To Cry Or Not To Cry – That Is The Question
Many times actors will come across parentheticals that say things like (Johnny cries) or (Suzie breaks down in tears).
Some inexperienced actors will attempt to “cry on command” to fulfill the directions, but more experienced actors understand the importance of staying true to the reality of the character and/ or the scene.
It’s important to understand that writing and directing are two very different crafts. The writer, of course, writes out a scene the way he or she envisions it, but the actor actually has to embody the reality of the character – not just “do what the writer tells them to do.”
Acting is not about “deciding” what to feel and acting like you feel it, acting is about living in the reality of the character and then letting that reality create real emotion.
For instance, let’s say an actor is working on a green screen scene, in which a giant dragon is supposed to swoop out of the sky and carry them away. An inexperienced actor might “act scared” but a seasoned actor will literally choose to “see” the giant talons and scaly green skin swooping out of the sky to take them away. Fully envisioning and imagining that scene in their “mind’s eye” will result in them feeling terrified.
Seasoned stage actors will play the same scenes hundreds of times over and sometimes several times in a day. If you were to ask a seasoned stage actor whether they cry during a particularly emotional scene, they would most likely tell you “sometimes yes and sometimes no.” So when do they and when don’t they?
What people often forget is that acting is a “team sport.” To “act” authentically, is to react authentically to the emotional content you are receiving from your fellow actors.
The honest reality of your character is deeply intertwined with the reality of the person or people you are on stage or on camera with. If the other person or people in the scene are not invested, then it’s hard to have a genuine emotional response and if you try and react in a way that is not genuine, then you are being fake and your audience will know it!
Let’s say you have a “tearful goodbye” scene in which you have to say good-bye to your first boyfriend. If your partner is fully in the moment with you and is giving you what you need emotionally to bring you to tears, then go ahead and cry – regardless of whether the parentheticals tell you to or not. On the other hand, if your partner is distracted and not giving you what you need to feel the full emotional impact necessary to bring you to tears, then it is better to respond to what they are giving you than to fake a response that it not equal to the genuine emotions of the moment. Ultimately, if your partner is not giving you what you need, it will most likely make you feel annoyed. If you choose to simply genuinely feel what your partner is “making” you feel (annoyance) that creates an authentic dynamic. It would be normal for a girl to feel highly annoyed when saying good-bye to her first love if he didn’t seem to share her distress. Thus, feeling the authentic emotions of the moment, creates an authentic emotional dynamic in the scene.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that you are not the Director. If your fellow actor is not giving you what you feel you need to deliver the emotional content you feel the scene calls for, it’s better to respond authentically and let the Director fix the problem if he/ she believes there is one, than to try and stop the scene yourself. It just may be that the emotions being created authentically on set work better and play better than the ones that were written by some writer squirreled away in an office somewhere anyway.
By now, it has become a part of Hollywood lore that in the movie The Empire Strikes Back, when Han is being lowered into the carbon freezing chamber, Han's original line in response to Leia's "I love you" was "I love you too." But Harrison Ford felt the line was inauthentic and not what someone of Han Solo's nature would say in that moment. He fought to change Han's response to "I know" - and the rest is history.
When actors are genuinely living in the reality of a certain moment, it creates a literal, physical, palpable tension that audiences feel regardless of whether they are watching a live play or a movie. Great actors have the ability to invite huge audiences into the most intimate moments, which allows the audience to feel the emotions of that moment right alongside the characters. When great actors cry, we cry, when great actors kiss, we feel their lips on ours.
Parentheticals are an indication of where the writer saw the scene going in his mind, but what is far more important than following directions to the letter is living in the reality of what is actually happening between you and the other actor(s) on stage or on camera.