There are scripts that aren’t good. There are days when we’re just a bit flat. There are times when even the best actor can’t ‘get into the moment.’ Sensory work for an actor means this; you spend a considerable amount of time locating and creating feelings that that, in a pinch, or when you are acting something badly written, you have a backup.
A sensory exercise might go like this. You are asked by the coach to bring in a picture of a relative who is gone. Someone you loved and knew. You pick your grandmother. You spend time looking at the picture and thinking about that person, the joy they brought you, the love that cannot be replaced, but mostly about specific memories. It is best to back these memories up with senses, that is what you are going for. Remember a specific time your grandmother was making cookies and you felt safe. How did it smell? Was it raining outside or sunny? Was there music playing or the dishwasher running? Was the Christmas tree up, did it sparkle with light? All of these things will bring the emotion of that moment into fullness in you. The sensation of feeling safe and loved can overwhelm you and fill you up, now, years after the event.
Now, you are on a set working with an actor you just met this morning, who is playing your sister and the scene calls for you to share a loving moment. You look at her, she’s a stranger and you feel nothing. But because you have done this specific work, you can take a moment, or prepare before time, to recall that sensory exercise and let the feelings you nurtured for your grandmother well up in you. And before you know it, a real, heartfelt smile is lighting up your face, and tender tears are in your eyes.
The same thing can work for fear, sadness, anger, etc. And it doesn’t have to be a huge, traumatic moment. In fact, better if it isn’t, those are hard to control and your body doesn’t like to feel bad, so it will shut the sensations down after a bit. For years my best recall sensory memory for anger was a time when I was maybe three and my mom took my tricycle for some reason. I recalled it, and remembered her standing on the back ledge, hands on the handlebars, scooting it along. My whole little body was filled with pure, three-year old fury, tense and vibrating, as I ran toward her screaming. I remember the grass and then the sidewalk under my shoes, the smell of honeysuckle in the south, and the sounds of the tricycle’s wheels on the cement. Even writing this now, makes me a bit tense with anger.
I will never forget, when in acting class, the coach worked up through our chosen emotion and then told us to improve from there. I looked at the actor across from me, balled up my fists and screamed, “Get off my tricycle!” There was a moment of stunned silence, and then we all dissolved into laughter.
It seems a silly thing, but it was a moment of pure, unadulterated emotion that I have been able to re-use. A note of caution— Never use something you cannot control. I once worked with a director who told me that he was filming a rape scene with an actress and she had really been raped as a young girl. She got so emotionally upset that he had to stop the filming and send her home. And he thought that was impressive. I was appalled, that is not acting, that is abusive. A director’s number one job is to protect the people who work for him. He failed that day.
I had someone ask me recently to talk about a film I did called, “Hot Child in the City.” It was a fun little thing, made, if I remember correctly, by HBO? during the whole music video craze thing. Now in that movie, I played a bitch record producer who is killed and her sister becomes her to solve the crime.
My work for that was more subtle and harder to narrow down. It was not one of the five emotions. I was raised to be nice to people. Never make them uncomfortable, be a good hostess, encourage people to talk about themselves, and I like living that way. But this character, Abby, I think it was, was not that. So, I had to find ways to think about what I was doing that would work for her. Anger doesn’t play for very long, and bitchiness is not an emotion. So, we go to replacement.
In one scene have to tell a recording artist that his music sucks. Not something Shari would do, but I might tell off someone who had promised me to fix my car, didn’t do it, took advantage of me and ripped me off. So, I look at Tony Alda, who is playing the artist, and imagine him as the slimy mechanic who put substandard parts in my car and charged me top dollar. Now I say the line, as though I’m telling him off. Low and behold, my voice drops, my face hardens and I get through the line with some genuine background.
Making movies and being other people is hard work. Not the glamorous, red-carpet images that most people see and think of. It’s getting up for a four a.m. call, sitting in makeup to look beat to hell for three hours. Waiting on set for ten or twelve hours before you are called on to produce raw emotion. being freezing cold or burning hot and trying to look completely comfortable.
Not soaps, I have three things to say about soaps—level floors, air conditioning, and secretaries. Easy peasy compared to swimming in freezing cold water in a cave, or dragging a body through a muddy rain storm. (I still have back problems from that one!)
It comes down to this. Be prepared, know your lines, be on time, and then…let go, be present, listen and most important…don’t act…react.
Of course you have to be ready before you can let go. Just like in life. Unless you can be okay without something, you will never really have it, it will have you.
For those of you who don’t act, but write. Next time, I’ll turn it around. I like to call it “Acting for the page.”
It’s the same process, but backwards.
Like so much in life. Good advice really, slow down, back up, take a look, leap.