Emotional Freedom

Q: I love acting but I’ve noticed whenever I have the opportunity to really “let go” emotionally in a scene, a kind of fear seems to take over and shut me down. As a model, I feel very free in front of the camera. I love acting and want to make it my career, but I’m sometimes self-conscious in front of the (video) camera while I’m acting out a scene. As an acting coach, can you address this problem?

Thank you so much for your question. Since I don’t know your background in terms of what technique you are using to stimulate emotion, I will endeavor to cast a wide net in the hopes that what I offer will help you with your specific issue. The problem could be coming from incorrectly attempting to generate emotion or from misplaced attention causing you to become self-conscious.

Let’s first look at the acting technique issue. It is essential – anyone wishing to pursue a serious career as an actor needs to be emotionally available. You can have a successful career in business without ever needing to risk your emotional well-being, but it is a job requirement for an actor. Actors are willing to go to places others would just as soon ignore. Personalization is the foundation upon which the house is built.

You must begin early on in your work on any role to find connection and identification with what the character is experiencing. There are two ways of finding this connection, and frankly, we often use of combination of them both. Unfortunately, there is a divide in the acting world between the Strasberg camp, which espouses the use of sense memories of our real experiences, and the Meisner folks, who rely strictly on the use of imagination or a “what if”. I find this debate silly, as often we use our own experiences as a basis and then use our imaginations to make the actors leap into the fictional circumstances of the script.

In order for sense memories to be used effectively, you have to really examine your entire life and experiences. The psychological principal of “affective memory” holds that everything we have lived through emotionally is recorded and exists in our subconscious. In our day to day lives, affective memories are triggered quite often but at random. You are driving and a song comes on the radio that reminds you of a love relationship gone bad; you look at old pictures and memories come flooding back; you walk down the street and smell a food and flash back to your grandmother’s kitchen; you see a dog that looks like the one you recently lost and you start to cry. What we want for acting is to harness these memories and to trigger them when we wish. Not unlike the “on demand” feature that allows us to watch movies whenever we wish. It is necessary to have a journal of emotional recall experiences.

Start with your earliest childhood memories and work your way to present day. Personal objects are a great way to uncover memories. We all have sentimental objects that are near and dear such as photographs, letters, rings, clothing, trophies etc. Sit with these objects and see how many memories are triggered. Also take a look at holidays. I find the time from Thanksgiving through New Years to be especially potent. We tend to see comings and goings in our families during that time of year. Birthdays, Valentine’s Day, and everything in between.

We all have central people in our lives. Around these people, much emotion will revolve. Confront yourself honestly and accurately. You can look at love and joy but also look at jealously, fear, loss, shame and hate. We tend see ourselves in only a positive light but you need to get real and know who you really are. As an actor, you need to be able to play everything from Mother Theresa to a serial killer. The way to bring these memories alive so that you can use them in your work requires the correct use of the sense memory technique. You are not trying to feel emotions. Instead, you are recalling every detail of your past experiences using the specifics of your five senses.

I can picture where I was when I put my beloved Welsh Corgi named Chappy to sleep. I can see the metal table at the veterinarian’s office I can smell the scent of alcohol in the room, I can feel his soft ears as I try to comfort him, etc. As I do this, the emotions come. Uta Hagen discovered a very important aspect of this work. We have a natural resistance to feeling emotion. Of course we do – I call it emotional health! Who wants to feel pain again? She discovered that in every memory there is something that is not a direct part of the memory that we happened to notice. She calls this a “release object”. For me, in that particular memory, it is the veterinarian’s degree that was hanging on the wall. If I flash on that I get the pain of the experience. Once you have recalled and relived your experiences, the flash of a thought should be sufficient to bring about emotion.

Now we get to the possible incorrect use of technique. Once you contact a source by flashing on a release object, you have to leave yourself alone. Ninety-Nine percent of the time, when a student tells me that their sense memory has stopped working it is because they are in their heads, measuring the amount of emotion that is coming. Actors will tell me that they are having a hard time getting “there” and I ask, “Where’s there?”

There is no “there, only “here”. If my eyes are just beginning to water, that is enough for my acting partner to ask me why I’m crying. If I start to worry that ‘last time, more emotion came, and now it’s not working,’ automatically, nothing organic will happen. It takes a level of trust to do this work that most people don’t have. You also have to give yourself plenty of room for something to happen. You can’t decide what you will feel at a particular moment. Emotions take us, we don’t take them. Do not prepare for your scene by stressing about the emotional moments. Trust that you have done your work and allow instincts to take over.

The other way of arousing emotion that I alluded to earlier is the use of imagination. I was working with two actresses who had to play a scene which called for them to be jealous of each other. Both of them claimed to not be the jealous type. LOL! I challenged them, but they were steadfast in their denial of that emotion. I used a simple “what if” to remedy the situation. I asked them to imagine that Oliver Stone had called to ask me to refer a young actress to him to play the lead in his new film. I told them that he specified that I could only send one. I then looked at them and said “Hmmmm you are both right for the role, I can’t make up my mind.” Within moments jealousy had reared its head and they played the scene beautifully.

Let me give you another example. The play Whose Life Is It Anyway is about a promising sculptor who is left totally paralyzed as a result of an accident. He wants to die because he can no longer sculpt. If I were to use my imagination to play that part, I would have to ask myself, what if I lost my hearing or my sight? What if I could no longer teach or direct? Would I still want to live? When we use this technique, as with sense memory, we have to be honest with ourselves. The operative question is therefore not “What would I do?” We let ourselves off the hook by answering “I would never do this.” The operative question is “What would make me do this?” Even if it is hard, you must see that you are capable of doing what the character does.

Your self-consciousness may also be coming from giving your attention to the wrong things. If you start to think about wanting to do well, you will find that you are not breathing deeply and that you are tensing your muscles. Actors are forever trying to do the scene well. There is no scene to do well! There is a human being living authentically in the given circumstances of the script. When we send our awareness around the room and try to sense how others are responding to us, we are dead in the water. You cannot worry about how your work is being received. If this starts to happen, immediately take a deep breath, and place your attention on the other actor in the scene. Focus on what your character wants and go after it.

Your love of acting will eventually help you win the day. Combine a solid use of technique with correctly placed attention. Don’t measure emotions while you are working, and keep your breathing deep and your body free of tension, and you will be on a good path.