Actors love to cry. For all their talk of creating complex characters and subtle moments, nothing attracts them more than the chance to weep. They also love to play anger, but if they can muster up genuine tears, that’s the holy grail, because it means they’re a genuine artist-actor with an emotional wellspring just waiting to be tapped. It means they’re a real actor. It’s a right of passage for them.
And if that’s not enough, they’re always trying to make us cry, too. Aliens watching from outer space must think them very mean. Always trying to make other people cry. It’s terrible. But an actor shedding tears is usually the least effective way to make an audience shed them as well. So what is it in a dramatic performance that touches an audience?
1. When your character’s involved in an argument, don’t argue against the character with whom you have a relationship, argue for the relationship you have with the other character. The character that struggles to achieve something positive while they’re engaged in a conflict scene is the character that makes the camera care about them, and the one that truly moves the audience.
2. When creating conflict remember the conflict that really interests the camera isn’t the conflict between two characters. It’s the conflict within a character. If two siblings are arguing and the actors focus on the anger and hurt their characters feel towards each other, the camera will observe the scene passively no matter how well played. If one of the actors focuses on the guilt his or her character feels at hurting a sibling while they’re arguing, the camera becomes truly involved and emotionally invested in that character. Then the camera weeps for the character, and then the audience cries.
3. Finally, with all the other actors on the planet trying to make us cry, how does the clever actor stand out from the crowd? Make us laugh. Nothing brings home the full effect of a tear-jerker more than one moment in the middle of a crying scene, when the actor makes us laugh. Or at the very least makes us smile. You want to open our flood gates? You want us to think you’re a real actor? Take your character just to the point of tears and then find the humor in it all. If you can find a moment of humor in a crying scene, well then pass the Kleenex, dust off your mantel, and start practicing your acceptance speech.
John Swanbeck directed the existential film comedy “The Big Kahuna” starring Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito. He is currently scripting a new comedy with the original writer of Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie.” His stage productions have appeared in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. His highly acclaimed e-book for actors “John Swanbeck's: How to Steal the Scene & End Up Playing the Lead” is available now on Amazon and coming soon to iTunes. His company BlueSwanFilms is producing the animated series “The Daily Life of ‘Pants’ ” set in Los Angeles and the live comedy show The BlueSwanFilms Traveling Comedy Show. For John’s on-camera workshops email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow John on Twitter @CleverActorTips and visit BlueSwanFilms.com.