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How to Protect Your Actor Psyche

Illustration by Nick Bertozzi

By Marci Liroff

When I’m coaching actors for an emotional scene we often have to dig deep into memories that are extremely painful. Many times, my clients are terrified to open that part of their psyche for fear that they won’t be able to close that can of worms.

When an actor is doing a highly emotional scene and has to dig deep, how do they keep themselves in a safe place psychologically so that they’re not walking around like an open wound?

I’ve asked some of my colleagues to weigh in.

HOWARD FINE (acting teacher and coach)

Actors need an exit strategy. They tend to spend all of their energy on preparation to get in, but getting out is equally important and essential for mental health.

This could include anything that brings happiness and peace to the individual artist. In the same way that an actor learns to focus on triggers to produce unpleasant emotions, they need to have a process that I call returning to the light. I teach my students that emotional recall also includes experiences of love and joy. The actor need a complete tool box of positive and negative experiences to tap into.

CRAIG WALLACE (acting teacher and coach)

My advice to actors is to explore the emotion in the body. Emotions live in the body – this is where you feel. Sit very quietly with the body and feel very specifically where the emotion is affecting you – not any holding, tightening, expanding, notice the breath. The breath is the loudest bodily indicator of how we are feeling. Feel the emotion very specifically in the body and you’ll find the truth in a safe and enlightening way. And once it’s stored in the body it’s there for you when you need it.

Dredging up painful memories in the mind feels very unsafe and the mind is there to keep you safe. This becomes a very long and frustrating process. It is also highly unreliable and the actor will often find that when performance/audition time comes, the emotion isn’t there because the frontal lobe, which has to do with logic and safety, has taken over and shut down the risky emotions. The body has no such agenda.

ANDIE MACDOWELL (actor)

It is an odd gift that actors’ wounds have purpose, they are the colors we have and we get to use them. Our suffering and understanding of human frailty is how we create characters and we all have life experiences to draw on.

That is the great part about being an older actor, I have lived longer and I understand more about life. For me it is a relief that I can use what I understand on a deep soul level and in a way, it gives me a place to release pain.

Being vulnerable is a part of the process and I want to tap into what I know and give it up. It’s ok to feel lost and uncomfortable, what matters is that the person you create touches people.

I would rather feel lonely while I am shooting than to try to protect myself. It is hard to find a role that calls for deep experiences and we all know that given the chance to create a complex character is rare and beautiful.

I never need to stay in character, but if I have to be quiet and alone to stay focused I do. I guess I welcome the opportunity to feel wounded because it means I have a canvas to paint on and that is a dream come true.

JEFFREY MARCUS (acting teacher, coach and media coach)

I find wardrobe to be very helpful in ‘taking on, and taking off’ a character and their emotional baggage.  Even if you don’t change from top to bottom, just changing a shirt or shoes can make a huge difference.

Whenever emotions that can overwhelm you arise after an audition or performance, make sure you wash your hands and have a drink of water before getting in your car. Both of these are grounding and put you back in your body.

By building in ‘emotional memories’ of the character, rather than just culling from your own trauma – it becomes much easier to move effortless between perceived reality and imagined reality. My favorite go-to, if you’ve done the work well – treat yourself to a treat (my go-to is dark chocolate).

If using music to assist you in getting into the emotional space, use it to also get you out of it.

LILY MAE HARRINGTON (actor)

You have to balance out the extremes. If you’re screaming and crying for your job that day you have to balance it out when you get home or in your trailer; Watch a funny movie, have your favorite snack, sing your most happy song, do some yoga. Find that other extreme.

Click here for a recent article about Lily

Make sure to check out my new online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

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EMBRACE YOUR BEAUTIFUL YOU

By Marci Liroff
A follower of mine on Twitter sent this email to me.
“As a casting director, how much of the decision on casting a role is based on looks? I don’t mean how the character is supposed to look, I mean in terms of beauty. It’s just something that’s always held me back. I don’t feel like I look the same as everyone else, because I have a few unique features that I’m not ashamed to say I’m proud of, i.e., dark red hair that can either look like fire in the sun or deep brown in the shade—and pale freckles. But having grown up being bullied I feel like all those traits are against me. I’m afraid that if I ever get my chance in a casting room, and hopefully my acting skills get me to a callback, it’d be my looks that stop me from getting the role. I was wondering if there was a certain look that’s popular at the moment. Does it help to have no freckles, and tanned skin, [and] brown hair? If so, would that affect things in an audition?”
First of all, I want to thank you for sharing this with me and being so candid. Of course, I had to reply.
No, there isn’t a certain look that’s popular at the moment. Sure, we’re looking for people who are “screen worthy”—but as you can see when you watch film and television, they come in all shapes and sizes. Take a look at Merritt Wever on “Nurse Jackie”—an amazingly funny character actor who’s also great with drama (check her out in “Michael Clayton” with George Clooney). I could continue to name hundres of actors who are not what you’d think are “beautiful” and have huge and thriving careers. Look at Bryan Cranston from “Breaking Bad”—not a traditionally handsome man, but I can’t take my eyes off him because he’s so compelling to watch.
I’m so sorry that you were bullied when you were younger. I think it’s great you’re attempting to turn it around, and I love the way you describe your attributes. But you’ve got to carry that thought through (in the acting world) and “own” it and wear it proud—just like you’ve described yourself to me. It’s those features that make you unique and not like anyone else. 
Unique is what we want. There are a lot of “traditionally” beautiful people out there, and frankly, after a while, that becomes boring to watch. As viewers we crave people we can relate to, whom we can live through vicariously.
It’s interesting to me that the words you use to describe yourself are filled with such pride and so beautiful—yet you think that these things are holding you back in the acting world and seem somewhat ashamed of these attributes. If you truly embrace them, you’ll go far.
  
I’d love to hear your stories about your experiences with your look and how this article made you feel.  It’s always good to share with the community.
Glad you’re here!

  Marci

P.S. You can also read this article on Back Stage Magazine here.