Chapter 19

Chapter 19
Emoting emotion

If a person asks me how an actor cries on cue, I ask them if they’ve ever cried in their life. Invariably, they say yes. I ask them what they cried about and they’ll tell me it was the loss of a loved one, their child being born, etc. I ask them what it was about the circumstance that made them cry and they’ll tell me they were suddenly overcome with the sadness of loss or the joy of happiness. 

Emotion is something that seems to overcome us, like a yawn. It’s not something we actively plan. Forcing emotion is like forcing a yawn; it doesn’t work. Your emoting will be as phony as a fake yawn. In life you don’t plan your emotions. You don’t go to a funeral and think, “Gosh, I hope I cry,” or “Here comes a family friend, I should start crying.” Sometimes emotions overcome you. Most of the time they don’t.

 Actors seem to think that being able to cry will make them a better actor. This is not true. They will be the same actor except now they can cry. There are classes that make a big deal about working an actor up to get them to the point of crying. This is sometimes called “emotional work.” This supposedly gets the actor in better “tune” with their “instrument.” The teacher will start asking very personal questions that lead to very sad answers, the types of invasive questions that are better suited for qualified therapists; questions concerning rape, incest, physical and mental abuse, etc. Not only are these types of questions inappropriate for an acting class, but the whole exercise is a cheap trick. 

The actor will be challenged into opening up in front of the class. They will be taunted with the idea that, if they want to be real actors, they need to tell all. They need to be an open book without any secret chapters. Full disclosure. This is acting class malarkey at its lowest. It is an exercise that fools the actor into thinking they’re having breakthroughs and making progress. It also hooks them into the class by making it more difficult for them to leave.

Any person who is asked to disclose a horrible act committed on them, to a bunch of seemingly caring peers will more often than not, break down. So what? Big deal. What has really been accomplished? The actor cried. But the teacher and everyone else in the room will treat the moment as a “breakthrough.” This actor will later be swarmed at his car by his classmates with hugs and handshakes. All will act as though a new acting notch need be added to the actor’s belt. He cried openly. 

First of all, the actor was taunted into telling a story of being sexually abused by a neighbor when he was eight. How is this a breakthrough? Has this person never cried before? Is this person emotionally challenged? If the person were emotionally challenged, I highly doubt their first choice of a vocation would be to be a movie star. This might be a breakthough if the person were emotionally shut down, in a therapy session, and with a licensed therapist. But it’s not a therapy session. It’s an acting class.  

This “breakthrough exercise” is a cheap trick designed to manipulate the actor into an emotional moment, emotional moments that will make the teacher appear to be a gifted conjurer of emotions. It’s sad to say, but in any group if you ask to see the hands of anyone who has been sexually abused or raped, chances are, you’ll see a few hands go up. Get these people to start talking and there will more than likely be some tears. This doesn’t take a gift, it just takes gall.

There is also the subliminal effect this exercise has that hooks people into staying in the class. Once an actor has divulged a deep dark secret to a group of strangers, a strange insecurity will set in. The actor will have an ongoing concern as to how their peers now see them. 

Think about how you would feel. You’re in a class where sport is made of divulging dark secrets. It’s your turn and in the heat of the moment you share something particularly dark. Perhaps it’s something no one knows outside of your family. Maybe it was the time your mother’s boyfriend raped you. You tell your story and break down. You receive a round of hugs and high fives for your courageous breakthrough. 

But what did you really accomplish? What did you learn that you didn’t know before? You get home, and now that the moment has passed, how do you feel about all these people in class knowing this new fact? Might you have regrets? But there is nothing to be done about it because, once you ring a bell, you can’t un-ring it. 

