Updated: Jan 6, 2021
Anger: the most volatile and destructive emotion. It can be intimidating if you have a scene where you know you must be in a rage. So how does an actor go about playing it? How do you avoid just flailing about ridiculously like Tommy Wiseau in The Room?
As I've stated before, you can't play an emotion directly (not convincingly anyway.) You can only play actions. Emotion is a byproduct. It is created by the friction or clash between your objective (what you are fighting for) and the obstacle standing in your way. Those two opposing forces need to be strong in order for the emotion to be powerful. You don't play the anger. You play the fight.
Check out these posts to learn more about acting with strong emotion:
Anger is the emotional byproduct of going to war with someone or something. You must do battle. (If there is no physical fighting, it is still a war of words.) The situation has been brought to the point where in order to get what you want, you have to take up a sledgehammer against your opponent.
For my elaboration on this and more, read further. Here are my tips for playing rage-filled scenes:
Psychological Preparation (Character and Script Analysis)
1. Define your objective (what you want). Define your obstacle (what you are fighting against).
All angry fighting scenes can be boiled down to this statement: "I'm right. You're wrong." Repeat it like a mantra, and elaborate from there. The problem always lies in your opponent. You are fighting to change something in them.
Define your obstacle: the thing that is wrong with your opponent. What is it that is wrong with your opponent's viewpoint? What is wrong with what they are doing?
Define your objective: what you want; the change you want to see in your opponent.
Define your actions: the tools and tactics you take to make that change happen and achieve your objective.
Your obstacle, objective, and actions exist in all scenes you have. But when the scene involves an angry fight, these three things need to have certain qualities:
First of all, the obstacle needs to be stubbornly strong and formidable. It is an oppressive force that is attacking you. The strength of the obstacle is what forces you to fight ferociously to tear it down or destroy it.
Second, your objective needs to be extremely important, meaning there will be dire consequences if you don't achieve it. If you fail, your world will fall apart. Remember, "I am right. You are wrong." There is righteousness in your objective. It's often a matter of justice.
Third, because of the strength and oppressiveness of the obstacle and the importance of your objective, you are forced to use harsh, powerful actions such as to attack, to demean, to punish, to accuse, to intimidate.
Let's apply this analysis to an example scene. Take a look at Michael Shannon's performance in the movie Take Shelter:
The power of his performance is stunning here. His wrath is reminiscent of an Old Testament prophet.
Obstacle: the community's complacency, ignorance, and dismissal of him as crazy.
Objective: Wake them up! Convince them to prepare for the impending doom of the storm.
Actions: Scold them. Scare the BE-JEEZUS out of them. Put the fear of God into their hearts.
2. Track the events that have built up the pressure and led up to this point of fury.
The explosion of the angry fight generally does not come out of nowhere. It is a result of pressure and tension that has built up over time. It happens when all other avenues have been exhausted. Think of volcanoes and earthquakes. The most powerful and disastrous eruptions and quakes are the ones that happen most infrequently. Under the surface of the earth, the tension builds and builds, until the energy simply must be released.
The explosion of anger comes from an initial suppression of anger. Find the events that build the pressure; these are instances when your character is perhaps pushed to lash out and attack, but they choose to suppress that urge. They try a different route. The energy of that urge does not disappear. It is banked for later.
There will usually be events within the scene that lead up to the point-of-no-return explosion. But there will also be events prior to that throughout the story.
3. Find the weakness in you that your opponent has attacked.
People tend to lash out in anger when a central weakness in them has been exposed and attacked. They've been hurt deeply, or they are in danger of being hurt. It's like animals in the wild. They don't get eaten without a vicious fight for their life.
A good antagonist in a story knows exactly how to exploit a protagonist's vulnerability. Pay attention to your opponent's lines and actions. Find exactly how they get under your skin, how they target and take advantage of your weakness. It may be a weakness you're not even fully aware of. It may be something you're in deep denial about, which makes it all the more vulnerable to exploitation.
Watch this scene from Revolutionary Road. Michael Shannon's character John Givings lays bare the ugly truth and targets the central weakness in Leonardo Dicaprio's character, Frank Wheeler. He insults his masculinity and accuses him of cowardice, which sets him off.
4. Find the triggering event.
There is usually some triggering event, where the opponent has hit a raw nerve, and there is no going back. All that pressure that was building up gets released. The trigger clears away all inhibitions and restraints in an instant.
