There’s little that’s more terrifying for a nervous actor to hear than: “…and then I want you to cry.”
But what if I blank? What if it doesn’t happen? What if I can’t just squeeze out some tears?
As a general rule, a director who knows what they’re doing won’t expect you to force this aesthetic. If you are confident in your research and you know your character back to front before stepping on set, and you’re fully embodying your character in that moment, and yet tears still don’t well up, then that’s okay. That’s still the truth of the scene. Don’t sweat it if a hyper dramatic image escapes you. If you are so focused on the physical action of crying that your performance loses integrity, then it won’t matter how miserable you look. Stick to the truth of the scene and don’t allow yourself to judge your character if tears don’t come. The worst thing you can do in this situation is neither cry, nor deliver a good performance.
But what if…
The director is more visual than emotional
The other actor’s dialogue depends on you shedding at least one tear
It’s a music video or TVC where the dramatic situation has no context
These situations can be approached through drills. Crying is a physical response that can be trained by muscle memory, like any other. Ever forget your lines and suddenly your mouth is saying them even though your brain is a blank page? Crying can become automatic too.
Steps to crying on cue:
Relax. There isn’t anything that will hold back those tears like stress. It’s not magic. It’s not high concept. Relax and trust that your body will be there for you. Deep breathing can really help to put your body in an open, and vulnerable, emotional state.
Imagination. This is vital in your prep work. Have an image of where you are, who you’re with and where you have come from. Immerse yourself in the world and repeat this as often as you can. If the world around you is real to you, you will be more comfortable letting yourself go when it comes to the moment.
Read: Given Circumstances
Over prepare. While it’s nice to romanticise that the moment will be more organic and raw if you’re flying by the seat of your pants, that won’t help you unless you have supreme confidence in your ability to cry on cue. In which case, you can stop reading now. There is no mysticism, it’s just another beat in the script, and you should treat it as such. Drill that moment like you’d drill a difficult note in a song until you can hit it every time.
This is another reason to supplement your screen work with theatre work. It allows you a run up to moments like these without the stressful time limit between Action! and Cut! If you can’t get on stage, practise monologues. Let yourself get into the flow of a scene and let the world around you settle, and repeat with precision. Crying on cue is a skill that you can develop, as long as you relax, imagine, and practise.