From Kate Winslet’s pink-hued cheeks of passion as April Wheeler in “Revolutionary Road,” to Hugh Grant’s beguiling yet bumbling blush in every role he plays, actors blushing for a part is common practice. But is it even possible to make yourself blush on command?
“Scenes From a Marriage” Credit: Jojo Whilden/HBO
Blushing happens when the face, primarily the cheeks and forehead, experiences increased blood flow after an emotional stressor. The body releases adrenaline, which dilates the blood vessels and brings them closer to the surface of the skin, resulting in a pink or reddish hue. People might blush when they experience an emotional stimulant triggered by embarrassment, shame, shyness, fear, stress, or passion. Scientists believe that this is due to activation of the fight or flight response.
While blushing usually happens for psychological reasons, it also has some purely physiological causes, including consumption of alcohol and spicy foods, fever, certain medications, and some medical conditions, such as rosacea.
“Lovecraft Country” Credit: Elizabeth Morris/HBO
Blushing has long been an important element of theatrical and cinematic performance. Historically, the blush was portrayed onstage as a symbol of intimate knowledge. In Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” for example, the blush is a physical demonstration of a character’s interior thoughts:
If she be made of white and red,
Her faults will ne’er be known,
For blushing cheeks by faults are bred
And fears by pale white shown:
Then if she fear, or be to blame,
By this you shall not know,
For still her cheeks possess the same
Which native she doth owe.
A dangerous rhyme, master, against the reason of
white and red.
As shown here, actors blushing was usually performed through dramaturgical narration, or literally stating that they were blushing. Although actors sometimes used stage makeup at this time (particularly to represent fairies and other ethereal creatures), it was usually applied for an entire performance and not for a single blushing scene.
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The dual notion of the blush as either pure and innocent or brazen and shameless was explored in Victorian theatrical performances as a form of involuntary bodily and personal legibility. By the Edwardian era, however, the moral connotation of blushing began to fade, as rosy cheeks became synonymous with good health.
With the industrialization of the cosmetics industry at the turn of the 20th century, reddened cheeks became mainstream. Currently, the blush is most often used as a sign that a character is embarrassed, shy, or romantically or sexually aroused. For example, in the animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Bashful blushes regularly due to his shy, coy personality—but his most memorable blush happens when Snow White kisses him on the cheek. In Dakota Johnson’s portrayal of Anastasia Steele in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie adaptation, the character’s transition from blushing virgin to sexually knowledgable submissive is represented by her deepening blush.
As this history of turning pink demonstrates, being able to blush on command is a valuable skill for any budding actor. Even though you’ll likely have access to makeup artists and colorists if you’re filming a TV show or movie, a perfectly timed blush when your character experiences an emotional stressor could be the thing that places you a shade above your competition at auditions.
“Insecure” Credit: Merie Wallace/HBO
Since blushing is an involuntary physical response, it can be difficult to make yourself do it on command. However, just as you can train yourself to cry on cue, so too can you train yourself to redden your cheeks at will. Blushing on command is a matter of identifying your emotional triggers, focusing on an emotion, and fully leaning into your character’s emotional state.
Recognize your emotional triggers: Are there certain events you can recall that made you blush? Excavate these experiences to figure out your emotional state when they happened. “You should know your triggers,” says actor Mike Colter (“Luke Cage,” “The Defenders,” “Jessica Jones”). “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.” If you blushed when your crush talked to you but not when you flubbed a line, your emotional trigger is likely passion, not embarrassment. If you always experience a rush of heat when riding a rollercoaster, your emotional trigger might be fear.
Concentrate on an emotion: Now that you’re aware of your emotional triggers, try to recreate the feeling when you want to blush. Explore every detail of how you felt when that emotion made you blush, as well as the event that instigated it. Consider how you would feel if that same event happened now. You may need to use your imagination to revise or update the event and its associated emotion as it becomes demystified over time.
Identify with your character: If your character is blushing, it’s likely because they are experiencing a strong emotional trigger. Consider the W questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) of your character’s backstory and personality to ground yourself in the circumstances of their life and experiences. Even though you might not create an animesque luminescent blush when you daydream about a romantic interest, your character might. Engage your best method acting practices to truly transform into your character, and you may just find yourself blushing when they do.
“Stranger Things” Courtesy of Netflix
If you’ve tried your hardest and still can’t bring yourself to blush on command, all hope is not lost. For a live performance, try doing these exercises backstage before your blushing scene; for a taped performance, do them in between takes. You can approximate natural blushing in the following ways:
Force a blood rush: Do some inversion therapy by positioning yourself so that your head is below your waist. You can do this by bending forward, bending backward, doing a headstand, or (carefully) hanging upside down on monkey bars. Note that this will likely redden your entire face, not just your cheeks.
Increase blood flow: Alternatively, you can rub your cheeks with your hands or lightly slap them to make them appear pinker.
Use a caffeine cream: Many skincare lines offer caffeine creams, which can make your skin tingle and redden. Try applying a light layer to your cheeks and see if it gives you a rosy glow.
Rub ice on your skin: Similarly, rubbing ice cubes on your cheeks can make them temporarily redder.
Makeup: Of course, the most tried and true way to approximate a natural blush is to use… blush. On the “Fifty Shades of Grey” set, makeup artist Victoria Down focused on “freshening up the face and getting the blood under the cheeks” to create Anastasia’s iconic hue. If you’re doing your own makeup to attain the natural blush look, makeup artists recommend starting at the most prominent, rounded part of your cheek, and then blending the color outward. “You can create a healthy, natural-looking glow by swirling a small dab of color onto the apples of the cheeks and buffing it out in circular motions,” says makeup artist Elisa Flowers. Just keep your cosmetics and some makeup wipes on hand and you can change your look in seconds.
At first blush, learning to blush on command might seem like an arduous—and occasionally ardent—task. But if you spend enough time and effort dredging up previously repressed, embarrassing memories, you may just find yourself tickled pink and turning red.