The 5 Major Emotions for Actors to Master

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In my weekly classes, we focus on five major emotions, all of which are played honestly and as obstacles to reflect real life. Emotions are almost never convenient for us in real life so we try to hide them. When an actor simulates this process using their own raw feelings, they must keep it simple for the audience to be able to see anything happening underneath.

Scientists agree that humans tend to have dozens of emotional circuits. They also tend to group those emotions into roughly six primary emotions. (I’m leaving one off this list, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) Here are the five emotions every actor should have on lock, the ones I call the “Emotional Switchboard”: like an old telephone operator, you have to be able to connect the lines quickly and move one to the next.

The five major emotions


This tends to be the easiest for beginning actors to achieve. Sometimes just volume can bring it on. Ever notice how contentious a conversation can be when you’re speaking to someone who can barely hear you on a cell phone? Relationship therapists say you should never talk to someone through a closed door because the fact that you’re raising your voice can lead to a fight. In on-camera acting, volume isn’t always a good look, so you’ll have to wire your switchboard and eventually find a subtle means of getting there.


I hate to say it, but tears are pretty cheap in Hollywood. Most actors can either cry on command or secretly wish they could. This is a fundamental feeling and one most artists know all too well. Be careful not to overuse tears and be wary of tricks. Even if you use fake tears, that’s not true sadness. Find this place on your switchboard and bravely go there in a big way—then you’ll have to fight against the tears or risk looking manipulative or self-pitying. If you want an audience to fall in love with you, never feel sorry for yourself. It repulses them.

READ: How to Access Your Emotions as an Actor


Or lust, to be more scientific and less romantic about things. This is key for cinema actors. In a musical, it only takes one song to fall in love. In a film, it takes giving your real love to the actor standing in front of you. Even in classic PG movies, the actors were having R-rated thoughts. Put it in those bedroom eyes. Let it smolder. On a personal note, be careful with this. It only takes ten minutes of sustained eye contact to feel like you are falling for someone. Now all those onset romances make more sense.


So many sequences in films require sustained fear over long shoots with little or no dialogue. Heavy breathing can get you feeling something, but you must get primal for this to really play. In my opinion, it’s the second-hardest one to play.


The same thing that puts actors in touch with sadness and anger so readily makes happiness elusive on screen. You need only watch the extras in a scene where the lead actors have won the contest or sporting event to see how easily false joy can wreck a moment. Just tap into your joy of the process. Let that giggle that's sneaking up to ruin a take come into your psyche. Don’t break character, but there's always something to smile about when you're working.

Don't forget about surprise!

And now for the one I left off the list: Surprise. You can’t play surprise authentically; it’s a paradox. As an actor, you know what’s coming so you’ll have to rely on technique with this one. (A very creative scene partner can help.) 

“But what about all those other emotions?” For jealousy, switch from anger to love to fear to sadness. Clear emotions. That sounds playable and it also sounds a lot like jealousy to me. “What about disgust?” Play anger and subdue it as an obstacle. Don’t get all the way there and you got it.

These primary feelings are all host to a long list of more subtle emotions on our circuitry, but don’t bother playing those. Just play the primary emotion and the degree to which you achieve the feeling from take-to-take (or night-to-night in a play) will shift the audience’s perception of the scene.

The human emotional experience is more complex than this would suggest. But when it comes to acting, keep it simple. The varied emotions people experience in the real world are difficult to read. If you play an obscure emotion, it may disappear altogether. Make your work an emotional argument, not an intellectual one. The intellect leads to indication. Emotional work has bought and paid for a lot of houses in my neighborhood.

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Ryan R. Williams
Ryan R. Williams has directed three award-winning feature films with appearances by Brad Pitt, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jodie Foster, Owen Wilson, Tracy Morgan, Kristen Bell, and Kevin Smith. Williams is currently directing pilots and episodes for network television and regularly casts members of “Screen Actors System,” his Los Angeles-based film acting school.
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