Acting TechniquesThere are several strategies and techniques that actors can use to ensure that they create the authentic feelings and emotions for a role or scene. Some of these will be described here.

1.   If you do it you will feel it

Acting is a very physical thing.  My dictionary defines emotion as, A psychic and physical reaction subjectively experienced as strong feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate, vigorous action”.  If this definition is applied in acting out an emotion, I believe it will be successful.

The truth is if you do something you will feel it.  If you begin to argue about say, the merits of a certain film or politician; if you feel strongly about the issue, pretty soon you will be feeling argumentative. This feeling is caused by the event of arguing even if you were calm when you began.  This is the principle behind the use of objectives and intentions to create emotional life. It is why good acting, that is, acting that tells a story, should create emotional behaviour (intention) that is authentic and believable.

If you are creating a love scene, the actors must show feelings of attraction toward one other that appear real. It would not a very good idea however, to encourage real attraction, as that can have undesirable effects and end up distracting the actors from their job!

A more useful way of building up attraction is to pay full attention to individual physical characteristics; the principle here is that everyone’s eyes are beautiful if you look deeply into them, everyone’s skin is beautiful if you touch it sensitively.  If this does not work, then you must look even more closely and look at the person emotionally as well as physically.  If you can see the true person, including their fears and strengths, they become beautiful to you and this will come across in the scene.

When an actor feels a strong emotion and is captured by it, it is not enough to just sit there and show the emotion on their face.  They must do something = there must be interaction with the other actors in the scene.  If a man is visibly upset in a scene, what do the others do? They don’t just stand looking at him. There are a number of reactions they may have: they may show compassion or anger, guilt or shame; they show how the behaviour of the upset man impacts on them, and in turn what emotions it evokes.

It is useful to ask actors questions such as, “What is happening to the character emotionally”?  Or, “What is the character’s response to what happened”? This type of question encourages the actors to think in terms of the behaviour and physicality of the part they are playing.

2.   Substitution

Substitution is also called, “the magic as if …”. It is a simple way to humanize the text, to endow or invest an object, an image or a character with life and emotional importance. As an acting technique, it is based on the principle that a remembered object or image will carry associations that create behaviour.  An example of this is that when an actor begins work on a role, he should study and analyze the script and the character he will be playing. He should then draw parallels with someone in real life, either someone he knows or someone who is well-known due to their position in the public arena.

Then when he acts the role, he should keep the image of the real person in his mind rather than the character he is playing.  If he does this, the actor can make his performance more authentic, as he will be able to imagine what the real person might feel like in a situation.  This is much easier to do than trying to imagine how, “an idea” might feel, which is what will happen if the actor does not have a real person in his mind to attach the actions and emotions to. This type of substitution is a powerful way of creating emotional nuance and power as well as comic or dramatic adjustment.

Substitution confers choice or interpretation.  It is automatically specific because a role has been personalized to someone the actor can relate to.  For example, consider you are playing the role of Mark Antony eulogizing the slain Caesar.  When you analyze the script, you come up with three central facts about Caesar in relation to Mark Antony.

  • Caesar was Mark Antony’s personal friend.
  • Caesar as a public figure, Emperor of Rome.
  • Caesar was assassinated by people who say they believe he was evil.

Now you have three choices of how to play the scene.

  • You can pick a personal friend or relative who has died.
  • You can pick a public figure who is universally admired.
  • You can pick a public figure you admire deeply, but who some people hate.

You can then play the role of Caesar, “as if” he were one of the latter three.  Each of these choices creates a different emotional adjustment.


The same principles that apply to actors, also apply to directors and writers.  They need to reference the events in the script to their personal experience and objectives.  This will help to make the director’s connection with the script authentic, and also puts him in a good position to advise actors if adjustments need to be made to a role; ie : “play this as if…” or “it’s like when…”

Substitution is a springboard for the imagination. When an actor or director can personalize the emotions of a character rather than thinking of them in the abstract, the performance will be much more realistic and authentic.

