Ever wondered how the world’s greatest actors cry real tears on camera? Getting actual water to fall from your eyes while being pressured to give a compelling, honest performance on film—or even in the audition room!—may sound daunting. But turning on the waterworks like Julianne Moore isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
We asked a handful of talented film and TV actors for their tricks to summoning tears. Some can cry automatically; others need to rely on their acting training to make each on-camera take more impactful than the last. Keep the pointers below in mind, you crybaby.
There is one basic component to crying that also doubles as a handy trick: stay hydrated. Without enough fluid in your system, your body will be unable to activate its tear ducts. “When I was in school at NYU, grad school,” remembers Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown, “Andre Braugher came and spoke to us. He said, ‘If you want to cry you have to be hydrated. Like, literally, you have to drink lots of water. Because if there’s not water inside of you, water can’t come out of you.” Brown drinks plenty of water on set to create what he calls “the Denzel tear.” Want to act like Denzel Washington? Drink up!
Don’t force it.
“If the mind goes to, ‘How do I cry?’, then you’re not going to,” says NYC-based acting teacher Brad Calcaterra. At the Studio, which focuses on breaking down actors’ fears and limitations in front of a camera, Calcaterra encourages students to accept whatever emotions emerge during a scene. “If I’m working with a very specific moment with the actor where that emotion needs to be there, I work on getting to a place where the body is relaxed, breathing, and the focus is on what is at hand. The second the actor goes to, ‘I have to cry here,’ you’re focused on a result and you’re not telling the emotional truth of the moment.”
Borrow from your personal experience...
“Some people are more emotionally available, some people cry once a week, once a day—that’s just who they are,” says “Marvel’s Luke Cage” star Mike Colter, who admits he is not one of those people. “You should know your triggers. In your life when you find yourself becoming emotional, you should remember what it was that made you emotional. And you can draw back on those things later.”
Note: This can be a slippery slope. Utilize personal inspiration rather than re-creation. If you’re playing an intense scene that resembles your personal life too closely, using that experience can submerge you in your personal feelings of grief, rage, or depression. Create enough distance from your memory so you’re not at its mercy and you don’t become emotionally unstable to the point that you can’t complete another take.
...or from your imagination.
Colter also says that because he’s not a Method actor, he relies on principles such as Sanford Meisner’s imaginary circumstances and Stella Adler’s power of imagination. “Once you prep those, [crying will] be there for you,” he says. The process is simple: Put yourself in an imaginary scenario that might stir in you intensely sad emotions. The best part: it’s solely yours to own. “It could be something that has nothing to do with the scene, and that’s your secret,” explains Colter. “No one has to know what you’re over there bawling about. You could be bawling about your kitty cat who just got bashed in a bag with a hammer! If you’re at a funeral and you’re crying, no one is going to pull you over and ask you why you’re crying.”
Focus on the character’s circumstances and stakes...
Don’t forget that your material provides everything you need to navigate any emotions that may come up, organically or artificially, in a scene. Brown says he uses personal experiences and his imagination—“trying to turn your own personal pain into something artistic”—but in combination with “the given circumstances of the character.... You can sometimes oscillate back and forth between the two; one can take over for another one.” While prepping your character and filling in the basic questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?), identify what in the character’s personality might lead to tears.
...or fill in more circumstances as needed.
Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard invented an extensive backstory for her character in “Two Days, One Night.” After carefully studying the script and playing with her lines, the actor filled in personal details for the depressed Sandra, including everything that happened in her life prior to the events of the film. “I wrote her life before,” she told Backstage. “I wrote scenes I would use later when I needed some support to be able to burst into tears out of nowhere. I needed to build a structure of stories that I could use when I needed to reach this or that emotion.” The technique clearly worked: Cotillard earned her second, much-deserved Oscar nomination for the performance.
Authentic vulnerability matters (even more than actual tears).
Whether it’s “welling up or tears running down,” says Calcaterra, “what we’re wanting is a vulnerable moment.” In fact, vulnerability is more important than the actual production of tears. How often have you responded emotionally to a film or TV scene you’re watching when no actor in the scene has cried? Those actors’ vulnerability is so acutely honest, they can engender emotion in others even without tears.
Casting director Leah Daniels-Butler of Fox’s “Empire” says that in the audition room, “if it’s honest and it comes from a real place,” tears are welcome. But the key is not to fake it! “If the scene says you have to cry and you can’t evoke that emotion, then by all means maybe that’s not the [goal]. You just don’t want to come off fake. If it says, ‘she gets emotional’ or ‘holds back tears,’ and you feel you can’t get there, don’t do it. When people do that, it’s a little unbearable. Like, what are you doing?”
Remember: You can do it.
According to Calcaterra, “Every person, actor, human being is born with the capability to feel any emotion: sadness, loss, grief, envy, jealousy, pain.” To feel such emotions at the drop of a hat takes practice and baby steps—you’re not going to cry like Meryl Streep on your first try, so keep at it.
To practice your crying on camera, browse all of our film casting calls!