Find the triggering event. Take it in fully and let it propel you.
Leonardo Dicaprio's performance in this scene in Revolutionary Road is a good example. Watch how Kate Winslet's scream triggers him and incites his uncontrollable rage:
5. Find the opposites. Use these to find contrast and variety in your actions.
If the scene goes on for some time, you can't just play it all on one loud note. You need to find a variety of different tactics to play. We are complicated, contradictory creatures. As much as we want and desire something, there is another part of us that also doesn't want it. If you're able to find those opposites and play them, your performance will be more lifelike and 3-dimensional. Once you decide on what you are fighting for, find moments here and there in the scene where you are fighting for the opposite. It might be a moment where instead of the standard, "I'm right, you're wrong" fight, there is a brief reversal where you actually play, "You're right. I'm wrong." Or it might be a moment where you actually give up on the thing you want.
Watch Andrew Garfield's performance as Eduardo Saverin in this scene from The Social Network for a great demonstration of this variety in tactics.
His fight starts with a bang. He smashes Mark's computer to get his attention. Mark tries to dodge the issue, but Eduardo confronts him head-on. Eduardo softens and appeals to their friendship. There's the hurt of being so utterly betrayed by his best friend. You can see some cracks, like he is about to give up and accept that he's lost. But after being pestered by Sean Parker's side comments, he lashes out insulting them and calls them pretentious douchebags. He knows the damage is done and he is losing, even though he swears he won't sign the papers. As a last ditch effort, he shifts the conversation to a more personal level by bringing up "getting into the Phoenix" (a club at Harvard.) He is appealing again to their bond as friends. He's trying to subvert Mark's cold all-business attitude. But this quickly shifts into a realization and accusation that Mark may have been a snake-in-the-grass the whole duration of their friendship. He ends their interaction with an ominous threat to sue.
There are so many interesting and various things played just in those few minutes.
Angry fight scenes require A LOT of energy to play. You want to be physically prepared to generate this kind of intensity and make sure you don't strain yourself, especially your voice.
1. Stretch and energize the whole body. Ground yourself.
Emotion requires an engagement with your whole body. You want to make sure you're properly warmed up and without tension so you can be responsive and open to the feelings that arise. Rage comes from deep within, so you want to be connected to your base. You want to be grounded and draw that energy up from your feet. Feel the power in your feet, legs, hips, and belly. Think of how fighters take a stance when they're squaring off. You need some of that energy and engagement in you.
Try this grounding yoga practice as a warmup:
2. Do a resistance exercise.
A resistance exercise such as push-ups or lifting weights will get the blood flowing and the heart rate up, which mimics the physical state of being enraged. Also a resistance exercise involves you having to literally work against a heavy and powerful opposition. This is the same energetic dynamic at play in a fight, so this type of exercise can help get you into that fighting mindset.
3. Breathe deep. Fire up the belly.
Emotional expression requires a deep engagement with the breath. The breath is the fuel for the fight. It's the thing that powers you through. Take some time to relax and breathe deep into the belly. Deep emotions always emerge from the belly. Fire up the energy in there. Think of it as your power generator.
If you're not used to working with your breath, and you're not sure how to get started, try this exercise:
4. Relax your face, jaw, and throat.
When it comes to yelling in a scene, for an untrained actor, there is often a tendency to want to push and strain the throat as the way to raise the volume and power the speech. This not only can hurt and damage the voice, it makes the performance less powerful. Like I said before, the actions and delivery of the lines need to be powered from deep within using full breaths. Your face, jaw, and throat need to be without tension so that nothing is blocking the breath. If you keep breathing and keep an open throat, your voice can operate properly without strain. You need to maintain an open channel for expression.
Massage your face and jaw lightly, letting go of any tension there. Yawn a few times by widening the mouth and lifting the soft palette. (The soft palette is the roof of your mouth towards the back. It moves when you say "gah" or "kah.") These yawns will help you relax and open up the throat.
5. Practice calling out.
Breathe deep, and with that open throat (lifted soft palette) call out "Hey!" as though you're trying to be heard from afar. You can try calling out different words. Try yo, go, stop, ahoy, etc. Try some of your lines while maintaining that call.
You want to maintain that openness even in the most intense moments of performance. The yelling is really calling out. It's not a way to back off on the intensity; the openness is actually the thing that will allow for the most intense and powerful expression.