Ever wondered how the world’s greatest actors cry on command? Getting real tears 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 isn’t as difficult as it may seem.
We asked a handful of talented film and TV actors for their advice on how to make yourself cry on screen. Some can cry automatically; others rely on their acting training to ensure each take is more emotionally impactful than the last. Below are their top tips for actors trying to cry on cue—follow them, and you’ll be tearing up in no time.
Let’s start with the basics: Tears are water, which means that it’s a lot harder to produce them if you’re dehydrated. Without enough fluid in your system, your body will be unable to activate its tear ducts—and no matter your acting training, you’ll have a tough time making yourself cry.
“When I was in grad school at NYU,” 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.”
Focus on the emotion, not the end result.
“If the mind goes to, ‘How do I cry?’, then you’re not going to,” says acting teacher Brad Calcaterra. Instead, he encourages students to engage with the emotions that emerge during a scene—and let the crying come naturally. “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.”
Identify your personal triggers.
“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.”
This approach can be a slippery slope, however. If you’re playing an intense scene that resembles your own life too closely, drawing on that experience can submerge you in 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 so emotional that you can’t complete another take. Part of being able to cry on cue is the ability to stop crying on cue, too.
Use your imagination.
Because he’s not a Method actor, Colter says he relies on principles such as Sanford Meisner’s imaginary circumstances and Stella Adler’s power of imagination when he needs to make himself cry for a scene. “Once you prep those, [crying will] be there for you,” he says.
The process is simple: Put yourself in an imaginary scenario that stirs intense sadness. “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.”
Mine the script for additional context.
Brown combines his own personal experiences with the “given circumstances of the character” to create an emotional state that allows for tears. “You can sometimes oscillate back and forth between the two,” he says. “One can take over for another one.” While prepping your character and filling in the basic questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?), identify what aspect of the character’s personality might lead to tears.
Fill in your character’s backstory as needed.
When it comes to crying on cue, it may also be helpful to think outside the script. 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.
How often have you responded emotionally to a scene in which no tears have actually been shed? The actor’s pain or sadness is so acutely honest that it stirs up strong emotions in others—even though there was no crying involved. Whether a script calls for “welling up or tears running down,” Calcaterra says, the single most important thing is to create “a vulnerable moment.” That feeling is far more important than physical tears.
Casting director Leah Daniels-Butler of Fox’s “Empire” echoes this sentiment. Crying is welcome in the audition room, she says, as long as “it’s honest and it comes from a real place.” But the key is not to force 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.”
“Every person, actor, human being is born with the capability to feel any emotion: sadness, loss, grief, envy, jealousy, pain,” Calcaterra notes. But summoning deep 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!