How to Act "Emotionally": 5 Ways to Access Emotion | StageMilk

How to Act “Emotionally”: 5 Ways to Access Emotion

Written by on | How-To Guides for Actors

Ok, here we go. This question is asked by actors and those curious about acting a lot. In every film, TV show or play there is usually some actor letting their heart bleed onto the stage in some passion of dramatic emotional expression. They may be mourning a lost loved one or berating the one who betrayed them. They may be shedding tears upon being reunited with a long lost friend or the victim of a great oppression. Regardless of the drama, one thing appears to be true. Actors have to be able to act emotionally. How the heck do we do this? Well, allow me to make an attempt at answering this question for you.

Acting “Emotionally”

Now, if you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know that when it comes to questions about acting and the craft of acting, I rarely give a straight and simplistic answer. I mean, it took me 6000 words to answer the question, “what is good acting” for crying out loud. This is because acting is not simplistic, it is complex and sophisticated, and questions about it deserve to be and have been explored and debated for a long time. 

The same, I’m afraid, goes for this question today. Although it may seem so on the surface, “How to act emotionally” is not a simple question. It’s going to require us to talk about a few things before finally coming to a point. So, allow me to begin by introducing a little anarchy: I’m throwing out the question. 

We should not be striving to act “emotionally”. 

The reason(s) for this is the following:

  • Emotion can be a byproduct of a good performance, but is not the goal of a good performance.
  • Emotion is an obstacle, not an objective.

The second of these statements is provable in any ‘real life’ situation where a heightened emotional state is present. Whenever someone is giving a eulogy at a funeral, tears and grief are the emotions which the speaker tries desperately to manage in order to be able to speak passionately and do justice to the person they are speaking of. In a confrontation between two people, emotions will be quelled at all costs – fear and intimidation must be hidden by both parties, not indulged in. In a break up between two people, how often have you heard of both parties trying to ‘win’ the break up by being ‘in the right’ or attempting to hold face and not allow their emotions to get in the way of what they really want to say to the other person. It is in the aftermath of these moments, in the quiet of solitude, where emotion may arise and consume a person. The same is true for a scene between two characters in a scene in a story. The two characters both want to win, whatever that may mean to them in their particular story. No-one ever wants to lose or be a victim, there is always something to be achieved, and emotion, (true emotion, not manufactured emotion used as a tactic to manipulate someone) is always something to be overcome rather than allowed. 

So, with that in mind, I’d like you to consider adjusting the direction you’re pointing your question. Take your focus off the ‘result’ of an emotional performance, and instead turn your attention towards the process of building a character and immersing yourself in a story. Focusing on this process rather than the result of an emotional state will always be more compelling for an audience, even if your final performance is seemingly void of any emotion at all.

The Problem with Emotion as “Function”

Now, I know what you may be thinking right now: “But what if my character has to cry in the scene?” or, “There are heaps of exclamation marks, surely my character has to be completely enraged?” 

I hear you. Believe me, I do. There are many times where it seems as though it is integral to a story that our character gets to a particular emotional place in a scene. Maybe it says “they cry in the script, or some other stage direction or big print which you feel forces your performance in a particular direction. In certain situations, particularly in the context of an audition, I would encourage you to be wary of feeling the need to desperately adhere to the ‘big print’ of a script. The emotional direction of a character is included by the writer, and the detail and result of what the performance actually ends up being goes through many stages of conversation and development between the actor, director and writer before ending up on the silver screen.

That being said, there are times where I would agree that there is a particular place our character needs to get to, emotionally, for the sense and continuation of the story. I would call this the ‘function’ of the character. The function of the character is like the particular notes you need to hit in the symphony of the story. The highs and lows of the ark of your character which will give the audience the ride and experience the team of storytellers intends.

In my first two years at drama school I was really hung up on this conundrum. I felt as though I was incapable of any truthful emotional experience whilst I was acting at all. I ended up having dozens of back and forth discussions with a friend who was completely of the opinion that playing an emotional state should be avoided at all costs. I just couldn’t wrap this around my head. What about all the performances I’d seen, Oscar winning performances which featured incredibly emotional moments? Moments of total and utter devotion and vulnerability from the actor? Having the bug of this question well and truly wedged in my brain, I asked my acting teacher at the time, “If I have to cry in a scene, how do I do it?” I’m sure I also said, “Please help me!” a few times during the conversation, too. His answer was something to this effect:

“Sometimes, when I have to cry as a character, I just imagine myself kneeling down in the middle of a street at nighttime with a streetlamp overhead. I’m looking skywards. My arms are spread wide, and rain, tonnes of rain, is pouring down upon me.”

Pretty dramatic, huh? It took me a while to take that answer and translate it into something tangible and usable for myself. I tried that same visualisation, to little effect. But what I finally realised is that there are many ways to trigger an emotional response in yourself, or rather get yourself to a place where emotion may more easily arise, and the task is actually for each individual to figure out what works for them.

