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Acting Coach Jo Kelly: How to access intense emotion when you act all of the time

When you grow up people-pleasing, you’re growing up conditioned to please your parents, teachers, and society...As an actor, the instant you want to please, you’re not present to what is happening with your character.

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You’re at your second callback, and you are reading alongside one of your acting icons (Ryan gosling anyone???)

You’re moments away from your dream job that could catapult your entire career. Your favorite casting director is ready to book you but first…they need you to cry.

You’re an actor, right? They ask. And they want you to push the button that says ‘weep’.

Can you do it? In the next take they need: hysterical laughing…jumping for joy? Screaming in terror? 

Without faking. The real thing.

Next you walk out of the room, confused about why you didn’t feel a thing. 

And you stood there, dry and locked up, as if your entire being was bound by ropes.

Has this happened to you before? 

Perhaps you’re thinking – is it even possible to deliver take after take of any intense emotion?

A lot of actors think access to extreme emotion is impossible, let alone moving from one extreme emotion to the next, so they use tricks to cry on cue and express any extreme emotion on demand. 

The reality is tricks aren’t fun for you as an actor nor do they fool the audience. Few will be fooled and no one will be moved by your performance because it’s fake. 

A lot of actors actually deny they’ll ever have to do scenes that require them to be so vulnerable on cue, especially over and over again. They simply don’t face the possibility that it’ll ever happen to them. This puts them in a powerless place because they’re fully aware they can’t deliver what’s required of them – this makes it impossible for them to ever be fully present in an audition or on a set. 

The thing is, it’s part of the game – you don’t want to get it ‘under your belt’ like a how-to. You want to have fun with it!

And actors that perceive access to their emotions as a problem do three key things that keep them stuck. So here, I’ll lay out exactly what these actors do, and what pro actors do instead…

1. Non pros use tricks and fake their way through their work

And these tricks come in all forms: eye drops, smelling sticks, punching, hurting themselves on set, pulling out a nose hair, substitution, you name it – every trick under the sun in order to feel something.

All of the above may work for a moment, they may make you feel that you did your job – but the audience will not be fooled and they will not be moved, because it’s fake.

When you rely on the juices of your instinct, you won’t need to use tricks. All you need to do is unearth your instinct and rely on the power of your authentic humanity. Once you discover this connection, you’ll find that tricks actually take more work and effort then the real thing. 

Instead:  Discover a connection to your Instinct and it WILL do the work for you – once you connect – the work will happen by itself, without even trying!

2. Non pro actors complain about the work and blame the industry 

How many excuses have you made for auditions that didn’t go the way you wanted?

“The casting director was mean so I couldn’t stay grounded…”

“They changed the sides on me last minute…”

“My costar was completely crazy and would not leave me alone…”

“It’s the competition, everyone is prettier than me….”

The list goes on and on…

If you can make a list all of the excuses that you make, check in with them, and know that they are keeping you stuck from taking action in your career. AND from feeling what’s already there.  

Instead: Take responsibility NOT blame. You CAN make it happen, and you CAN make an action plan that will forge your path ahead.

3. Non pro actors refuse to make vulnerability a part of the job

A gymnast trains their body to do the splits on demand, because it’s part of their job description.

The same goes for actors. Actors need to train their vulnerability, they need full and complete access to their emotions. 

Those extreme emotions are the backflips of our sport…

And the tears are the splits…

Full, complete, and unrestricted access to your humanity is part of your job description. You do need your emotions to act. 

Instead: Unlearn the conditioning – the pesky thing behind that ‘locked up’ feeling when you can’t cry on cue – and set yourself free. Your emotions, your authentic humanity, are hiding under a lifetime of conditioning – otherwise known as RESISTANCE.

Let’s go back for a second to when you played with toys as a kid. You could happily play for hours, on repeat, like you were playing a scene over and over with total joy.

So what happened between you, then a child, to you, now as an adult-?

You’ve become trained to please, to do it well, to get things right and to “look good”. Whenever you try to be good and try to get things right, you stop being present because you become preoccupied with the result. When you’re not concerned with what’s happening right now, you won’t have real emotion flowing through you take after take. 

When you grow up people-pleasing, you’re growing up conditioned to please your parents, teachers, and society. If you didn’t, you got punished. If you did, you got love and validation. As an actor, the instant you want to please, you’re not present to what is happening with your character. 

And the good news is you CAN undo your conditioning and open up your instrument. An open instrument is alive, it doesn’t need to act. It’s like a limitless river. You don’t need another scene study or on-camera class. 

Actors…great news: You CAN open your instrument and access your humanity because you ARE human. All you need to do is take care of your instrument.

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