Don't get me wrong. Of course I care about what you think and feel. I’m a pretty nice guy and would love to have coffee some time. But as an audience member, I don’t care about what an actor or a character thinks or feels. And neither do you when you are in an audience. Thoughts and feeling cannot be seen, and, as an observer, you can only respond to what can be observed. The last time you cried at a movie, it was not because the characters were sad, but because that sorrow was expressed in an observable manner that resonated with your own experience. We think we are responding to someone’s emotions when the actions we witness trigger some emotion or idea in ourselves. That’s empathy.
This seems terribly obvious, yet many actors begin their process by considering a character’s psychology or emotions, trusting that their actions will grow from there. Which means they use precious time working on something the audience will never see.
The decisions you make as an actor must be actable; it’s there in your job title. You can’t play a character who thinks he’s a hot-shot, but you can play a character who treats everyone like they’re dumber than him. And the difference is far more than semantic: it’s what keeps you focused on what you are doing and engages the other actors. Playing an idea is inherently passive and self-centered, while playing an action drives a scene forward and makes you interesting to watch.
It is true that ideas and emotions will eventually translate into actions, but it is much more exciting and honest to start with the action. If you are truly committed to playing actions that get your character what she or he wants, you will be emotionally engaged in the scene. If you run hard, you will sweat. It is the only way to stay honest in every moment.
So, as a coach, I will never ask you to remember how you felt when you dog died and what your character thinks about modern art. Character development and text analysis must yield results that are playable, or they are just busy work to make you feel like you’ve done something.
If you are new to the craft of acting, this idea might be helpful. But if you’ve been at it a while, this all may seem quite basic and obvious. And it is. But it is also one of the hardest aspects of our craft to keep focused on. It is far eaiser (that is to say, lazier) to fall back on our own psychology and emotions.
An example: I was once rehearsing a physically demanding play, performing an action that involved gathering imaginary leaves and scattering them to the wind. It was early in the play’s development, and I was simply working on the precision of the action, unconcerned with any greater meaning. After close to thirty minutes of repeating a brief action over and over again, I was exhausted. As I entered another repetition, the director came by and said, “Now, imagine that they are not leaves, but ashes.”
Almost immediately, I began to cry. As I began a new round of repetitions, I cried more and more, building to a cathartic sob. It was the kind of breakthrough actors work very hard to find, and it was exhilarating.
To be able to repeat the experience in performance, I’d need to access whatever had happened to me in that rehearsal. When I had heard “ashes,” it triggered the image of a friend of mine who had died when I was very young. It was a defining moment of my psyche, and its most raw emotions came pouring out. So I’d just need to remember that friend every night of the performance, and I’d be set, right?
Of course not. That memory was deeply personal, expressed in the safety of a rehearsal environment, and could not be relied upon when performing in front of a room full of strangers. Even if it could, the memory's effect would vary over time. And by thinking that I should even try to access that memory again, I took my focus off of what was reliable and repeatable from that rehearsal experience: the physical action.
Remember, I had been repeating the mechanics of the action over and over. My breath, my muscular tensions, and my varying postures were all very focused and present. As it turned out, they were the same types of breath patterns and muscle tensions I experience when I feel sorrow. So once that focused physical state was coupled with a playable action – coming to grips with the loss of a loved one – I was communicating a strong emotion through my actions. Crying was not the running; it was the sweat. It could not be faked or reached by shortcut; it resulted from hard work.
The mind and body are inextricably linked, so do not make the mistake of thinking the mind must lead the body. Let your body lead your mind, and you will find it produces more truthful emotions than any manufactured by premeditation. Stay focused always on what you are doing to get what you want. That’s all I or any audience member cares about, and it’s the only way to inspire true empathy. Stay honest, stay on task, and keep acting.