Acting Tips: How To Cry On Cue And Emotional Preparation
Answers to various acting questions I get from aspiring actors and actresses.
Q: I am studying the Meisner technique, but I'm stumped on one aspect of emotional preparation. Often a director will want a specific emotion like crying in a scene. When faced with this I go straight in my head because I'm worried that I won't be able to deliver the tears.
How in the world can I deliver tears on cue as I'm working moment to moment off of my partner? What if what happens between my partner and I doesn't elicit tears from me?
A: Great question!
Let me say at the outset that I am a huge fan of Sanford Meisner's ideas and methods for teaching acting. I think one of the biggest drawbacks to Meisner's technique is that it leans heavily on what roughly equates to Socratic method to deliver the information. I feel the general effect on the student tends to be a lot more confusion than what is necessary. I think Sandy wanted the student to answer their own questions. I've found as a teacher myself that only a very select few students respond well to that style of teaching.
Film Acting Requires Thinking
Having said all of that, don't feel bad about being stumped! This is easily the most common "hang up" in dealing with Meisner's work. I'll say right now that acting requires thinking while you're doing it. Yes, with training and practice you can really "lose yourself" in the moment, but that's more likely during a career of acting professionally, where you're working on that kind of stuff daily for years on end.
Even then, especially as a film actor, you have to be thinking while you act. You have to be aware of hitting marks, keeping distinct dialogue, being aware of sound issues while you're speaking, physical continuity, emotional continuity, so on and so on. On a soundstage it will be exceedingly unusual to find yourself in a situation where you're afforded an opportunity to not have to deal with some or all of those things while you're acting.
I say all of this to get you away from the notion that "being in your head" is some sort of problem you have to fix. It's not and you don't. I'm not certain where you studied Meisner's work, but I would say that if the teacher was a "purist" and you took good notes, you will find places where Sandy's method alludes to this line of thinking. So, with that all in mind, if you're partner doesn't illicit tears from you, it doesn't matter.
It's Make Believe Silly
"Acting is the ability to live truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances." In these imaginary circumstances, what your partner says or does to you makes you cry. Get it?
For instance, I might get a role where I have to cry because my pet spider gets hit by a car and dies. Let's say in real life, I'm terrified of spiders. Let's take it a step further and say that I hate them and kill them all the time. But, the script and the director say "he cries over his dead pet spider." I'll never "really" feel that, right? There's never going to be a "pinch" from that dead spider that's going to give me an organic "ouch." The truth is, I don't have to wait for some "organic" moment to "hit" me or "make" me really feel like crying.
I just have to cry over it and make it believable. It's the part of "being real" that gets lost on most Meisner students and the biggest reason they all seem to struggle so hard during and after the program.
It's imaginary real.
Make sense? I hope this all helps with understanding what's behind my answer for your question and that answer below is two-fold: First, practice crying (or whatever emotional expression you want to be good at.) Seriously. Little kids can bring up "fake" tears about losing toys, getting hurt, all kinds of stuff. It's easy for them, they'll do it at the drop of a hat when they think it might help their cause. Yes, we all know it's fake, but they're kids. You're an adult, you should be able to do it way better. Even if you have to force it out in the beginning, you have to become comfortable feeling and expressing emotions with no "real life" reason.
This kind of work is great for later on when a scene calls for something heavy and you have to deliver quickly. Instead of spending half an hour trying to work yourself up, you just go out and do it. And, you WILL get better at this kind of emotional manipulation. It might even get you out of a ticket someday. Second, as far as crying mid-scene or "creating" more subtle emotional reactions, like that single tear running down the face kind of thing, it's actually not that hard.
Imagine It, Feel It, Make It
Think of it this way, ever had a day where everything is going wrong? Like you wake up late, you're out of toothpaste, someone cuts you off on the way to work. The boss yells at you, the girl down the hall is being bitchy, you and your friend get into an argument, you find out your phone bill is $300 over, so on and so on? A completely shitty day. Then, you go home and just a little thing happens, you break a cup or stub your toe.
And you cry.
Someone watching from another room might even come in and say, "hey it's nothing to cry over." And they're right. That one little, insignificant thing that you'd never ordinarily cry over makes you cry. But, there you are, crying. So, how does that apply to scene work? Well, you have to learn to "prime the pump." Now, this is what emotional prep is all about, that "filling up" before you go out. You simply have to practice having (for instance) that bad day in your imagination. Just like a little kid, you sit in your room and make up a super crappy day.
Add whatever makes you really upset and angry and on edge, til' you feel, well crappy. THEN go do the scene and THEN if you STILL don't cry, just act like you're crying when it comes time. The truth is you have to cry, whether you really "feel it" or not. It's best if you do and it just comes, but no matter what, it has to come. If you don't want your "faking" to look completely terrible, practice it until it's believable.
Sooner or later, it will become real, or, I should say "real-ish". The effect of "faking it" all the time is to have your body incorporate and express the fake emotion more fully. Ever known that super emotional guy or girl that just flips out and "can't handle" everything and anything? It's solely because they (not that they mean to) practice being that way all the time.
Just Don't Be Boring...Please!
To further the point, I will tell you with 100% certainty that mellow-dramatic is FAR superior to being flat and boring. William Shatner is still working to this day and he couldn't act a lick back in the day. But, he had balls and he put it out there emotionally, even if it was ridiculous. The point of William Shatner is that, with all that practice, even he's gotten way better.
Every soap actor and actress knows this too, because they work a TON, they're always having to learn lines and block scenes and there is hardly ever time for "prep". They just have to go out and do it, which is why it's so often mellow-dramatic and fake. But, I'll tell you what, they're GREAT fakers, if you take into account the situation they're in. Imagine having to memorize 10 to 15 pages of script per day and get it right. It's tough.
So, like everything else in life, practice and repetition is the real key to having emotional success in acting. Just don't get too caught up in Meisner lingo like "being in your head" or "not in the moment" or "not really feeling this or that." At least hear it for what it really means, because otherwise it becomes a rough trap for a lot of Meisner trained actors.
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts, or would just like to share some of your successes, please feel free to drop me a line. I actually answer them.
Best of Luck out there and remember, you can't fail if you don't quit.