Emotion: Why Actors Are Doing It Wrong

We’ve all seen actors emoting, pushing themselves, pulling faces. What they’re attempting to do is bring subtext to light. They’re trying to carry the value of the entire story on their shoulders. They’re mistakenly trying to be even more human than usual.

It’s based on the assumption that an audience will find this compelling. That they’ll enjoy having the story explained to them by the actor. That the audience will be moved to tears simply because they’re watching somebody else cry.

But wait. We all know this isn’t how it works. I have never, nor will I ever, be moved by an actor’s grotesque impression of an extreme emotion. I take no delight in having cottoned on to subtext that’s being rammed down my throat by a quivering lip or twitching eye brow. I find no laughter in having the joke explained to me. I want to scream at the screen, “I get it. Move on.”

Respect the audience’s need to piece the puzzle together themselves. That’s the thrill of a great story. Participation.

The problem is, actors feel responsible to move the audience. But for an audience to feel compelled, excited, thrilled, moved, they need to feel as though they’re watching a unique human being on the screen. A live, complex, responsive human being that generates tension between one moment and the next. A no-holds-barred human being with an objective, just like me and you.

Next time you’re watching TV and the character panics, ask yourself how you recognised it. It’s most probably because the actor is doing their best “panic” face with quivering lips and agitated movements. But then ask yourself, were I in that situation, with a room full of people like that, would I really be giving that much away? Surely everyone would notice me panicking, and that’s the last thing I’d want. No, I’d do my best to keep it in. To conceal. To keep the balance. That’d be the best way to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, the actor feels the need to hammer home the fact his character is panicking, as if the audience is stupid, thus making the character appear weak, indulgent, and childish. This destroys drama.

Actors too busy pandering to the audience kill any depth or humanity the story can offer. They give too much away. Instead, the task of bringing subtext to light is the responsibility of the writer, director, cinematographer, production designer, editor. The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts, and this is orchestrated by those behind the camera. The contradiction between one scene and the next, the contrast between the dialogue and the costume design, the perspective from which we watch the story unfold, and so on. That’s how meaning is made. That’s how drama is created.

The actor’s job is to bring their humanity before the camera. Nothing more, but nothing less.

Not to TELL the story, but to BE the story.


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