment. Make a deeper choice about what something means when you see it and suddenly you have a great combination of things going on in a single moment.
It's odd, but sometimes technical detail makes you more connected. Since you are basically directing yourself until you get an adjustment, you have to look for ways to frame a scene. You have to set yourself up as an actor so that the scene plays itself. Combine the right amount of preparation with the right framework, and it frees you up to be in the moment. A huge part of that is how you use your eyes. Thanks for the emails, everyone. Keep 'em coming...