The 1 Tool Actors Need to Overcome Fear

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Human beings are genetically hardwired to protect themselves from harm, from confrontation, from what they fear, or else to fight and destroy it. A third option, curiosity, comes only from the safety of an objective distance. But in the moment of confrontation, there is only fight or flight.

Early man first heard a rustle in the bushes and immediately legged it back to the cave. Subsequent ages have seen human behavior morph this fight-or-flight instinct into emotional and psychological forms as another way to ward off embarrassment, ridicule, and heartbreak, among other modern threats. Aside from the craving of food and water, or the need to evacuate one’s bladder and bowels, there is nothing more natural than being afraid.

Fear comes in many forms. From fear of dying, to fear of heights, enclosed spaces, spiders, or public speaking, all fears trick the brain into believing they are equal to the fear of dying. As irrational as this is to the conscious and objective mind, it is entirely justifiable to the unconscious and subjective mind. To a teenager in high school, ostracism—or worse: global social ridicule on the Internet—might as well be death. Hence the alarmingly high teen suicide rate in developed countries.

When it comes to the fear actors feel in auditions, on set, or on opening night of a stage play, there is no value in hearing “Relax,” or “Just trust the work,” and “Enjoy yourself.” If you are not relaxed, trusting, and excited by the time you stand in front of an audience, then you are simply unprepared, which is why you are so fearful in the first place. You are terrified—and quite rightly so.

As soothing as it may seem to chant mantras or pray to a higher power, the only true antidote to fear…is preparation.

Fear is not embarrassment, social ridicule, or even dismemberment and death. Fear is the anticipation or expectation of these things. To be more accurate, fear is the presumption that these things will come to pass. The fact that they rarely do has little impact on our fears, because as we mentioned before, they are irrational.

Do you fear brushing your teeth? You might, if every time you did it another tooth fell out, or you tripped and swallowed the brush. But of course you don’t, because you have brushed your teeth safely thousands of times. In no way can you imagine a toothbrush doing you harm. An explosive toothbrush made of razor blades and loaded with shrapnel, on the other hand…

Forgetting lines tops the fear actors experience in their careers. They fear this because they have never run these lines in front of the casting director or audience before. In some cases, actors don’t even run their lines in front of anyone, which would make complete sense of their fear. Their preparation is sorely lacking. By the second week of a play’s run, or the third and fourth callback for a film or TV audition, fear of forgetting lines is surpassed by the fear of making dull choices, or having worn the wrong outfit to the casting. If actors had taken risks with their choices thousands of times in front of people and consistently not died, then there would be nothing to fear. Fear might be replaced by frustration at failing to match their rehearsal to the performance, but frustration is not fear.

It all comes down to your training. Your preparation.

Training is about much more than learning basic skills. It is also about developing resilience to fear. Though one may never be entirely fearless on stage or screen, there is much we can do to increase our bravery. Though breathing exercises and positive mantras are great, without the proper training they are simply a smokescreen, or misdirection from our fears. They don’t defeat our fears; they merely confuse or delay them.

How do you learn your lines? By technique, or by hope? Do you run the lines on your own or with another person? If you run them with another person with whom you feel safe and comfortable, how does this prepare you for a group of strangers capable of hiring you for that big job? In short, it doesn’t.

An arachnophobe must be incrementally introduced to spiders to overcome their fears. So too actors, must be introduced to potentially “hostile” (as they perceive it) audience members and auditors. Gradually, and with technique.

By all means, run your lines on your own, with script in hand. Soon though, run them through without the script at all. After this, run them with someone with whom you feel safe. Then, someone slightly unfamiliar to you, perhaps a new person in class. After this, run them with two friends sitting by, watching. Followed by two strangers who aren’t casting directors. I promise you that when you follow this path you will reduce your level of fear in the audition process several hundred percent. At least. Equally, if you have not successfully navigated at least hundreds of cold reads without losing your fear, then you are not prepared enough to be doing them justice.

Don’t have the techniques to learn lines accurately? Don’t have time to run multiple drafts of your scenes with the people mentioned above? Then don’t be surprised when you arrive at your audition, or on the job, afraid that you’re not ready.

The best antidote to fear is solid preparation. Are you getting enough of the right kind?

Check out our film audition listings! And for more acting advice, visit Backstage’s YouTube channel!

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.
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