Think of an event in your life when you suffered a loss or experienced some sadness. Were you saying to yourself, "Gee, I hope I can cry when I'm supposed to" or "Thank God I'm really crying!"? Of course not. The tears resulted from your immersion in real-life circumstances. It should be the same thing when you're acting. If you're really involved in the life of your character, the emotion will take care of itself.
"But what do I do if I'm immersed in the character's given circumstances, have a strong moment before, objectives I ache to achieve, and obstacles driving me up the wall, and I still can't cry?" Excellent question. The following are 12 techniques to help you explore other ways to release your character's pent-up emotion.
1. Reverse psychology. For some actors, it's about telling yourself in character not to cry. "Even if she leaves me, I'm not going to cry." "I refuse to let them see me cry." "No matter what they do to me, I won't break down." Tears will often result because you're removing the pressure and obligation to cry.
2. The outside in. Place your body in a position you were in when you cried in real life, and begin to move, breathe, and let out the sounds you would make if you were really crying. It may seem awkward and artificial at first, but if you practice this technique on a daily basis, your body's muscle memory will eventually allow the behavior to become real. Do not wait until you have an audition or you're on the set to begin exploring this method.
3. The inside out. Think of a past experience that caused you great sadness. Re-create the circumstances leading up to this event as if it were happening right now. Use all five of your senses. Be very specific as to what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Don't worry about the result, and don't try to squeeze out the emotion. This isn't a documentary of your life; it's a creative exploration. So if you're stuck, you can change any or all of the memory's variables. You can change how old you were, what you were wearing, what was being said to you, or who was saying it. If your imagination isn't sparked, select another event. If you can sensorially re-create the circumstances leading up to this event, you'll be surprised how easily the tears flow.
4. Back door memory. Let's say the scene is about the death of your character's mother. If thinking about her last moments doesn't move you, focus on the prior circumstances. Examples: As the character, imagine the time your mother sang you a lullaby and rocked you to sleep when you were a toddler, the time you and she walked hand in hand to your first day of kindergarten, the day she taught you to ride a bicycle, or how she cried when you graduated from high school. Why should you be moved by the death of another character if you haven't created vthe life that would allow you to miss that character in the first place.
5. Power phrase. Select a phrase that fits the character you're playing and repeat it silently several times before you begin the scene. Pick something that really moves you, such as "Nobody loves me" or "Please don't leave me" or "Why can't I ever do anything right?"
6. Music. Select a piece of music that evokes a strong memory. Perhaps it's the music that was playing when you met the love of your life, or the music you blasted to drown out your parents' fighting. It may not have made you cry at the time, but it might put you in the necessary state if used in combination with the character's given circumstances. Bring a Walkman with you and play this music while you're waiting to read or perform.
7. Place. A strong sense of place may trigger the tears. Create a place from your past and/or your imagination that evokes painful or wonderful memories. Again, use all five of your senses.
8. Personal objects. Wear an item of jewelry or place something in your pocket that has a strong association for you. Then touch it or look at it before you start the scene. This personal object can be from your past, or you can endow it with personal associations from your imagination.
9. Use it. If you're feeling frustrated and defeated because you aren't able to cry, attribute those feelings to the character.
10. Sight light. Henry Fonda used to stare at the brightest light he could find without blinking, until his eyes began to water.
11. Someone else. Quite often we're more affected by someone else's plight than by our own. If your character's given circumstances don't move you, imagine they're happening to someone else.
12. A little help from your friends. It's not unusual to see actors having eucalyptus blown through their eyes by wardrobe in order to produce tears. This is perfectly acceptable, but it's only helpful if the tears are to come at the beginning of the scene.
One more point to remember: How you cry is as important as whether you cry. You don't cry the same way at a wedding as you do at a funeral or when your team loses or when you stub your toe.
Bottom line: If your primary reason for crying is because "the script says I'm supposed to," your focus is in the wrong place. It's not about whether you cry. It's about whether the audience cries.
Doug Warhit has been teaching on-camera cold reading and scene study in Los Angeles for the last 25 years. He is the author of "Book the Job: 143 Things Actors Need to Know to Make It Happen" (from which this column is adapted) and "The Actors Audition Checklist." He can be reached at www.dougwarhit.com.
Inspired by this post? Check out our audition listings!