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I have always wondered what techniques directors use to get amateur actors, especially young ones, to cry. How can someone surrounded with so many film crew and cameras can concentrate enough and feel so sad that s/he can possibly burst into tears?

In general, is crying in a movie scene (with real tears) something that can be learned by practice or is it something that only talented people can perform?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 29 down vote accepted

It's the same for professional as well as amateur actors - I've known some pros that have a hard time reaching the crying point.

One technique includes allowing the actor to focus on the saddest memory they have, in solitude, then pull them out for the take. I recall seeing a documentary that showed Gary Oldman looking through a book of photos of his family (he had just split from Uma Thurman) on the set of Dracula that got him to the point of sorrow that Coppola wanted.

I have worked with some amazing amateur actors that would work themselves up into a state before filming. One actress imagined something terrible happening to her sister, and she delivered a very powerful performance (that got the crew all choked up).

If all else fails, the vapors from an onion can induce tears (but also cause redness), or a few drops of glycerin in the corners of the eyes can be released - but nothing beats real tears.

I have also heard of directors bullying/belittling actors to the point of melt-down, just to get the shot they want. But that's a pretty extreme way to go about it.

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Thank you! Do you think it's a good idea to ask the following question on a separate post? "Is crying in a movie scene something that can be learned by practice?". Or do you think I should merge it with the current question? –  Meysam Jan 21 '12 at 18:55
You could merge it - but the answer is probably going to be links to method acting classes ;) –  Nobby Jan 21 '12 at 19:22
Merge, as it would get merged/closed for dupe anyway. –  TylerShads Jan 21 '12 at 21:31
+1 I recall a making of of The Portrait of a Lady wherein director Jane Campion gets Nicole Kidman to cry for multiple takes, over and over again. It really was kind of hard to watch, especially if you see both Jane and Nicole having a hard time too. –  NGLN Oct 16 '12 at 20:15

Wikipedia leads back to Constantin Stanislavski and the Stanislavski system, a system of acting techniques to access emotions. He prefered to refer to it as system (little 'S'). The system is the result of Stanislavski's many years of efforts to determine how someone can control in performance the most intangible and uncontrollable aspects of human behavior, such as emotions and art inspiration. The most influential acting teachers, including Richard Boleslavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Ion Cojar and Ivana Chubbuck all traced their pedigrees to Stanislavski, his theories and/or his disciples.

Lord Laurence Olivier wrote that Stanislavski's My Life in Art was a source of great enlightenment" when he was a young actor.

Sir John Gielgud said, "This director found time to explain a thousand things that have always troubled actors and fascinated students." Gielgud is also quoted as saying, "Stanislavski's now famous book is a contribution to the Theatre and its students all over the world."

Stanislavski once insisted that all actions that a person must enact, such as walking, talking, even sitting on stage, must be broken down and re-learned. For example, his book, translated into English as "Building a Character," gives a description of the correct way of walking on stage. Such rigors of re-learning were probably constant throughout his life.

Stanislavski's system is a method for actors to produce realistic characters on stage. His original studies of techniques led to the use of 'Emotional Memory' that required actors to trigger the emotions of their characters internally.

The example of crying is specifically covered in the article. Stanislavski developed the "method of physical actions," to solve the dilemma of spontaneous emotion in a created environment. In this technique, the actor would perform a physical motion or a series of physical activities to create the desired emotional response for the character. Emotions were considered to be formed from the subconscious, so this technique allowed the actors to consciously target and control their subconscious emotions through movement. For instance, if an actor needed to weep, he could sigh and hold his head in his hands, a physical action that many who are crying instinctively do...

The correct physical action does not come automatically for every psychological response nor are they stimulate identical responses for every individual. Many times, actors need to experiment until they determine what best works for them and for the character they are trying to portray. The best way to experiment with this is through improvisation. The best improvisers are those who can intuitively act and behave onstage as though they are in a real situation.

Additional techniques are explained in the wikipedia article - an interesting read.
For the TLDNR crowd, here's a different take, a quick-and-dirty:
An Actor's Guide to Crying and Tears

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such a great answer. you should copy this answer to the original question. –  DForck42 May 20 '12 at 5:11
Copying the answer will reset the current upvotes of @wbogacz, so IMHO it is better to merge the questions. –  Mehper C. Palavuzlar May 20 '12 at 10:53

Not wanting to detract from Nobby's excellent answer I's like to add that very often directors don't use techniques in that sense, but just rely on their actors to know what they're doing.

Two days ago I saw an interview with Yorick van Wageningen about a rape scene with Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was impressed by this young actress's professionalism. Contrary to what actors usually do, meticulously go through a scene prior to shooting it, she told him not to talk about it in advance, but to just let her suffer the rape as if it really happened to her. He said that between the cuts she was still crying.

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Not an answer to OP's question, but I am quite appalled by this story about Rooney Mara. That's not professional at all; so she did not bother researching her character at all by simply ignoring the books and the original films. She is also trivialising the awful suffering of the women who have actually been raped. All this "method" acting may have its place, but for some perspective I'll quote Laurence Olivier (to Dustin Hoffman): "Dear boy, it's called acting". –  Omar Jan 22 '12 at 2:25
+1 for the Marathon Man quote :) –  Nobby Jan 22 '12 at 3:11
@Omar That's such a load of @#@#. She was obviously aware of the scene beforehand and if anything was providing us with an accurate emotional portrayal of a woman being raped. How does one research someone being raped, anyway? People are way too quick to jump on the trivialising bandwagon :S –  coleopterist Oct 20 '13 at 5:17

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