Leave the Agony Behind

"Think of your pet dog having a thousand needles stuck into him over his entire body. Think of his pain. Now, while in this state, do your monologue for me." An adult student told me that this is what his acting teacher instructed him to do in order to play a character who’s terrified.

A 9-year-old student informed me that her previous acting coach had told her that just before starting an emotional scene, she should think of her mommy dying. Little did this teacher know, the girl’s mother had recently been in a major car accident and was pronounced dead at the scene in front of her daughter before regaining consciousness and being rushed to the hospital. Months later, the girl was still traumatized by the acting exercise. Fortunately, she’s no longer studying with that "teacher."

As an adult, I don’t ever want to think of those images, especially before shooting a scene. I can’t imagine how terrible it would be for a child. I thought acting was supposed to be fun. As a kid, I pretended to be a cowboy. I never had to do things like this to be a scared cowboy.

Furthermore, you aren’t playing yourself; you’re playing a character. How can remembering a Brad Heller experience evoke emotion effectively for a character I’m playing? The amount of terror I feel from thinking about my personal experience won’t properly fit the scene I’m doing. The character is not Brad Heller. It’s like trying to put a piece of one puzzle into another—it just won’t fit.

These are the kinds of acting techniques I have experienced myself and have heard about from my students, ages 7 to 70. Some call it affective memory, a technique used in Method acting: using your memory of a personal tragic event to catapult you into a state of mind, at which point, supposedly, the character takes over and you’ll be emotional for the scene.

An Electric Connection

What is emotion? To me, emotion is the electricity in your body and your heart when you feel, which then beams out through your eyes. Like the electricity of rage you see in Anthony Hopkins’ eyes when he says, "Hello, Clarice," in "The Silence of the Lambs." I believe we need this electricity for great acting, and it beams out through our eyes. It’s the engine that runs the car. Without it, your motor will be dead and your character will be flat—like old 7Up lacking carbonation. So how do we get that without ending up in therapy?

After literally hundreds of thousands of wasted dollars and hours spent on crappy acting classes across the country, I found that the most effective way to evoke emotion was not taught to me in any university, but nearly 20 years ago in L.A. by the late Don Richardson, my acting mentor.

Don wrote an amazing book called "Acting Without Agony: An Alternative to the Method." He taught some of the greatest actors of my generation: Grace Kelly, Anne Bancroft, Zero Mostel, and Helen Hayes (who wrote the foreword to his book). He directed more than 800 episodes of TV shows, many of which I watched as a kid: "Get Smart," "Bonanza," "The Defenders," "Lost in Space." He also directed plays on Broadway and was an original member of the Group Theatre, alongside Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. This was important for me to know, as I wasn’t looking for some fly-by-night, quick-fix technique.

Don completely changed my outlook on acting and made it fun again. I discovered that it’s possible to get emotional without having to think of anything personal.

Here’s the deal. It may sound weird, but it works. Try it and you’ll see. Evoking emotion doesn’t have to be done by thinking of something from your own life. You can do it by simply verbalizing the name of the emotion. Don explained that the body is so familiar with emotion, you’ll feel it by simply saying it aloud.

Say "anxiety" aloud. Don’t you feel an electric tingle in your chest? That’s where the center of the emotion anxiety is located. Say the word "joy." You may feel a tingle in your chest that rushes up your throat to your mouth. It may make you smile. You’re feeling this small amount of emotion. It isn’t enough to carry you through a scene, but it’s the epicenter, if you will, of that emotion—where it starts in the body.

Just Breathe

I learned that after saying the emotion aloud, there’s a very simple breathing exercise to get my body filled with a tremendous amount of the required feeling. I could suddenly feel very angry, happy, or terrified at the snap of my fingers, without having to delve into my mental diary.

Let me explain the breathing and why we do it. Whenever we’re emotional, our body has the same type of physiological reaction—the same one we get when we’re panting and out of breath after exercising. We get a little lightheaded, our muscles tense up, our heart rate increases, we sweat, and so on. No matter what the emotion is, our experience is the same.

In my classes, I teach how to get really emotional—terrified, happy, angry, etc.—simply by saying the name of the emotion and breathing heavily for a few seconds, and then we start the scene. The technique is built around the muscle memory that will automatically produce the lightheaded electricity we have when we’re really emotional.

I taught this technique for five years at UCLA (where Don Richardson taught me) and then opened my own school in 1994, the Acting Without Agony Academy, where I currently teach. Don’s technique changed my life and completely rejuvenated my passion to act.

Brad Heller will host the intensive "Master the Audition" at Actorfest LA on Saturday, Nov. 6. For more information, go to Actorfest.com.