Really Scared

I recently watched a perfectly good stage actor indicate fear and horror by bugging out his eyes. I couldn't really blame him. Playing panic convincingly was always one of my Achilles' heels, too. I remember in one screwball comedy, no matter how much I tried to imagine that I was really being kidnapped, my expressions of alarm felt either phony or generic.

As Los Angeles acting teacher Ivana Chubbuck pointed out to me in a recent phone conversation, audiences love to see the real McCoy; why else are reality shows such as Survivor so popular? "Those people [on Survivor] don't know how to not show fear," she said. Even if only to compete with the reality shows, actors need to access terror that is just as palpable and personal.

"Directors will say again and again that true organic fear is the hardest thing for actors to get to," continued Chubbuck. "All the telltale physical responses are involuntary—pupils contract, heartbeat quickens, adrenaline pumps into your system, skin blanches."

Don't lose heart, though. There are ways of reacting honestly and fearfully to imaginary situations, thus generating those involuntary reactions.

For actors, there are two kinds of fear: quick reaction (Run for your life! Here comes a dinosaur!), and sustained (you're playing the wife in Dial M for Murder). They require different approaches.

Instant or Lingering Terror

Uta Hagen, in A Challenge for the Actor, makes it sound easy. She has a rodent phobia, so she simply imagines a mouse or a rat and promptly feels "ice-cold shivers, shudders of revulsion, and a compulsion to scream, leap in the air, or run away…." Hagen says imagining your most personally horrifying spectacle—whether it be "snakes, spiders, roaches, maggots, worms"—works for everyone. A doctor told her that such phobias are natural, a compressed symbol for the everyday and lifelong fears that we repress or don't understand. George Orwell knew all about it; remember the dreaded Room 101 in 1984?

Chubbuck embroidered upon Hagen's suggestion: Don't just imagine rats; imagine you're in a small room where they're scampering all over you, burrowing in your orifices, biting your… well, you get the picture.

Still, even those images might not work for everyone. Los Angeles actor and teacher Wendy Phillips told me she has no really powerful phobias. The key for her is physical relaxation—getting as far away as she can mentally and physically from the scary event-to-be—followed by total commitment. "You can't psychologically sneak up on it," she said.

In a scene in the film Bugsy, Phillips had to slap Warren Beatty. She said they must have done the take 50 times. "Each time he came to the scene with complete relaxation, no anticipation," she said. "Every take, that slap worked for him emotionally. I don't know how he did it. I don't know if I could do it. The more relaxed and innocent you can get yourself, the better chance you have of reacting involuntarily."

As a regular on the TV show Falcon Crest, Phillips once had a scene in which her husband shoots himself in the head. By the time they got around to her close-up, the husband had been dismissed for the day. And a sound ordinance forbade any loud noises. "All I had to react to was the director whispering, 'And now—bang,'" she said. "I was like, This is it? A whispered bang? Usually I find on films if you ask for a sound cue, a bang, off-camera, that really helps."

"But what if it's a visual cue you're responding to?" I asked.

"It doesn't matter," said Phillips. "If you can get someone to bang a prop, your body will involuntarily react to that sound, and you make the adjustment that it's fear."

To keep the creeps going over a period of time, Phillips finds it helpful to create a silent verbal chant, along the lines of "Oh, my God, please, please," and she gives herself permission to work herself up to a frenzy in rehearsal. She relies on that internal chant instead of on the other actor, then cuts back as needed in performance. I've tried that, too, but it tended to feel hollow for me.

"Just know what you're afraid of, and jump in; don't work on the specificity," advised Phillips. "Just trust that it's there."

What we're talking about here, of course, is making the fear real for you, personally. There is no type of fear, whether instant or sustained, that exists when you're acting other than your personal fear, your demons.

Stayin' Alive

Chubbuck has a special technique for quickly contacting your deepest angst and maintaining it throughout a take or a scene. She connects the concept of fear to action.

Our body and brain unconsciously create a fight-or-flight response, she told me, in order to overcome what's threatening us. So it's not just a matter of imagining something scary; it's a matter of activating that response. "It's the need to survive that actually creates fear, not the fearful situation itself," she said.

She led me through this simple exercise:

1.) First, make a list of your 15 to 20 strongest reasons for staying alive today, the things you most desperately need to do—you personally, of course, not your character. (I could dredge up only four.) Don't get lazy, said Chubbuck—investigate everything.

2.) Then read the list aloud and choose the most obviously powerful one. "The best ones are always the ones you're in denial about," she said. If you're a parent, your choice will probably have to do with your child. I'm not. I chose a current important task: to help my aged father, the sole caregiver for my mother, who has Alzheimer's.

3.) Chubbuck told me to imagine Dad smiling at me lovingly, gratefully. Then she told me to imagine myself not there, Dad all alone in the world, so desperate he's ready to take his own life.

4.) Then I was to say to myself, over and over, "I've got to survive to keep this from happening," like a mantra. The final step is to let it go and trust it will work.

"When you see your worst nightmare come true," said Chubbuck, "then you go into survival mode, your heart rate will increase, stuff will happen to you." That "stuff" will manifest itself in your acting choices. You will be alive in the moment, reacting spontaneously and profoundly.

I confess my heart wasn't pounding, although I did have tears in my eyes. It probably didn't help that I was sitting at my computer in my sweats with a headset on. Chubbuck swears it works on all her students.

The exercise (once you've chosen your worst-case scenario, which you should do that morning) takes no more than 20 to 30 seconds; do it just before the camera rolls—"When you've got your five-minute warning, and they're tweaking the lights," Chubbuck said—or during rehearsal. I imagine in a play you could do it just after the stage manager calls places—unless, of course, the frightening thing happens after you've been onstage for a while, in which case we're back to the sudden, unanticipated attack of the maggots.

"Every thought, sound, sight forms a crevice in the brain," explained Chubbuck. "There isn't anything that happens to you that doesn't become memorized. So you can get to [those memories] quickly if you prepare. Trust that your body will go back to those places. If you think about it too much, you mindfuck yourself."

She emphasized that this fear-inducing trick is not meant to be a lengthy affective memory exercise; rather, it's short and immediate. "Don't pump yourself for two hours. There's nothing worse than that," she said. "It leaves you and others uncomfortable. Thinking of your scariest moment—that just makes you vomit up old experiences, attempting to feel them again but never really feeling them that strongly. When you're on camera, the audience knows if you're lying or if you're vomiting up dead-dog stories." (Gulp. I have been guilty of using the dead-dog ploy. I thought it worked rather well at the time.)

She also noted that each time you tackle a new project, you'll need to reinvestigate what scenario works best for you at the moment. Just remember: The important thing is to imagine your most primal need today, then imagine what would happen if you weren't there to fulfill that need, then let your natural instincts propel you forward. The need to overcome, to survive, for a very tangible reason, is what will make the fear real. Said Chubbuck, "Fear is a good thing. It helps us take action."

To contradict Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only thing not to fear is fear itself. BSW