Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Emotion: it's what earns actors Academy Awards. How do they do it? How do actors create emotion in a genuine or realistic way? What's the secret sauce? How do you reach those emotional heights without making the audience cringe or roll their eyes? It's the million dollar question, yet there is no easy answer.
Emotions are tricky. Any actor worth their salt will tell you that you can't act emotions directly. Emotions are like cats. Try eagerly going directly after a cat to pet it, and most likely it will shy away from you, if not outright run from you. To be successful with a cat, you approach it calmly; let it sniff you a little. Ultimately you let the cat come to you. So to really get at emotions, you have to approach it laterally. You play actions, and emotions emerge as a byproduct.
To create genuine emotion, there are two basic technical approaches you can employ: you can work from the "outside in" or from the "inside out." Now what does that mean exactly? It's important to know that emotion is both physiological and psychological. When you work "inside out," you start with the psychological. You use your imagination to immerse yourself in the circumstances of the character's life. You figure out what your character is fighting for and what is standing in their way. You create a rich internal life for the character. When you work "outside in," you start with the physiological. You find the physicality and energy of the character. You are still focused on action, but the emphasis is on the external life, on things like movement, posture, vocal inflection, gesture, etc. Through an exploration of the physical life of the character, you as the actor ignite your imagination and the emotional life naturally follows. The physical expression produces the inner feelings of the character. (This is the fundamental idea behind the teachings of Michael Chekhov and in particular his concept of the Psychological Gesture. Read his book On the Technique of Acting to learn more.)
I think it's important to use both approaches. It may take a little bit of experimentation to figure out exactly what works for you. Here are some tips to help you.
1. Define your character's objective and their obstacle. Make them both STRONG.
Emotion is like fire in that it is created by friction. It requires two opposing forces. Emotion is created by the friction or clash between a character's objective (what they are fighting for) and the obstacle in their way. The stronger the objective and obstacle, the more intense the emotion. Conversely, if you're having trouble getting to those emotional heights, either the objective or the obstacle, as you have defined them, may be too weak for you.
It's instructive here to contemplate the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. In essence, they are:
Life is full of suffering.
Suffering is caused by desire, craving, and attachment.
Suffering can be eliminated by letting go of desire, craving, and attachment.
Follow the Noble Eightfold Path to learn how to do this.
As actors, we have to work backwards from this. We don't want to be serene Bodhisattvas in our performances! So to achieve suffering, find what your character's desire is and find the obstacle that makes it super hard for them to achieve that desire!
2. Raise the stakes.
You may have had a director or teacher instruct you to do this before. But what exactly does "raising the stakes" mean?
In Declan Donnellan's book The Actor and the Target he provides these two rules when it comes to stakes:
At every living moment there is something to be lost and something to be won.
The thing to be won is precisely the same size as the thing to be lost.
To illustrate the second rule he gives examples from the perspective of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet:
My Nurse will protect me and my Nurse will betray me.
All will be well and all will be a disaster.
If I show how keen I am, Romeo will be attracted to me and my forwardness will repel Romeo.
I would modify the second rule somewhat. It is true that the thing to be gained may be the same size as the thing to be lost. But we as humans do not perceive or feel them to be the same. Experiments in behavioral economics have shown we tend to be quite loss averse. This means the psychological pain of losing is way more powerful than the joy of gaining. Or stated another way, people dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Our choices reflect this imbalance. Think about it for yourself: how would you feel if you just won $10,000? Pretty freaking good, right? Now what if instead you lost $10,000? Most likely you would feel WAY worse! We should take this phenomenon into account.
BUT there is an additional psychological phenomenon known as optimism bias. Optimism bias tells us that in general people tend to overestimate the probability of positive events and underestimate the probability of negative events happening to them. What is the reason for this? In spite of horrendous and disastrous possible outcomes, we strive on and act with the positive outcome as our goal. We have to believe in the positive outcome in order to motivate us to keep going and to not give up. The negative outcome may be very real and very scary to us, but we try to suppress it. Because if we don't, it will distract us from our aim, which would only ensure failure.
It's like that moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo is piloting the Millennium Falcon through an asteroid field and he tells C-3PO: "Never tell me the odds!"
So how do you use all of this for your acting and for creating strong emotion? Again, it starts with the objective. Define for yourself, if your character achieves their objective, what do they stand to gain? If they don't achieve it, what do they stand to lose? Raising the stakes means you imagine you have more to gain and more to lose. Flesh it out; what does the character's world look like if they lose? What will happen to them? What about if they win? If the stakes are really high, it means you cannot afford to lose. The conscious aim and actions taken are towards the positive outcome, but the negative outcome is an ocean wave that threatens to overwhelm. It becomes another obstacle for you as the actor to struggle against, and that struggle or friction creates more emotion.
3. Moment to moment, be aware and assess: Is your character winning or are they losing? Are they fighting on or are they giving up?
The dynamics of emotion emerge from whether the character is losing or winning their fight. If the stakes are really high, losing or winning can make a character fight even harder. The process of winning or losing builds up emotional tension, and the actual event of the win or loss is a release of that built up energy. That is often the emotional climax of the movie or play.
Take a look at a couple examples to observe that buildup and release of emotional tension. It can manifest in a variety of ways.
Watch the Death Star explosion scene in Return of the Jedi. Lando Calrissian leads the mission into the belly of the Death Star to attack it. Tension builds. He and Wedge fire at the power generator and quickly fly back towards the surface. Luke takes off in a ship just in time as the Death Star is catching fire. He breathes a sigh of relief. (That's his small emotional release.) Lando and Wedge, escaping within a hair's breadth, emerge and fly away from the Death Star right when it explodes and Lando gives a joyful shout of "YEE-HAAAAW!" (Big emotional release!)
Another good example is the end scene of Zero Dark Thirty. The main character, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain) is a CIA agent on a decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. By the end of the film, she has achieved her goal; she has won: bin Laden is dead. As she sits in a military transport plane as the sole passenger preparing to leave the base, she begins to solemnly cry.
4. Incorporate time limits.
Time is an important factor when it comes to emotional intensity. Drama happens when events and actions have to happen NOW! Circumstances make it so things CANNOT WAIT. To up the intensity, throw a metaphorical ticking timebomb into your scene. Define for yourself, why must your character act NOW? What are the consequences if they don't? What's the deadline?
5. Use your senses to imagine yourself in the character's circumstances.
Are there any circumstances and experiences that contribute to your character's emotional outburst/breakdown? Did they just get done working a grueling 12-hour shift? Are they sleep-deprived and caffeine-fueled? Are they hungry? Does their back hurt? Do they get yelled at by their boss every single day? Imagine what that must feel like. A buildup of difficult circumstances is like a pool of gasoline. Even the slightest spark can make it explode. In some scenes the actual trigger might seem trivial, but the circumstances laid the groundwork for the emotional intensity.
6. Find the triggers in the text.
In the parts of the text where your character has emotional intensity, find what triggers it. What is it that your partner in the scene does or says that sets you off? What are you responding to? What is it about what they said that touched a nerve? Or is there something you say that touches a nerve? Are you surprised by the words you're saying? Is it painful and difficult to say those things?
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