So let me ask you something. The week following the telling of your dark tale, how would you feel if you had to miss class? How about if you had to miss a few weeks? Do you see how not attending could make you feel insecure? This is how the ploy works: the exposed wounded souls of the class become codependent on one another. Leaving the class after giving up deep dark secrets won’t be easy to do. Avoid this nonsense at all costs. Don’t cheapen your soul by offering up highly personal parts of yourself as fodder for acting classes. You can cry without having to share stories about the worst aspects of human nature to a bunch of strangers. 

Beyond my aversion to this type of exercise for the reasons listed above, as a teacher I have a fundamental problem with it. Any aspect of acting that is set as a high bar to clear will take on a significance that will become a concern for the actor. If you accept the idea that crying on cue is no easy task, it never will be. It will grow into a concern that will hamper all of your emotional scenes. Because once again you will give weight to things humans never do. Natural life moments are never difficult to arrive at. They are happening as I write this, in concert and across the globe.

So how does the actor approach an emotional scene? 

You simply tell your story truthfully and let it communicate your grief. Don’t focus on the emotion. Focus on what is going on in the scene and let nature take its course. Honest emotion is more likely to occur. It asks for a lot of trust on the part of the actor, but that’s what it’s all about. You can’t force tears. You shouldn’t force emotion. It doesn’t work as well. 

Be sincere about what’s going on in the scene and trust that by being in the right frame of mind the right emotions will come. Trust the life model. In life you don’t try to cry. You tell your tales and try to accurately impart the grief you felt through the words you use, not by the tears you shed. Don’t be an actor who cheaply emotionalizes everything, always shoving their sad tin cup into the audience, constantly on the prowl for emotional donations.

Tell your story with respectful sincerity. Own the loss. Use the words to tell us how you honestly feel. Be sincere. These things alone will make the audience feel everything they’re supposed to. And in addition, if you feel yourself a little weepy you will have earned it honestly and for all the right reasons. 

Once you’ve figured out how to be open enough to actually cry, please don’t. Please refrain. Fight the urge. Ask yourself this question: How often in life have you actually cried in front of people? How often have you allowed yourself to break down in front of people and blubber? It’s rare, I’m sure. Many of you could probably count those incidents on one hand. 

We generally fight the urge to cry in front of people because it makes us uncomfortable. More importantly, it makes the people listening uncomfortable. In fact, I’m sure that your experiences of seeing people confront tragedy in life are quite different from most actors’ renditions of these moments.

In real life people seem to fight the urge. People try not to cry. And isn’t that what is most gut wrenching to watch. When the actor makes a decision to break down, the message being sent is monosyllabic; I’ve experienced tragedy and I’m breaking down.

There is something so sweetly tragic about a person who, in the face of tragedy, will still not indulge on his audience by making them have to be party to their break down. With this person there is an unspoken understanding that we’ve all had to endure horrible tragedies. They seem to know that no one’s tragedy is more important than anyone else’s.

This nobility in awareness and thought tends to make a viewer well up with compassion and respect for this individual. We cry at their courage to persevere and endure. We feel gutted when we see them, with all the stoicism they can muster, accept their medicine. I’m sure you’ve seen it happen many times: someone is telling a sad story, and rather than cry, they stop speaking so they won’t break down. They fight the urge at all costs, yet it’s devastating to watch.

 Actors who are in touch emotionally and who can cry easily tend to do it a little too much. An actor can’t tell a poignant story if he’s blubbering, because the scene will become about a blubbering actor. I want you to think about the times you’ve discussed tragic incidents. How many times did you cry openly? Yet, put an actor in a scene where they have to mention their loved one passing and he’ll immediately pinch off with emotion, and if possible, bawl like a baby. 

In life, when I discuss the passing of a loved one, I may want my listener to know how much I truly miss that person but my intention is never to make the person listening cry. Tragic stories simply and truthfully told carry their own specific weight. When an actor breaks down while telling the story, they end up undermining their tale by upstaging it with their emotional loss of control.

Think back to all those times in your life when you’ve had to convey some sad information, and think about what you actually did. Use that as your model. There is a saying that has been around forever: If you cry, the audience won’t.