If you are emotionally blocked, please be aware that such blockage is not your natural emotional state. The natural state of every human being is the way the baby is in the crib. Fully expressed. You take away a baby's rattle, the baby doesn't sit and say, "I can't feel," or, "I can't get to that emotion." The baby explodes. A baby is fully expressed emotionally. If you're shut down emotionally, that's learned behavior. And for acting, it has to be unlearned. Do not expect to have a successful acting career unless you are emotionally available, and actors, I don't mean going to the movies and crying. People say that to me all the time, "Well I go the movies and I cry." Congratulations! Some great artist has affected you. That's quite different from being able to feel your own life, to be able to take your own life experiences and be connected with them. So, if you know that you are incredibly emotionally blocked and you need to go to see a therapist, then do so. You've got to get back in touch with yourself, your sources, in order to do this work.
We tend to see ourselves as the hero of our own stories. If I tell someone off, I walk away from the experience thinking, "Good for me, I stood up for myself," and the other guy walks away thinking, "What a jerk." I need to be able to see and own all parts of myself. Be brave. Dare to look deeply into the core of your own being.
How is this technique used incorrectly? Once I have done my emotional recall work, I have built my journal of experiences, I've taken detailed inventory of my life, which, by the way, I keep adding to every day. Here's where it is used incorrectly. Most of the time, when actors tell me that their source of transference has gone dry, it isn't that the memories have gone dry; it's that you're asking something of it. We are not robots. Emotionally, there is variety, there is swing. It's not going to be the exact same every time. So what happens when actors are playing in a scene, they contact something from their memory and it's just the flash of the thought. Once you have done the emotional recall work, you must immediately leave it alone. If you stop to think, "It came more last time, I should be crying more, it's not working!" automatically nothing can happen. The minute you stop and go into your head and start measuring how much emotion should be here, it won't work. "Should" is such a bad word. I have to give myself leeway anywhere in a script, where something might happen.
If a director tells you, "On that line, cry," automatically you can't do it. You have to give yourself plenty of room in a section of the script to allow for something to happen. There is a variety to the expression that's going to come out of you, if your eyes are just beginning to get moist that's enough for crying. The minute you commit yourself to the exact moment that you emote and the amount of emotion, you can't do it. Most of the time when actors tell me it's not working, it's because they're measuring, they're judging. You have to leave yourself alone because it's very, very delicate work, and most people don't have the trust to do this work. They start by fearing that it won't work. I will tell you actors that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Go into your head in any of those ways, and automatically you will undermine yourself and your craft.
The other way of arousing emotion is through the use of imagination, an essential part of personalization. "It would be as if …what in my own life?" How can I put myself in these circumstances? What do I have in my life that would allow me to relate to the circumstances that are written? Let's say I was working on a scene from the play Whose Life Is It Anyway? The main character, a sculptor, has been in an accident and is now paralyzed. He wants to die because he can no longer sculpt. If I were using my imagination to connect to what that character is experiencing, I would think about what would happen to me if I could no longer teach or direct—what if I lost my sight or hearing? What if I could no longer speak? I would then explore these feelings using my imagination to understand and relate to what the character is going through. I start with my own life and then leap into the "what if" of the character.
Once, I was working with two actresses on a scene that called for the characters to compete, but both actresses claimed they couldn't relate. I said, "What if Oliver Stone needed a young actress for the lead in a movie, and he called me for a recommendation, stipulating that I could only send him one person. . ."—they got the picture and played the scene beautifully.
So, actors, the operative question is not, "What would I do?" That is a nonsensical question for actors. We let ourselves off the hook immediately because we answer, "I would never do that." The operative question is, "What would make me to this?" When you read a script, it is no different from forming a relationship in life. How are we able to maintain friendships? When friends tell us about something that happened to them, we immediately look in our own lives for something, some parallels, something that lets us understand. As human beings, we find a way of relating. We wouldn't be able to have a single relationship in our lives if we weren't able to do that. Your friend would tell you, "I was so scared. I was in the middle of the highway, out of gas, and I thought my car was going to be hit." And you would say, while shrugging your shoulders, "That's never happened to me." At the end of it, you would have no relationship. Instead, we look immediately into our own lives and think, "Oh, I know what that's like because such and such happened to me." In essence, that's what personalization is all about. We wouldn't be able to go to movies or watch television or go to the theater if we couldn't do that. You'd be watching a James Bond film, shaking your head going, "I'm not a spy. I don't get it." We relate through our own life and our experiences. And that's what you have to be willing to do when you pick up a script. I hope to God most of you haven't experienced everything that you're going to be called upon to act. If that were the case, you would have led a horrendous life. But you have experienced enough on some level.
Now, as opposed to athletics, where an athlete is old at thirty, the good news about an acting career is that you have the potential to get better and better with time because life experiences will deepen you. As I have deeper experiences, I certainly understand more about loss after losing both of my parents; there's no way around that. I came to understand that there is a part of us known only to that person whom we have lost. Each of our relationships is unique and individual. We have a way of being that is specific and might only exist with this other person. When they die we lose that part of ourselves. Whenever I visited my parents' home or on their trips to visit me, my father would always say "Goodnight, son" at bedtime. When my father passed, I realized that no one would ever say that to me again. Life has made me deeper. Did I understand loss before that? Yes, to some degree. On some level we have experienced everything. Life will, of course, educate us in the most profound ways as we go.
Howard Fine has been teaching acting for more than 25 years. He headed the Acting Department at the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City, then founded the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Los Angeles. Additional excerpts from his new book, "Fine on Acting: A Vision of the Craft" (Havenhurst Books), will be published at BackStage.com over the next week.