How to get emotions while acting
Characters feel. Sometimes their emotions are extremely intense. Many actors have a rough time getting to their emotions, and layering them into a performance. It can be difficult to play an emotion that is somewhat foreign or uncomfortable to you. This is certainly true, and it is the foundation for the on-going popularity of The Method, a system where the actor is asked to look at his own life history to locate moments where a needed emotion was felt by the actor, in order to “re-create it”. This, of course, locks the actor in his own past, just when he most needs to be right in the present…when he’s creating.
There are better ways. The Method assumes you can’t create an emotion out of nothing but your wish to create it, right now. You can. Children do this constantly. They decide that now is a good time to get upset, so they cry and scream and throw temper tantrums. Adults stare in horrified wonder at the rapid, mercurial changes a child can pass through, emotionally. You’ve heard of the “Terrible Twos”? Their not a myth, and you’ll notice that there are few two year-olds who have studied The Method…
I know this sounds silly, but if a two year-old can do it, so can you.
I directed an actress in a play once, who I asked NOT to cry in a scene. She cried. Afterward, almost an hour later, I found her in her dressing room, still in tears. I was concerned. I asked her if she had hurt herself. She said she had not, that she just “couldn’t get out of character”. She was never in character, of course. She was just crazy.
Anyone can create any emotion at any moment. All emotions are created. They don’t come at you from outside. You decide to fall in love! You decide that a thing is funny, or sad! No one makes you angry, or makes you cry. No one makes you happy. That’s all you, and if you’re honest and sane, you know this is so.
An actor needs to be especially aware of his ability to create an emotion upon demand. It’s his livelihood. Now, you can choose to be nuts about this, and put yourself through all sorts of memory-oriented torture, in order to get that one, precious tear. Frankly, I’d rather see a glycerin tear, and I know that deeply offends many actors. Folks, this is an art, yes, but it’s also a job. You should do the job professionally, with as little pain and misapplied drama as is humanly possible. Your fellow artists will bless you.
So how does one get to an emotion? Well, how does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. When you rehearse, hopefully you’re going to do a lot of experimenting with emotions in context to your work. For now, you should practice turning emotions on and off at your demand, until you know you can do this.
EXERCISE: Select a scene from any play or film with a character you could play in it. Find someone to read the other roles, if possible. Look the scene over and select a single emotion the character might feel at some point in the scene, such as sorrow, anger, boredom or elation. For the first experiment, select a grimmer emotion, an unhappy or angry one. Go through the scene five time with your partner (or alone), using the dialogue and action to express ONLY the selected emotion, whether it makes sense or not. Groove the emotion in. Get control over it. You should notice that, as you do this repeatedly, the emotion becomes easier to contact or create and control. Do it more than five times, as needed, but not less than five times. Once you have control over it, take five minutes off, get some air. Then, select a happier emotion, like hope, or elation. Run the scene again at least five times, using only that emotion, regardless of the sense it makes. When you’ve mastered turning on and off that emotion, and contacting or creating it at will, you’re done. You may do this with any number of emotions, whenever needed, to work at creating and controlling the needed emotion.