Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Crying on cue: it's the holy grail for dramatic actors! Some actors seem to naturally possess this magical skill, but for others, the tears are difficult to come by.
Crying is a difficult thing to consciously try to achieve; the risk of coming off as fake is very high! Pressuring and forcing yourself to cry, using all your might to squeeze out some tears, just makes the genuine emotion more elusive. But with some practice and understanding, this is definitely something that can be learned and cultivated.
As a primer, check out these posts to learn how to elicit strong emotion in your performances:
Now every actor is a little different. What works for one person might not quite be the thing for another. Various actors have different tips and tricks. Bryce Dallas Howard famously went on Conan and demonstrated her ability to cry on command while Conan talked about Home Depot.
In the clip below, she teaches him how she does it. Her advice is to lift the soft palette as though you are yawning in order to trigger the tear ducts. Check it out. It doesn't quite work for him though...
You could try the Anna Faris route and use a menthol tear stick, though you can see from the below demonstration that this can be a bit painful!
Most tips mainly focus on how to generate the tears. My tips are a little different. I approach emotion psychologically as well as physiologically. Follow my below guide step-by-step to learn how to whip up those tears in a way that taps into genuine emotion:
1. Stretch and warm up the whole body.
It's always good to have the body and voice warmed up before any performance, but it's especially important for very emotionally charged moments, such as when you must cry. Stretch, do some yoga, do some vocal exercises, do a little self-massage. Make sure you feel connected to your spine and your core, and bring awareness to all parts of yourself, head to toe. You want to energize and awaken the entire body, as well as let go of any tension. This allows for the free flow of energy, which is what emotion requires. You want to ready yourself to be an open channel.
Not sure how to warm-up for a performance? Here are a few videos to help guide you:
2. Relax the belly/abdominals
It's important to relax the body generally, but it's particularly important to relax the belly and abdominals. (Being relaxed is not the same as being floppy and boneless like a wet noodle; you want to be engaged, but without tension, not sedated.) Our deepest emotions emerge from the belly. It's a very vulnerable place. In order to cry, you have to learn to relax and open up the belly.
From a scientific perspective, our guts are quite interesting. The gut is home to trillions of microbes that help us digest our food and maintain our immune systems. It is an integral part of our nervous system, containing many neurons and neurotransmitters. (95% of the body's serotonin resides in the gut!) Some scientists call the gut "the second brain" and research is finding the gut and the brain are very much connected. Indeed chronic inflammation in the gut is often a major cause of depression. Anyway, I say all this just to emphasize that my claim about the strong connection between the belly and emotion is not "woo woo."
Learning to let go of the tension in your belly can be difficult and can take some time. Our negative life experiences often train us to grip in our bellies as a way to defend ourselves. Letting go of that tension can release those personal hangups we've been burying. If you're worried about facing some of those old demons, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself and talk to a sympathetic friend or seek counseling if you need to.
Here are a couple videos to help you start relaxing and connecting with your belly:
3. Breathe and sigh deep into the belly. Connect your thoughts to your breath.
Since you're trying to cry, these sighs won't be "relaxing on the beach" types of sighs. These are sighs connected to frustration and sadness. Some scenarios you might imagine to capture that quality of sighing:
- You're fed up with your boss and you're enduring a long, tiresome day at work.
- You can't make any headway with your husband and you're thinking about giving up on your marriage.
- You just found an eviction notice on your apartment door and you're not sure what you're going to do about it.
4. Draw your energy downward.
Sorrow quite literally drags you down. Keep relaxing, keep breathing, and direct your energy downward. Allow your breath and your thoughts to sink deep down into you. Pull your posture in: bow your head somewhat and slump your shoulders. Hold your arms in a defeated way. Think in and down. Observe how this makes you feel.
Remember, this physical work is to help YOU. You're not doing all of this to SHOW the audience you're sad - that would be the definition of fake. So don't do all of this with an eye towards what sadness is "supposed to look like." Don't try to shape it in that way. Don't try to push it towards the result you think it ought to be.
5. Find emotional triggers and drop them into your belly.
So at this point, you should feel fairly ready to try the scene you're working on. Find some emotional triggers based on the scene or play. Some triggers that might work:
Say some of your lines that you find particularly poignant or heartbreaking. Or think of some of your partner's lines.
Think of an image based in the text or circumstances. Use all your senses to make it come alive. Allow your imagination to go there. What I mean is find something graphic or striking enough that it provokes something strong and visceral in you.
Immerse yourself in the given circumstances of the scene. Think about the conflict in the scene and the dilemma your character is facing.
Find a simple gesture that elicits a strong feeling in you.
Connect to the loss. Tears of grief stem from having lost (or the imminent risk of losing) something or someone precious. Connect to what the thing/person means to your character and what it feels like for that thing to be ripped out of your character's life. Sometimes the tears are of great relief from having escaped a devastating loss. Again, connect to how impactful that relief from suffering is.
You're going to drop these triggers into the belly. Here is how that goes: on the inhale, take in the thought or image, on the sighed exhale imagine them dropping into your belly. Keep drawing your energy downward.
Try acting the scene and see what you discover. Make sure you are pursuing a strong objective and fighting against a strong obstacle. The friction between what your character wants and what is standing in their way is what creates the strong emotion.
6. Tremor/convulse the belly.
Sobbing involves a convulsion in the belly. If you are already on the brink of tears, sending a tremor to your belly can take you over the edge. It can crack things open and put you more in "breakdown mode."
Contract the belly rapidly in a sob. Keep breathing, keep drawing the energy down. Say your lines. You should soon find real emotion and tears spilling out.
There you have it! So this was a very thorough explanation, but the process doesn't actually take very long. If you need to get into crying mode quickly, just remember to relax the belly, breathe, draw the energy down, and tremor.