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On the Screen, an Arched Eyebrow Speaks Volumes
The raised eyebrow that has become the signature of action star Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson isn’t a moneymaker for all actors


By 
Steve Knopper
April 11, 2018 10:09 a.m. ET
11 COMMENTS

When Mac Wells was taping an audition for a role on the CMT drama series “Nashville,” he wanted to stand out among the other actors. To convey mischievous skepticism, he borrowed a move from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and raised his left eyebrow.[Mac Wells and Hayden Panettiere on the set of the CMT series ‘Nashville.]
Mac Wells and Hayden Panettiere on the set of the CMT series ‘Nashville. PHOTO: MAC WELLS

Mr. Wells got the part—a member of a church choir who is dubious about collaborating with a sexy pop star. That audition, back in 2016, was the first time his eyebrow acting “was really, really useful,” Mr. Wells says. “The eyebrow can have its perks.” Mr. Wells has a role in Mr. Johnson’s latest film, “Rampage,” which opens on Friday.

In the ’90s, Mr. Wells watched The Rock wrestle on TV and discovered Mr. Johnson’s notable arched brow. As an 11-year-old, Mr. Wells practiced raising his eyebrow in front of the mirror and showed it off to friends. “Acting is the small nuances that can sometimes get the casting director or the director ... to choose you,” says Mr. Wells, who is now 29. “If you stand out in the smallest, simplest way, it can help.” Film Trailer: 'Rampage'
Watch the trailer for the movie "Rampage," starring Dwayne Johnson. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Mr. Johnson, who became an action star, turned his eyebrow into a fixture of his films. In interviews he has acknowledged actors such as Roger “007” Moore for paving the way for what he calls “my signature thing.” Seventeen minutes into 2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the camera introduces Mr. Johnson’s character by moving up his body and then lingering on the eyebrow; in “Moana,” his Rock-like character has an animated raised eyebrow. 

Decades ago, actors often enlisted the eyebrow trick in a subtle fashion. Vivien Leigh learned it while filming 1935’s “Things Are Looking Up.” Four years later, she used it as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” After Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) tells Scarlett he doesn’t give a damn, her gently curved right eyebrow suggests comeuppance while evoking sympathy. “When Vivien Leigh did it, it was much more natural. I’m sure someone told her, ‘Look more arrogant,’ ” says Tonya Reiman, author of “The Power of Body Language.” 

By the ’60s, Leonard Nimoy’s thin, dark eyebrow was a crucial Mr. Spock tool in “Star Trek,” displaying superiority over humans without being smug. And John Belushi used his eyebrow to turn the audience into what “Animal House” director John Landis calls a “co-conspirator.” In another of Mr. Landis’s movies, “The Blues Brothers,” Mr. Belushi’s brow helped him sweet-talk Carrie Fisher into forgiveness despite his awful behavior.

“I don’t know if it’s ever gotten me a job, but it’s definitely gotten me a laugh,” says actor Colin Hanks, who raises his right brow in films, red-carpet appearances and even his Twitter photo. “It’s good for that comedic response to something stupid, but it can also be for that beat of ‘What’s this? We’re going to go fight the FBI?’ It was not anything I trained myself to do. It probably started off as a nervous tic.” 

In real life—rather than in movies or on TV—an arched eyebrow can swiftly undercut a situation, indicating that someone isn’t taking things too seriously. Ms. Reiman, the author, calls the move “indicative of skepticism, bewilderment, irony, mocking.”

In an episode of Netflix ’s “The Crown,” actor John Heffernan plays Lord Altrincham, a royal-family gadfly, who receives an unexpected audience at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II ( Claire Foy ). His eyebrow, raised for almost his entire 10-minute scene with the Queen, suggests an unwillingness to be intimidated. “There are probably 100 ways to use it, but it’s definitely a sense of superiority, of noticing things that others aren’t noticing, or being a step ahead,” says Brian Shoaf, who directs eyebrow masters Zachary Quinto and Jon Hamm in the coming indie film “Aardvark.”

While “eyebrow acting” has created some memorable on-screen scenes, in less-than-experienced hands it risks looking gimmicky or amateurish. Michelle Danner, a Santa Monica, Calif., acting coach and director of the coming movie “Bad Impulse,” says the technique can look like over-acting. “By and large, the first thing you teach an actor is to keep their eyebrows under control,” she says. “If it goes wrong, it can be very messy. It’s the tic of the actor, as opposed to [being] used toward what the moment is.”

Performers including Nicole Kidman, Stephen Colbert and Messrs. Johnson, Hamm, Quinto and Heffernan—who all have wielded a quizzical brow—declined to comment for this article. 

But many in the industry say the move can be an advantage in auditions, especially early in an actor’s career. “I’ve had kids who could wiggle their ears —not necessarily great actors, but they had big, beautiful ears,” says Heidi Walker, a Seattle casting director and acting coach. “If they [have] goofy ears, or an eyebrow line that can really arch up, they’re going to have an edge.”

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