Just try it. Be sad right now.
What did you do? Did it feel natural?
It doesn’t feel natural for an actor, either. Some actors call it “setting an emotional appointment.”
The writer says that you’re supposed to feel this emotion at this point in the scene. That’s making an appointment to feel the emotion.
This leaves you with three possible outcomes when an actor reads your request that they portray a specific emotion in the moment:
- Everything is fine! You made the right call, they interpret it exactly how you wanted, and it just works.
- They do what’s on the page when you ask for it, but it rings hollow. They weren’t feeling what you expected them to feel.
- They ignore it and play the scene how it feels naturally to them based on the other things you’re asking them to say and do.
So how can you avoid miscommunications or stepping on the toes of the person living the character?
We don’t just feel feelings
Emotions aren’t passive thoughts. Emotions change our behavior.
You might open a door differently depending on if you’re exhausted, angry, or overjoyed.
The emotion finds expression through the action.
In the movie Blue (written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Krzysztof Kieslowski), Julie’s world is destroyed in the aftermath of a car accident that kills her husband and daughter. This trauma comes through in her behavior, demonstrating her emotions to the audience.
In a moment of shame and exhaustion, she rushes down the street, extending her arm to scrape her knuckles against a stone wall. She pulls back, bringing her bloody knuckles to her mouth. It’s shock, rage, self-flagellation, and a host of other emotions in one swift action.
Or when she digs through her purse, finding a lollipop like the kind her daughter was eating in the car before the accident. She peels off the wrapper and crunches through it. She isn’t enjoying this treat, but destroying it. Choosing to eat the lollipop negates the joy of the treat and shows how she sees it as an unwelcome remnant of her life before the loss of her daughter.
Consider the 1984 film The Karate Kid. In this scene, Daniel arrives at Mr. Miyagi’s house expecting to begin his training in karate, only to find Miyagi is missing.
From the script (emphasis mine):
EXT. MIYAGI’S HOUSE – MORNING
Daniel, on his bike, approaches the front door where a large note is affixed.
CLOSEUP: THE NOTE
“Paint house. No up and down. Side side. One half left hand, one half right hand.”
To the left, another half-dozen cans of paint are stacked. Daniel is incensed. He rips the note off the door, crumbles it, and flings it onto the ground. After a moment, his anger subsides. He removes the lid on the first can of paint and begins to stir it with a brush.
Look at how the emotional beats connect to actions. Instead of leaving the actor to search for a way to play these feelings, each emotion is tied to a concrete way of expressing it.
What does the feeling remind you of?
Sometimes it’s more effective to use an analogy for the emotion than directly calling it out.
In the script for the 2019 adaptation of Little Women, Greta Gerwig sets the stage for the opening scene this way (emphasis mine):
INT. NEW YORK. PUBLISHING OFFICE. 1868
JO MARCH, our heroine, hesitates.
In the half-light of a dim hallway, she exhales and prepares, her head bowed like a boxer about to go into the ring. She puts her hand on the doorknob. A pause, and then, she opens it onto a disorderly room.
This comparison sets the reader up for the conflict to come in the next scene, but also gives an actor a suggestion about how she can move and change her posture to embody what Jo feels.
It’s also brief. This isn’t a drawn-out analogy that distracts from the purpose of the moment.
Another reason it succeeds: It tells us something about not just the character in that moment, but her essence. Jo March endures. Jo March will fight. It speaks to her grit.
Looking and being looked at
Emotions direct focus. A person hones in on what they want to look at based in part on how they feel, tuning everything else out.
These quick moments from Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman’s script for Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse:
EXT. ELECTRONICS STORE – DAY
Miles stands in front of a TV display at a store window. All the TVS are playing the news about Spider-Man’s death. Miles looks at the TVs, his reflection appearing between photos of Spider-Man and Peter Parker.
INT. PETER PARKER’S LAB – CONTINUOUS
Miles notices one of 616Peter’s costumes… it has a CAPE. He looks back at Peter slyly, vindicated.
Peter finds a PHOTO: RIPeter and MJ, together. Happy. It hits him hard. Miles notices.
Hey Peter, I think this is a cape.
Peter can’t help smiling. Gwen, in turn, watches this happen, her wheels turning.
Miles is looking at the costumes. His reflection, still a bit off-center. May walks up.
In both of these scenes, Miles is thinking about how he fits in compared to the original Spider-Man of his dimension. He’s afraid he can’t measure up.
So the script features moments where we see Miles thinking about his, looking at these remnants of Peter Parker, but framing it in a way so the audience makes the same comparison.
By watching Miles looking as we look at the same thing, it connects these images for us. His off-center reflection tells us he still isn’t comfortable imagining himself as a Spider-Man.
Pay closer attention
When you feel a strong emotion, what does it feel like?
What do you focus on?
How do you move?
When watching someone else, what do they do that makes you think you know what they’re feeling? Watch their body language. See if you can follow their line of sight.
These observations create fuel for how to coach an actor toward performing a character’s emotions.