Whether it’s Sterling K. Brown shedding “the Denzel tear” as Randall Pearson on “This Is Us,” or Joaquin Phoenix releasing an “almost painful” laugh as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” the ability to access emotions is imperative to the craft of acting. If you want to know how to evoke emotion in acting, this step-by-step guide has you covered.
“Rocketman” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Emotion in acting is a necessary component to creating compelling performances. Good actors communicate emotions with their audience with a nuance that feels both new and real. If an emotion is portrayed in an unconvincing way, the audience cannot suspend their disbelief and are no longer immersed in the production. However, when acting based on emotions feels natural, the audience connects with actors and their performances.
1. Recognize what makes you feel an emotion. Knowing how to access your own tears, fears, and smiles makes it easier to do so when you’re portraying a character. The Stanislavsky Technique urges actors to strengthen their "emotional memory." Take stock of any shift in your emotions throughout the day, and really interrogate what's causing it.
2. Use your own experiences. If you’re trying to conjure up an emotion for a scene that you don’t personally resonate with, think of a time that you really did feel that emotion. Don't just use your imagination; use your senses. "The technique involves recalling a sensual experience—sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch—to evoke an emotional reaction appropriate to a moment in the scene," says acting coach Joan Stephens, describing tactics found in both Stanislavsky's teachings and Lee Strasberg's The Method.
3. Study. Watch the greats as they perform different emotions. How does Jack Nicholson perform anger differently from Cate Blanchett? Why does Nicolas Cage emanate sadness and fear through the screen in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but not in “The Wicker Man”? Consider how acting emotional works for some actors and productions and not others and see if you can work that into your own performances.
4. Embody your character. Ask the W questions (who? what? when? where? why?) about your character to figure out their motivations and why they feel the way they do. Genuine emotion comes easier when you fully understand your character's given circumstances and the objective driving them—not just in the entire story, but scene to scene and moment to moment.
5. Use active verbs. Actioning—or assigning an active verb to your dialogue in a script—can help you find the intension and subtext behind the words you say—and therefore help you know how to feel. If your line is "get out," the emotion on your face will be different with the active verb (wound) than it would be with (plead).
6. Be completely present. “The more relaxed and innocent you can get yourself, the better chance you have of reacting involuntarily,” advised actor Wendy Phillips (“Falcon Crest,” “Homefront”). And it's true—the goal in showing emotion as an actor is to not think about it in the moment. Actively listen to your scene partner, and don't analyze how you're going to react; just let yourself react.
7. Practice. Keep studying the script. Practice being your character and performing their emotions until it feels like second nature.
“Joker” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Acting coach Cathryn Hartt offers her best exercises for accessing emotions:
Once you get out of your own thoughts (and your own blocks) and get into the body and thoughts of the character, you begin to operate from a deeper core that connects to the emotions of the character. In this state, you will find it easier to let the other character’s words and actions continually push your buttons throughout the scene.
To really get into a character’s emotional state, pump yourself up to get your blood surging—big time. You are trying to get yourself into the exact physical state that you are in when you actually feel the emotion in your own life. These exercises can help:
- Agitate: Do pushups or agitate yourself. Stomp around, pound your fists, and yell and curse to pump your emotions up to get angry. Get your adrenaline pulsing through your body any way you can. No one cares that you are doing this. They know you need to push your buttons for an emotional scene and are thrilled you can do it quickly so they can get the shot.
- Rant: Try ranting—when you speak passionately about something. Choose what your character hates most and do a few minutes worth of a wild, passionate, angry rant about it. Pick what is really irritating your character in the scene or the straw that broke the camel’s back that set you off. What drives you crazy? Get madder and madder as you go. Get insane!
- Scream: This works especially well if you are playing an extremely angry or powerful villain. Just scream bloody murder. Try to scream and go right into the scene.
- Slump: Slump or hold onto your body in a defeated or protective way. Perhaps even collapse a bit.
- Ugly breathe: Try audible breathing as if you can’t catch your breath. Make the ugly sounds you make when you cry. Let your voice be ugly and broken. Let your face become ugly. Be willing to be unattractive.
- Cry: Choose what you fear, what broke your heart, or whatever situation in the actual scene is making you sad and just rant. Get more and more upset as you go until you are sobbing. This will help you to find the buttons to push when you need to call upon those tears again. It will get you so out of control that it is easy to break into tears very quickly. Just keep screaming until you are totally broken.
- Smile: Accessing positive emotions can sometimes feel more difficult than negative ones. The easiest thing to do is fake it ’til you make it by giving your biggest smile.
- Laugh: Physicalize the act of laughter until you’re actually releasing a full-belly laugh.