Directors often ask actors to underplay closer shots, because too much facial movement translates into mugging or overacting. Billy Wilder once asked Jack Lemmon for “a little less” so many takes in a row that Lemmon finally exploded: “Whaddya want! Nothing?” Lemmon recalls that Wilder raised his eyes to heaven: “Please God!”
– Roger Ebert, in an essay on Dr. Strangelove
And then I think about someone like Arjun Rampal. Most of the time, that guy does nothing as well. What’s the difference? Why is Aamir Khan’s nothing better than Arjun Rampal’s nothing?
I guess the difference lies in two things. One, when Aamir does nothing, it’s a contrast to the scenes where he has done something and done it well, so we interpret it differently. The other big difference is in the way a scene is set up. When Lenny betrays Shanta unwittingly to Dil Navaz, everything else we have already scene or heard lets us know the magnitude of the situation. If the audience already knows what to feel, getting out of the way and letting them feel it themselves is far more effective than actually trying to “do” something. That is why, for instance, I was less than impressed with Kamal Hassan’s antics in the railway station in the closing moments of Moondram Pirai – I felt he had destroyed all that had come before it by trying too much.