How to ‘Sleep’ on the Job

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Photo Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

On first thought, sleeping should be something easy to act out. It’s an action that comes pretty naturally—and certainly regularly—for most of us, so how hard could it be? Turns out, there are plenty of challenges when it comes to looking natural while napping on stage and screen.

Carolyn McCormick, Conservatory On Camera Technique teacher at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, shares the alchemy needed to sleep on the job without falling asleep at the professional wheel.

Don’t Actually Fall Asleep

This seems like a no-brainer, but McCormick has seen this before when actors start snoring. “Sometimes the setups are so long and you’re lying in your bed and all comfy,” she says. “I would think of it as meditation [rather than sleeping], because otherwise you're going to be fidgety. If you’re meditating, you can be still and focus on your breathing. Then it gets rhythmic and calm.” 

Get Warmed Up and Relax

“Everyone has tension in different parts of their body: their shoulders, their jaw, their eyes, their eyebrows,” McCormick says. “I would make sure that everything is warmed up and loose. That will make it easier to relax.”

McCormick recommends that you prep much like you would if you were about to work out or do something physical. “I would just make sure you're not cold getting into the bed and that you aren’t stiff. Your body should be able to just melt into the bed, which is what happens when you're really sleeping. I often have my students do jumping jacks and high kicks; anything to get them into their body and out of their heads.” 

Choreograph Your Performance

“I would do a monologue in my head and have certain places where I flip or put the pillow over my head. It's harder to be super-still and not be fluttering, tossing, and turning. Watch someone sleeping fitfully and then just imitate it. There's a gazillion positions people get in and I would just explore them all,” says McCormick. 


McCormick’s biggest piece of advice? “Breathing, breathing, breathing, breathing. That way you won't fall asleep and you also won't look like you’re faking it.”

Carolyn McCormick, a Conservatory On Camera Technique teacher at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, has decades of experience in film, theater, and voice acting. In the 1990s, she snagged the role of Dr. Olivet in “Law and Order” and has reprised the role in the show’s myriad spinoffs.