When it comes to acting and emotions, you gotta do you.

To not leave you hanging without any further guidance about this challenge, here are a few additional points/ exercises you might like to try in order to feel more emotionally entrenched in your character.

How to Act Emotionally:

#1 Translate Obstacle into Action

Say the function of our character is something emotionally based. They might need to cry or get angry or become hysterical to propel the scene forward. One thing we can do to achieve this functionality is to take the emotional result, the obstacle of the character, and translate it into an action for us to use. By doing this, we take an obstacle and change it into an aspect of our objective. We’re playing to win. Let me elaborate.

Say you need to act ‘angry’. Well, instead of trying to get to the place where you feel unhinged and enraged, (which simply might be an energetic or emotional place which isn’t available to you today) you as the actor have the ability to take back the reins of the character. You are in control. What is the character hoping to achieve, and how can a state of anger help them to achieve this? Translate the emotional result into a transitive verb; an action you can play on the other character. Instead of playing that state of anger, which is a self-fulfilling and self-focussed task, play the tactic to intimidate. Play the tactic to stun or threaten. Play the tactic to destroy. By truly committing to these actions, your performance will undoubtedly have the appearance of anger, though you as the actor may not ‘feel’ anger at all. Just like a duck gliding effortlessly on water with its feet frantically paddling beneath it, I believe the actor should always be holding the reins of the character. 

Let’s extend this device to other emotional states. How about sadness, grief or other melancholic experiences. Perhaps you could play the action to beg or to surrender. Once again, when we fully commit to these actions as a means to achieving our objective, we may appear as the emotional state our character’s ‘function’ demands from us. By really committing to these tactics, we may even instigate a truthful occurrence of the emotional state itself. If you want more actions to choose from, here is a great list: Actions: The Actor’s Thesaurus.

Take your focus off the emotional result of the scene and place it on objective, it will always serve you better. 

#2 Targets

Declan Donnellan, in his book The Actor and the Target, answers a bunch of FAQs from actors. I don’t believe he answers this question specifically, but he does go to provide solutions for the problems surrounding this question.

Essentially, what it comes down to is the fact that when we are asking the question, “how do I act emotionally” our focus is on ourselves, instead of the things in the world around us. Donnellan would call these ‘things’ around us targets, and he implores us, begs us actors to take our attention off ourselves and onto them.

In the target is all the energy and emotion our character needs. There is nothing within us which will incite a more powerful response from us than external stimuli from a target. A target could be anything: a loved one, a cloudy sky, an animal, a cold breeze, a television screen. When we truly place our attention on the target and allow it to energise us, we will have all the emotional truth we are seeking. I go into more detail about the practical application of this book here: The Actor and the Target.

#3 Substitution

This one comes from Ivana Chubbuck, though many other acting teachers encourage (or deliberately discourage) methods similar to that of substitution. Substitution is the method of replacing the circumstances of a scene, either in a single moment or perhaps in an entire scene, with memories and emotions which you have experienced in your life. The word ‘substitution’ then, comes from the act of substitution an imagined experience for a real one.

I, personally, take issue with this method, as I feel it can only achieve a performance in line with the given circumstances of a story. You are giving a performance which is similar to what the writer is acting from you, but not going the extra mile to imaginatively invest in the given circumstances of the story completely. I believe we all have the capacity to imagine and therefore emulate nearly all experiences which human beings are capable of experiencing. In fact I believe it is said that by the time you are 8 years old you have experienced every emotion it is possible for you to experience, including all the heavy hitters, like wrath and a desire for vengeance, for example.

That being said, this method does work for a lot of people. If you’re keen to find out more about it, head over to Indy’s article here: A Guide to the Ivana Chubbuck Method. She goes into great detail about Ivana’s method as a whole.

One final note, if you do decide to pursue substitution as a method, then please look after yourself! Prioritise self care. As I said earlier, that actor should always hold the reins of the character. If you’re substituting for something which brings you close to unresolved personal trauma, you’re really playing with fire, and putting the safety of yourself and the actors around you at risk.

#4 Allow

This one comes off the back of our substitution chat, not because I think it is the same technique, but it’s a similar method. Allow yourself to be wherever you are on the particular day you have come to act. I know this sounds counterintuitive. I’m playing a Soviet soldier crying over a wounded comrade in WW2 and you want me to allow myself to just be my cappuccino drinking, chino wearing self right now? Yes, kind of. 

