One of my special skills on my resume is ‘crying.’ I am an emotional person and I brim on the edge like Joey Tribbiani. And that skill has booked me some jobs, for reals. You DON’T have to be a crier to be emotionally available and vulnerable in your acting work, it is not even the most interesting type of vulnerable experience to watch on film. BUT if you brim at the top, authentically, you may still need this reminder on how to maintain your work while at work.
Set culture and set operations are both counter intuitive to emotional availability in your acting preparation. The mass of people, the noise, the personalities, and the polite interactions all work against your preparation because you need to show up to work as a full person in order to communicate your needs, do all the other aspects of your job well, and be requested back to that team for the next project. Not all of us can get the Daniel day Lewis treatment and be made to feel comfortable enough to stay in character as much as we want— and still be hired again. Many actors need to cry in the background on “Greys Anatomy,” be a hostage on “Lethal Weapon,” and watch your lover die in an indie film all while being the LEAST important person in the scene. I have done all of those jobs. And I was not given the time or the space for extra vulnerable work, I was just cog number 75 in the massive process of getting the scene in the can.
After watching a dozen or so people fake die in my scenes while I cry in the corner, I feel like I should share my tried and true tips that have supported me in those stressful work days of balancing authenticity and professionalism. This is what works for me and ‘may’ be useful to add to your toolbox.
Do the work before the day
Read, memorize, visualize, rehearse, and get to your dark places. Do it more than once so you know that you can really get there. The night before or the make-up chair is not the time to begin this work. I know you want your response to be in-the-moment and fresh, but do the work twice before the day, it’s your job.
Put it away
When you arrive on set, you need to be YOU. Set aside your work and trust that you can get it out later. Meet the 1st AD, thank the PA assigned to show you around, be gracious and present with your wardrobe team, connect with your hair and make-up team, and definitely be aware of the set. You have so much to learn about this set’s individual culture. The people and the process of the above-the-line team really make for a unique set experience. Try your best to listen, look, and take in the moment. You’ll need to be able to become incredibly comfortable faster than should be expected. You will need to become a generous scene partner with these complete strangers at some point. This first hour or two is all the time you have to absorb this place and make it your space to work. Be yourself and trust these people to accept you.
Be present in rehearsal
Look around at the scene space, look your team members (cast & crew) in the eyes. Make a point to get a look at the camera set-up, that camera assistant is about to get in your personal space to give you marks. The whole crew may be in your space, make eye contact. Connect. Don’t waste your time trying to be funny, just be. You’ll need to take all of this vibe/energy back with you to your private rehearsal in your dressing room and meld it with your emotional prep so that this rehearsal on set doesn’t surprise you later. Remember that once you come back to set later to film, the room will be much quieter, it will be a more steady energy later.
Communicate with hair and make-up
The hair and make-up trailer is not the place to do your emotional prep. These are your people! These are your only advocates on set, they will be your number one way to communicate with the team once filming starts. They will be coming into your personal space to do touch ups and check on you if you need anything. Hair and make-up people need to be treated like the unsung Kings and Queens that they are! Save your prep for after the chair BUT communicate with them if you expect to cry, mess with your hair, rub your face, or anything else you may do in the moment — it is their job to anticipate how to best support your choices, but you HAVE to give them all your secrets. You are building this scene with many partners. No actor stands alone. Treat your hair and make-up team like you need them and they will go the extra mile for you. I’ve never thought I’ve needed artificial tears on set, but on a network drama, you better believe I felt comfortable knowing my performance in multiple angles was going to match and I wouldn’t get cut out for something as simple as running out of tears for one angle.
Yeah, you can run out of tears if you don’t drink enough water. I prefer to drink lots of water for the day leading up to filming and throughout the day and adding a beer in between waters if it’s gonna be an all-day kinda cry session. I’ve done two all-day cry sessions before. Yes, 1 or 2 beers helped me stay in my dark place for many more hours than what is usually required for an actor. I’m okay to tell people this off set, but be responsible ON SET, you should NOT consume alcohol on a set for multiple issues (safety and insurance are just the tip of the iceberg), so keep it private as you are not throwing a party for you and a PA in your trailer. Do not show it off. Be smart or get fired on the spot.
Real prep happens in your trailer
Whatever your process, do it in private as much as you can. Communicate if you need more time too. I have been blessed for at least a good 10 or so minutes at the very least between final hair and make-up and being escorted to set for my scene. You will be sitting in your chair and finally ‘placed’ at a very slow pace sometimes, so bring whatever you do with you. I prefer wearing headphones to signify that I’m in a private space. Everyone who does not need to communicate with you will keep to themselves. Even if you don’t use music, wear headphones.
Music Music Music
I made a ‘cry’ mix on my phone so that I can tap into what I need to in any space. I can just close my eyes and connect and the music really keeps me in the place I need to be. I probably shouldn’t share my choices with you because it wouldn’t make sense to you because music is very personal. It barely makes sense to me. Buuuut I will share that I have songs from Jesus Christ Superstar, Adele, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, specific worship songs, and movie soundtracks. It’s whatever works for you. Again, the headphones keep it personal and signify that people that absolutely need to communicate with you should do it swiftly and respectfully.
Don’t save it for your close up
Again, emotional prep is not always for tears. That’s BS and not what you do for a living. Authentic relationship and emotional prep and communication with your team all put you in a place to bring about scenes naturally in an unnatural environment. You may feel pressure to deliver, but you need to do your job authentically in every single camera set up. If you believe in saving it for your close up, you may be missing the two-shot that the director may lean towards or the wide shot that fits the scene better. Your close-up may take extra time to get a clean take in focus and it may be cut because a close emotionally wrought face ‘could’ be too much for the overall arc of the scene. You have no idea! It’s not your job to know for sure, but if you can take the time during rehearsal to ASK your director for their preferred framing for the climax of your performance, they may tell you exactly what they want. Communication beforehand is key.
I know many actors (myself included) do not prefer rehearsal exhaustion and have specific ways of taking care of and protecting their personal prep on their own. That’s great. Hold onto that. And marry it with your set operations schedule and put people first whenever possible. The pitfall we want to avoid is over preparedness early in the day with a crappy lunchtime experience, brimming so much with fresh emotion that you become angry with set operations or set culture, and being unable to be flexible in the moment when the scene dynamics change because your prep is important and you are secondary or even treated like background during the scene you’ve worked hard to prepare. The set operations and culture are not set up for you to succeed in feeling supported, they are not set up for you to be comfortable, they are set up to support the entire team and you are just one part of that vast team. Jokes from sets of the past have let us know that ‘talent’ is treated as difficult or called a diva for taking the time and attention necessary for those particular people to live in their performances in ways that translate clearly to film. Don’t participate in those jokes. It’s not a joke. Actors have their own process as a group and individually, the set operations acknowledges the group necessities (private dressing room), but your individual needs aren’t met without communication from you OR working around what you have already to do your best.
Ultimately it is up to you how you work and these guidelines should help you visualize or plan to set yourself up for success.