3.   Going there

When a role or story is emotionally challenging, the actor must find a way to, “go there” and personally experience the emotion. This can be done by remembering similar personal experiences or by drawing on behaviors observed in others.  To adopt an experience and related emotion of another is a leap of empathic imagination and really only works if the actor has a personal connection with whoever has experienced a particular emotional pain. If an actor is playing someone who has been raped, and it has never happened to them, but a close friend has experienced it, then the actor can draw on this experience as a basis for characterization.

Some actors have a great capacity to be affected emotionally by what others are experiencing.  These actors may, “go there” just by reading a script or a story in a newspaper.  If actors find it difficult to empathize with what others are feeling in this way, then the use of the substitution technique may be more effective for them.

4.   Self knowledge

A good degree of self knowledge is important for everybody involved in the process of making a film. Actors who have a high level of self awareness will have many sources of emotion that they can draw on when portraying the feelings and emotions of characters. These could be the experiences that affected them most, the people they care about most deeply, the loss they never got over or the knowledge or memory that makes them vulnerable, for example.  A person’s deeply held beliefs are also a source of feeling .  In order for a director to be able to intuit and know when an actor can draw on a source of feeling naturally, he will have to pay close attention to his actors. He will also need to be able to admit his own fears and longings if he is to work successfully with actors when the script takes them to highly emotional places; along with his mistakes and losses, his own sources of joy and pain, and his own deeply held beliefs.

5.   Emotional courage

No actor (or any person for that matter) should be made to feel embarrassed or apologetic for having feelings. The best directors can tolerate and communicate feelings in themselves as well as in others; they are comfortable with difficult emotions.  A good director will not tell actors, or indeed the audience, how they should feel.  Instead, he will work with the actor to strip an emotion down to its most primal level and support the actor in working with it, until she can personalize the emotion and really feel it.  If after this, the director still feels the performance is stilted and awkward, he can direct the actor to put more feeling into the role. But this must be what the actor is feeling and not what the director thinks the actor should be feeling, as this will  only lead to an unsuccessful portrayal of that emotion.

6.   Use of the senses

The reason substitution works, is that its stimulus for emotional and imaginative connection is sensory rather than intellectual.  If an actor speaks about a car, a dog or a wife of his own when he is playing a character then it will be much easier for him to make all the sensory associations of sound, color, smell and texture, as he will be drawing on his own, real experiences.  Sensory life gives a character more depth and makes it more believable.  When asked about her acting skills in an interview, Jessica Lange said that she, “makes everything sensory”.

There can be sensory memories from an actor’s own experiences or sensory research may need to be carried out.  The director should also do this so that he knows what he is trying to achieve.  The actors who appeared in “Saving Private Ryan”, attended boot camp prior to filming.

Actors, as well as directors who have never been in combat, should also take time to go through private sensory images of what it would really look, sound, taste and feel like to experience bullets and bombs exploding around you, or to be a few feet away from a dying friend.  There are many real time videos available on YouTube which were shot in war zones , which, as awful as they are, would be useful here.

All imagining should be sensory.  Once an actor, writer or director commits to imagining sensorially, the imagination becomes indestructible and authenticity is achieved no matter what the portrayed role is.

7.   It’s all as if

Of course, it’s all as if, is the basis of all filmmaking.  A director does not want the audience to believe that James Caan really died in “The Godfather” or had his legs chopped off in “Misery”, but he does want the audience to get caught up in the moment, to feel the emotion for that short time. When the actors play off each other, the feeling becomes a simple and powerful exchange of energy.  A scene becomes real in the moment and is enjoyable, even if the emotions being played are painful.  Besides the exhilaration of the zone, the experiences and connections that can be made without the social consequences can be a very powerful draw to the acting profession.

The general belief is that actors are more neurotic than other people, but Susan Sarandon says that acting makes her less neurotic.  Meryl Streep says that acting allows her to exorcise her demons by using acting as therapy to explore things that she, “would never want to deal with in real life”. Kevin Spacey says that actors are, “healthier than a lot of people, because, at least we have an outlet, at least we are able to examine stuff and to go to places that most people don’t have an outlet to”.

Finally, it is my belief that only directors who really get along with actors, are  able to embrace their own irrational and erratic depths as actors do.  Surely these directors are the ones who can empathize with actors or characters.