Feeling LevelThe feeling level is where connection, intuition and good work happen. The direct, writer and actors must work together to find a personal, emotional affinity to the storytelling and script.

Acting, by its very nature, is an extremely emotional profession.  Actors agonize everyday to make sure they are accurately capturing and expressing other people’s feelings. They constantly worry, “Do I have the right emotion for the part, the line? How would my character feel about this or that?” Directors often tend to magnify the actors’ anxieties, stifling their energy with a perfunctory and results-oriented approach to dramatic emotion.  Directors rarely spend the time it takes to understand the character’s emotional life or the actor’s emotional apparatus.

As a director you need to be able to create an environment that allows actors to keep their feelings alive and bubbling under the surface, while sustaining a clear vision for your film and respecting the strong emotions that lead you to tell this story. In an ideal environment, the director connects with the script and the actors, who connect with the characters and story with a combination of imagination and feeling. Think of it as imagining at the feeling level.

The director serves as an interpreter of sorts, making sure the actor communicates not only the writer’s words but also their intentions.

Respect for Feelings

The relationship between the director and the actors and their characters is unavoidably intimate.  In order to create emotion for the audience, a director must first feel everything that happens to their characters.  Like the actor, a director should work a role until they find something that moves them, makes them feel something. This is not the same as applying your own emotions onto a character or an actor. The best way to reach your audience is to trust the actor and respect the feeling of the actors and characters.

Telling someone what they should be feeling is a quick way to ruin someone’s day. No one likes being told their feelings are wrong. Think about a time when someone belittled your emotions, a friend saying, “You’re too angry about this,” or, “You shouldn’t be so hurt,” or, “I don’t understand why you’re so nervous; there’s nothing to worry about.” Statements like these can create feelings of alienation.

These statements are just as deadly with actors. It’s so easy for an actor to intellectualize their feelings and get stuck inside their heads, completely destroying their performance. Telling an actor their feelings are wrong, even though they may be used to trying to push themselves into the emotion they think the character is supposed to be having, can often set off this reaction, potentially costing you hours of work and hundreds of dollars.

Intellectualized Feelings

Everybody intellectualizes their feelings It’s often inconvenient to express our genuine emotions in the world we live in. For instance, there’s a huge difference in telling someone you’re angry with them and screaming it at them. This is something we all do every day—we have to in order to function in a modern society. Over time, we become so used to censoring our emotions we lose what a feeling actually is. Living out of touch with these feelings eventually causes a chronic condition where feelings are avoided entirely. Joy, anger and sadness all become ideas of emotions, rather than  experiences.

Actors must fight against this conditioning every time they show up for work. In order to perform, an actor must be free to actually feel their emotions. When they respond to pressure from the director to feel a certain way, when they are operating on an idea of a feeling, the performance suffers. Self-conscious, intellectualized acting is stiff and boring—it lacks presence, spontaneity and honesty.

Just because we don’t want actors to intellectualize their feelings, doesn’t mean we don’t want them to be intelligent. A person’s full intelligence comes from subconscious resources as well as conscious reasoning.  In order for an actor to have full access to their unconscious resources, or the level of intelligence that is intuitive rather than intellectual, their feeling level must be free and unburdened.

The same is true for an actor playing a character who is out of touch with their emotions. The actor must be fully connected with their emotions no matter what character they are playing. This extends to non-human characters like robots, clones, vampires, or talking animals. Actor portrayal of these characters only succeeds when their actions become metaphors for human experience.  All successful stories create connections between the characters and the audience.

Actors’ Tools Work for Directors, Too

How does a filmmaker bring a character to life? An actor may begin by creating connections between the character’s experiences and their own. By being personal and honest with their connections, they come to respect and understand the character. As they slowly get to know each other, the actor becomes open to the author’s primary intent, informing what each scene is about. Thinking about what the scene is really about on this level of feeling is a way to understand the characters without creating empty, intellectualized impressions of who they might be.

This is just one way for directors and writers to better grasp the world the characters live in and how different events affect it. Looking at all the filmmaking choices through this lens, allows the creator to sculpt the narrative from what they have experienced or seen in life.