In which I am happy to be right, yet again

Do I get a prize for calling these things while the actors are still in character? I think I should.

I spend so much time IRL telling people that their new boyfriend/girlfriend/roommate/boss sends up so many red flags it's a wonder they aren't drawing the attention of bulls that are still in Spain that it's always a wonderful break when I notice that two human beings actually get along.

For those of you who hang around strictly for the technical breakdown: There are a number of standard sociocultural cues that indicate that two people are friendly. None of them are 100% accurate by themselves; you need to go for the 'balance of the evidence'. Even that will sometimes fail, particularly if one of the people involved is a manipulative sociopath -- if you want to know the tells for that, you should probably visit Eyes for Lies, who gives seminars for law enforcement and is in the habit of reading criminal cases. I deal more with the chronically weird.

There are several easy-to-spot cues in the video above. For starters, the two of them are sitting practically on top of each other. This is sometimes due to staging, particularly if the interview is one of a set with fixed camera angles, but if that's the case, most people will move to put some distance between themselves and someone they're not comfortable being that close to, often leaning on the outside arm. Exactly how much distance people want is a very personal thing, but on the average, they don't really like to sit close enough to brush sleeves with other people that they don't consider friends.

There's also a lot of eye contact. Eye contact is a form of communication, but not a very explicit one; unless you're trying to get across something vehement and universal (such as 'go the hell away' or 'please help me'), getting what the other person is 'saying' requires you to have some sort of established history. Working together on a film would certainly be enough time for you to get a rough idea of what the other guy is thinking, although no amount of time would do it if you didn't care enough to pay attention.

Probably the biggest and most obvious flag is just time. They each spend like half their camera time talking to the other actor instead of the interviewer, and they are way the hell more interested in cracking each other up than in anything that lady could possibly have to say. They have an entire conversation about the prop bracelet without even looking in her direction. They're both playing for an audience and they know it, but they're doing it by bouncing off each other.

Stuff like this does become harder to spot when one or more of the people involved are, well, weird. It depends on how weird and in what direction, though. Personally, I think RDJ is fairly easy to read; it took him decades to learn how to stuff a sock in it, and he still doesn't bother most of the time. He thinks what he thinks, and if you figure that out, great. He also happens to not be weird in one of the main ways that screws up these sorts of observations, which is boundaries (both physical and social) and the observation thereof. I have occasionally seen him back up and apologize briefly if he thinks he's overstepped, which means he's not out to really rankle people, and he's aware of what reaction means he's just done it anyway. Screwing up at one or both of those can make it difficult to distinguish between "I wish to have you as a friend" and "I failed to do the reading before the mothership beamed me down". I don't know much about Ruffalo -- there's far, far less pre-Avengers stuff out there about him than about RDJ -- but I'm not seeing signs of the kind of monumental obliviousness that would throw my instruments out of whack.

One of the things that makes it much easier is when the actors in question are also borrowing a lot from themselves to play the characters. One of the things very good actors do is recontextualize things from their own lives in order to create this new person they've read about in the script. Take your own everyday mannerisms and put them together with a few new ones, arrange in a slightly different way, and the meaning changes: They become part of the person you're portraying. RDJ is pretty widely agreed to be borrowing heavily from his own experiences to play Tony Stark -- particularly in the first Iron Man movie, where the script was not quite finished when they started shooting, they let him ad lib a lot in rehearsals, to the point where Tony has now basically inherited his smart mouth. Ruffalo, for his part, is much more vivacious than Banner is ever going to be, but otherwise is using a lot of his own body language and vocal idiosyncracies for the role. When the two of them go to look like they're getting along well on screen, it reads as very true to me, because it is.

Notably, it's very rare that I can spot this when the actors are playing enemies, or when the part is so very far away from their natural personality that they've effectively invented everything they do for it out of whole cloth. I doubt I could get any read at all off of RDJ in, say, Chaplin. Nor do I get anything in particular from the cast of vintage Doctor Who, when Tony Ainley -- much beloved by all in person -- was playing the season's main antagonist, the Master. Good actors can also conceal it well if they're playing best friends with someone they actually loathe, although bad actors are... well, bad at it.

To my knowledge, however, I have not yet gotten a false positive when I spontaneously sit up and go, "Oh! They really are friends." I usually go look it up out of sheer curiosity, especially if it whacks me hard right in the face the first time I see the characters together. Spent a few weeks once chasing down biographies of Jeremy Brett after I found the Granada Holmes adaptations on Netflix, and happened to watch one of the ones starring David Burke as Watson right before another, featuring Edward Hardwicke. Brett was so much more physically comfortable with Hardwicke that I had to find out what the hell was going on there, and apparently what was going on there was a friendship that lasted the rest of Brett's unfortunately short life. When he finally had a breakdown so terrible he was hospitalized, it was Hardwicke who came and retrieved him at the end, and apparently also Hardwicke who kept a very close eye on him afterwards.


  1. Thanks for finding, sharing, and analyzing the video. That's...I believe...adorkable!

    And also, I'm totally digging your RDJ/Tony Stark analysis. It's all too uncommon to see someone saying things about one of my favorite character that I have barely half a notion how to put into words.

    1. Tony's real fatal flaw is that he has the manual dexterity required to open scotch bottles all by himself. I'm pretty sure RDJ has a handle on that. Also on being too smart for his own good, going into the same field his father did and discovering that he's competing with a shadow for both his father's attention and the public's, having the nagging sense that he's been forgiven for way too much because he has a talent unrelated to his main issue, and getting ticked at things and ultimately jamming his foot in his mouth all the way up to the kneecap. I don't recall Stark ever going to prison, but that's probably because prison is very boring to draw. He is basically getting to play a larger-than-life, alternate-universe version of himself, with a cool robotic suit.

      The question of where the two of them knew each other from before Avengers started up has been answered by the internets, which is that they did Zodiac together in 06/07. Sitting down to watch that now. I've read both of the books it's loosely based on, but I don't recall how much interaction their characters would have had, nor do I know how much the movie might have changed that, so we'll see if it's of any interest, beyond being a critically-acclaimed film.

    2. Speaking of linking people, I don't suppose you've been able to link RDJ and Benedict Cumberbatch any better than:

      RDJ and Sam Rockwell in IM2

      Sam Rockwell and Martin Freeman in H2G2

      Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock Holmes.

      I ask, because I can link the actors like that, and I link the actors-to-role-to-actor like:

      RDJ (as Sherlock) and Jude Law (as Watson) in Sherlock Holmes

      Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

      Gwyneth Paltrow (as Pepper, a kind of Watson) and RDJ (as Stark, a kind of Sherlock) in Iron Man.

      The shape of those links feels like it's missing one more connection between the two Sherlocks to support itself.

    3. Tom Hiddleston was in Avengers with RDJ and also in War Horse with Cumberbatch. Side note: I didn't realize Hiddleston was my age. I don't know what age I assumed he was, but it was a bit of a surprise to notice that we were born in the same year.

      I'm not entirely sure what you're trying to do with the second one there, so I have no idea how to improve it.

  2. To be honest, I'm not sure either. There's sort of a actor/character/archetype network in my head, but it's likely more apophenic than a real connection.


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