There is great power in allowing ourselves to be and feel whatever it is we are currently feeling. If we are feeling a great sense of inadequacy at our inability to reach certain emotional heights – there’s energy to be found in that state! Dustin Hoffman famously talks about feeling completely inadequate in a scene whilst filming Rain Man, and he ended up using that feeling – not the given circumstances of a scene – to fuel his performance on this particular day. The performance he gives in this scene is remarkable and absolutely serves the story. Sometimes, we are exactly where we need to be to give a performance, all we need to do is allow and accept our current state.

Expanding on this, by allowing rather than forcing, we are giving the chance for dozens and dozens of exciting choices to arise which may not have been thought of before. What if your character is not crying their eyes out at the funeral? Does the character deciding to adopt a stoic persona in this moment work for or even enhance the moment? Say you’re feeling uncontrollably giggly today but your character is being diagnosed with a rare terminal illness, what if you were to bring laughter into that scene? Perhaps it would be incorrect for this particular story, but can we say that this choice is un-human? No. As humans, we are truly capable of any emotional experience, and to put ourselves in a box of forced emotional results is to be reductive of the potential of human behaviour. Cry at the job promotion. Laugh hysterically at the funeral. Get unreasonably angry about stepping on that dog turd. 

Go with the tide. Rather than forcing yourself to feel something that you don’t, try accepting where you’re at and working from there. 

If you feel this is not a suitable action for you, or will not be sufficient given the particular place you’re in, then let’s head on over to point number 5.

#5 Manufacture: Play Make Believe

I’m about to speak some acting sacrilege. If it is unavoidable in the function of your character and you must reach an emotional place that you do not feel you can truthfully get to, then manufacture the experience. Make it up. Play make-believe. 

Now, bear with me. What I mean by this is not for you to start your own special brand of melodramatic acting. No, what I mean is for you to use certain tools and techniques to get yourself emotionally primed for a scene. Manufacture an experience, so it is more easily accessible for you for the moments you need it.

I used this technique in a recent production of Hamlet, where I played Laertes. Laertes needs to enter onto the stage in Act four having heard whilst he has been abroad that his Father has been murdered and easily and unceremoniously buried. Once on the stage, Laertes is confronted by his sister, who has been driven mad with grief over the death of their father. I found this task SO difficult, and it took me a long time to figure out a process which worked for me. The thing I needed to meet the emotional challenge of grief, vengeance and shock was a ritual. A ritual whereby I might manufacture an emotionally primed state which I could submerge myself in for the rest of the play, to hit the functional and emotional ‘notes’ I felt Laertes needed to hit. 

My ritual involved three things: 

  • Solitude
  • Music (on headphones) and,
  • Breathing.

Essentially, I would sit backstage 15 minutes (wish) before my entrance. This timing was important, any earlier and I would be ready prematurely, and any later would incite a stress response and a feeling of needing to rush. Then, I would play one song on repeat on my headphones (whilst always having a speck of my attention of what scene we were up to in the play – hands on the reins, remember). This song was the same every performance. Next, I would breathe deeply, and allow whatever I was feeling on that particular day to rise to the surface. This process of sitting by myself, listening to this particular song and allowing myself to feel everything I needed to feel primed me for my entrance. The process during rehearsals and the feedback from the director suggested to me that this ritual was having the desired impact on my performance.

So, the challenge is now over to you. What do you need to do to ensure you’re where you need to be, per formatively and emotionally? Practise what this looks like for you and have your process or ritual clearly identified and tried and tested, for you never know when you might need it backstage or on set, when you feel like you don’t have it in you to do your character justice. 

Conclusion: The Key

I want to leave you with a final little spiel about where your attention is best placed. 

If you take your focus off the results of the performance and place them on the process, you will achieve success in your performance. The process is everything supporting the character, the backstory, the history, the given circumstances, the relationships, the need, the persona, the tragic flaw, the objective, ect ect ect. All these things contain all the energy you need to give your best possible performance. 

Immerse yourself in these elements of your character, become the subject matter expert of the life of your character. Once you get to that place, it’s time for you to listen and allow whatever arises to arise.

I’d like to leave you with this scene from Doubt featuring Viola Davis and Meryl Streep. I’d like you to focus on Davis’ performance. 

In this scene, emotion is boiling within Davis’ character, yet it is an obstacle for her in achieving her objective of getting this particular message across to Streep’s character. Davis is so deeply and personally connected to the story and the given circumstances that emotion arises of its own accord. It isn’t forced, it isn’t premeditated. It just happens. This is the time of emotional expression in our performances we should be striving for. This is what truly great acting looks like. This is how we “act emotionally”.

This is the one scene Davis’ character is in this film. Boom. How’s that for a performance? 


About the Author

Jack Crumlin

Jack Crumlin is an actor and educator based in Sydney, Australia. Jack trained at Actors Centre Australia, and has since worked primarily in Shakespeare- he loves a good sword fight on stage. In his spare time Jack geeks out over fantasy novels and Greek Mythology and loves to shoot photos on film.

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