Excerpt from Book the Job by Doug Warhit

Think of an event from your life where you experienced some sadness or suffered a loss. Were you saying to yourself, “Gee, I hope I can cry when I’m supposed to,” or “Thank God I’m really crying!” Of course not! The emotion resulted from your immersion in your real life circumstances. It should be the same thing when you’re acting. If you’re really involved in the life of your character, the emotion will take care of itself. “But what do I do if I’m immersed in the character’s given circumstances, have a strong moment before, objectives I ache to achieve, obstacles driving me up the wall and I still can’t cry?” Excellent question! The following are some steps to help you explore other ways to release your character’s pent up emotion.

  1. REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY: For some actors it’s about telling yourself in character not to cry. “Even if she leaves me, I’m not going to cry.” “I refuse to let them see me cry.” “No matter what they do to me, I won’t break down.” Tears will often result because you are removing the pressure and obligation to cry.
  2. THE OUTSIDE IN: Place your body in the position you were in when you have cried in real life and begin to move, breath, and let out the sounds you would make if you were really crying. It may seem awkward and artificial at first, but if you practice this technique on a daily basis, your body’s muscle memory will eventually allow this to become real. Note one: Do not wait until you have an audition or you are on the set to begin your exploration of this method.
  3. THE INSIDE OUT: Think of a past experience that caused you great sadness. Recreate the circumstances leading up to this event as if it were happening right now. Use all five of your senses. Be very specific as to what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Don’t worry about the result and don’t try to squeeze out the emotion. This isn’t a documentary of your life, it’s a creative exploration so if you’re stuck, you can change any or all of the variables of the memory. You can change how old you were or what you were wearing, what was being said to you or who was saying it. If your imagination isn’t sparked, select another event. If you can sensorially recreate the circumstances leading up this event, you’ll be surprised how easily the tears will flow.
  4. BACK DOOR MEMORY: Let’s say the scene is about the death of your character’s mother. If thinking about the mother’s last moments doesn’t move you, focus on the prior circumstances. Examples: imagine the time your character’s mother sang you a lullaby and rocked you to sleep when you were a toddler; the time you walked hand in hand to your first day of kindergarten; the day she taught you to ride a bicycle; how she cried when you graduated from high school. Why should you be moved by the death of another character if you haven’t created the life that would allow you to miss them in the first place?
  5. POWER PHRASE: Select a phrase that fits the character you are playing and repeat it silently several times before you begin the scene. Pick something that really moves you. e.g.“Nobody loves me” or “Please don’t leave me” or “Why can’t I ever do anything right?”
  6. MUSIC: Select a piece of music that evokes a strong memory. Perhaps it’s the music that was playing when you met the love of your life or the music you blasted to drown out your parents’ fighting. It may not have made you cry at the time, but it might put you in the necessary state, if used in combination with the character’s given circumstances. Bring a walkman with you and play this music while you’re waiting to read or perform.
  7. PLACE: A strong sense of place may trigger the tears. Create a place from your past and/or your imagination that evokes painful or wonderful memories. Again use all five of your senses.
  8. PERSONAL OBJECTS: Wear an item of jewelry or place something in your pocket that has a strong association for you. Then touch it or look at it before you start the scene. This personal object can be from your past or you can endow it with personal associations from your imagination.
  9. USE IT: If you’re feeling frustrated and defeated because you aren’t able to cry, attribute those feelings to the character.
  10. SIGHTLINE: Henry Fonda used to stare at the brightest light he could find without blinking until his eyes began to water.
  11. SOMEONE ELSE: Quite often we’re more empathetic to someone else’s plight than we are to our own. If your character’s given circumstances don’t move you, imagine they’re happening to someone else. Note: It isn’t unusual to see actors having eucalyptus blown through their eyes by “wardrobe” in order to evoke tears. This is perfectly acceptable, but only helpful if the tears are to come at the beginning of the scene.

If your primary reason for crying is because “the script says you’re supposed to,” your focus is in the wrong place.

It’s not about whether you cry. It’s about whether the audience cries.

How you cry is as important as whether you cry. You don’t cry the same way at a wedding as you do at a funeral or when your team loses or when you stub your toe.