Acting and Emotion: Building Your Emotional Repertoire

Posted on 26 August 2016

acting and emotion


The secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself. – Aristotle.


Moving yourself to tears, for the average person, is a sign of hysteria or misery. For an actor, it’s a sign of success. To be able to tap into your emotions and express them as a character is acting at its core; failure to move oneself is also the first thing a critic will point out in a poor actor. Being told you “lack range” is one of the worst things an actor can hear. Acting and emotion go hand in hand, the sooner you can embrace that fact, the easier your career will be.

To avoid being stuck in narrow, emotionless roles, an actor must prove they have a wide emotional repertoire; for the method actor, this is easy. Your emotional repertoire in character is just as broad as your range of emotions in everyday life.

This is because method actors recognise that it’s impossible to experience the emotional life of anyone beside themselves. You can’t live Hamlet’s life, or Al Pacino’s. You only have your own emotional life to draw on. When you’re on stage performing, the emotions you express come from you, not the character.

The Three Pillars

To access a complete emotion, there’s a checklist of sorts: the three pillars of emotion. Tapping into each of these three pillars – the mental, the physical, and the linguistic – is how an actor truly re-experiences emotion in a performance.

  • The mental pillar refers to, how, in order to evoke emotion you must draw on your experiences: present if the emotion is spontaneous, but past if you’re an actor using the method. Your background and history consist of things that have made you emotional in the past. These become useful as they help to recreate those feelings.
  • The physical is knowing that the body remembers a sequence of events in order to become emotional. As virtually all acting teachers will attest, the body and the mind are intertwined very strongly.
  • The third pillar is language. The words we use on ourselves and others create emotion, and can be the distinction between two otherwise very similar emotions. For example, the emotional difference between hearing “that wasn’t very clever,” and “you are a complete idiot”.


To see how all three of these pillars combine to produce a complete emotion, try this exercise:

  • Stand up, and raise your arms in the air.
  • Look upwards and smile.
  • Now, try to feel angry.


Hard, isn’t it? Try it again:


  • Look down, your arms by your sides.
  • Use language you use when sad, for example: “you look like an idiot”.
  • Think of a sad experience you’ve had – maybe the death of a loved one.
  • Now, try to feel ecstatically happy.


It’s very difficult. This shows us that emotion is more than just thinking about it: the body is triggered physically and verbally as well as mentally.

Brain Training

The right side of the brain is the one we need to train to become a quick and effective actor. The right side is concerned with holistic thought, intuition, and creativity – all necessary traits in acting. The left side is analytical, and although letting this side wither is clearly unhealthy, training it to turn off whilst acting is helpful. The left brain often fixates on what’s ahead, and tries to anticipate the next move; this takes an actor out of the moment.

Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t take commands; it must be stimulated by the senses. This is why in method acting we train the brain to respond to senses more quickly.

The difference between a method actor’s approach and a basic approach to acting can be seen when they are asked to express emotion. If a director suddenly asks the actor to cry for a scene and they’re unprepared, the basic actor will try to force sadness. What is expressed is a representation of emotion, not the real thing.

The method actor, on the other hand, will have trained their brain to respond to sense cues. All the actor needs to do is reinvent their sadness from mental, physical, and linguistic cues; which they will have trained themselves well in. They will express true emotion, and real tears.

It’s not as hard as it seems. Most people will know the feeling of hearing a piece of music and being reminded of a past relationship. But it’s not just being reminded, is it? The music evokes an emotional reaction that transports you back to the moment, and you sense it all again.

If it can happen to you in real life, you can train your brain – somewhat like a muscle – to react on sense cue.

Acting and Emotion – Making the Link

Earlier, we mentioned using the senses to cue the brain into feeling emotion. Further explanation is needed. Our senses – taste, touch, sight, sound, smell – are how we experience events. When we are reminded of a past experience, we often only tap into sight or sound; but to completely re-invent it (as a method actor does) we must use all five senses.

It’s not as difficult as it sounds. When rehearsing or preparing for a performance, you might use affective memory to find which experience you will re-invent on stage. Once you’ve found it, you use sense memory to unlock the flood of emotion that goes with it.

This is done by going through each sense within the memory you’ve found. Go through every sound, every smell, every sight, until one particular sensation transports you back completely. This sensation is called your emotional release object.

After years of practice, you will know your emotional release object for a huge range of emotions. When asked to convey virtually any emotion, you will recall your emotional release object and your highly-trained right brain will evoke true feeling immediately.

For more formal training on how acting and emotion can work together, why not see if the Ultimate Acting Programme is for you? It’s a one-year course in one of the only Strasberg Method schools in the UK. Brian Timoney produces actors in the top 5% in the UK, so if you think you can keep up then apply for the October intake today.


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