Top Tips for Playing Emotional Scenes

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Steve Eastin

Steve Eastin Studio, Los Angeles

The most important advice I can give is do not rehearse. Steven Spielberg said, "Anytime an actor says a line, they lose some of their innocence." Do anything you can to keep your left brain from fixating on what is about to happen. Read, watch TV, meditate, joke around with the crew. Even if you don't rehearse but you think about it a great deal, the innocence will still be lost. Then, when the moment of truth arrives, get into a high state of excitement, empty out of your personal self, and leap into it with choiceless awareness. The result should be a detailed, powerful, satisfying, nuanced performance and a pleasant surprise to you as well as your director.

Maggie Flanigan

Maggie Flanigan Studio, New York

I would like to answer this question by going back to some fundamental principles about handling emotion in scene work. My perspective is, of course, from the Meisner technique.

To begin with, let's talk about emotion in general and how to handle it as an actor in most scenes. First, the actor must have a physically released acting instrument that can process emotional experience in the body. The actor must be open, available, and vulnerable to the effect of the other actors. When an actor begins to become emotionalized, it is important that he be released physically, with no physical constriction, so that the emotion can course through the body.

You cannot hold on to emotion or try to sustain or control it. Emotion is like water; it ebbs and flows and changes. Also, emotion can flip around in the actor, and the actor must allow that to happen. If the acting instrument is open and the actor has done his homework, his instincts and his understanding of the character will come to the surface. The actor must have a fluid emotional life. And any constriction in the body will curb that fluidity.

The emotional preparation is for the first moment in the scene, and then the contact with the other actors and the actions take over. And with this contact, the other actors will change the actor emotionally. You never know what can happen when you leave yourself alone and take things personally; you can have some surprising moments. The actor is a channel and a conduit for his talent and instincts. The actor must trust his homework, leave himself alone, and see what happens.

David Gideon

The Acting Class, New York; faculty at Purchase College, State University of New York

Many actors become concerned when faced with an emotionally challenging scene. It doesn't seem to matter whether that challenge is driven by violence, grief, or romance.

Of course, the answer to these difficulties rests in preparation. Not only the kind that we employ just before a scene or performance, but also in the years of training before we are even confronted with this situation. With proper training, all these scenarios become nonissues.

That being said, an answer that Lee Strasberg gave when asked what to do if asked to cry on cue comes to mind. He said, "First do nothing. If your imagination is sufficiently engaged, the emotion might come on its own. If you can feel that this is not working, go to one of the exercises that you have trained for in class that you know will bring the right emotion. If you rush yourself and even that exercise is not working, try what I do: Pull a hair from your nose. That brings tears to my eyes. If you've done this too often and there aren't any hairs available, fake it—there's an audience watching. Then go figure out what you have to do for tomorrow's performance."

John Ruskin

Ruskin School of Acting, Los Angeles

My first advice would be to make sure you are very well-trained in the craft of acting. For me, that would be in an authorized Meisner technique training program like ours at the Ruskin School. More specifically, I would quote Sanford Meisner. On the first day of all his classes, he said, "The seed to the craft of acting is the reality of doing." Meisner's entire technique is based on those most crucial three words: "reality of doing." So when we discuss playing any scene, we focus not on what the actor is feeling in the scene but on what the actor is doing. We do not discuss emotions or emotional results in acting, because if you are working with a trained actor, they will naturally and spontaneously respond emotionally to the imaginary circumstances of the scene.

Meisner defined acting as "the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." If an actor is given the imaginary circumstance that their girlfriend/wife is leaving them for someone else, and they cannot imagine how that would feel, they cannot play that scene. And likewise, people may be capable of the most excruciating hurt and jealousy in life, but if their imaginations do not generate those feelings in them spontaneously, they are not born to be actors.

That said, what the Meisner technique is so brilliant in doing is to reach into the actor's soul and pull to the surface all of their hidden, repressed, and buried feelings. So when the imaginary circumstance is given to the actor, they can access any and every feeling spontaneously, truthfully, and without having to work for it or think about it. Training in the "reality of doing," we learn to focus on what we are doing in the scene. If on the stage or set we really do things as we would in reality, the emotions will come.