On one end of the spectrum you have Meryl Streep, who can't seem to act without crying, and on the other you have Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had his lachrymal glands removed in outpatient surgery sometime in the early 1980s. But for those actors in the middle, how do they cry on cue?
Answer #1: They don't
Lots of acting veterans advise young actors that not crying often has the more effective emotional impact. (There's our heroine, stringy hair blown across her face by a cruel wind, watching her lover sail out to sea. Her lower lip quivers. She tightens her lips and inhales.) It's more moving for the audience because we know she's sad, and she won't let herself feel it. It's twice the pain. But that's OK because the audience is probably there for emotional release, and the empathic among them will do all the crying for her.
Specific physical acting advice for giving the appearance of holding back the tears:
- Tremble lower lip
- Clamp lips together
- Loosen lips
- Look down
- Cover mouth
See Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush when he's been stood up on New Years Eve by Georgia the Dance Hall Girl for a canonical example of no-tears-tearfulness.
The awesome thing is that if the actor does this no-cry well enough, the audience may after the performance falsely remember the actor as having cried.
Answer #2 They cry from the inside
Despite the advice not to cry, many young actors consider it the ultimate proof of emotional control. So how do they get to the appropriate emotional state?
The first way is to get further into the character. If they can pull the mental gymnastics, they can suspend their own disbelief, vesting in the scripted events as if they were really happening. (But...but...That's my lover shipping away to parts unknown!) If this technique works, it keeps the scene "honest" and undiluted for the method purists.
In the second way the actor tries to remember and re-experience some tearful life experience: A death, a breakup, or a time when they saw another person cry. This can be tough for live performers since they're speaking lines that are unrelated to their memories, but once they've been off book long enough, their lines become almost automatic, allowing the actor to do meta-thinking of completely different things. But live performers beware, because real crying can produce phlegm on the vocal cords, making clear vocalization tougher. Film actors can do these same exercises before the cameras start rolling.
In the inside type of crying, when the tears start, actors must overcome the instinct not to cry, and give in to the emotion.
Answer #3 They cry from the outside
So if the actor can't tap into their emotional resources at the right time, what can mechanically be used to turn on the waterworks? Dust, yawns, and chemicals.
The dust, or "dry eye" technique is one you can try yourself. Open your eyes as wide as you can and avoid blinking. Unless you're in a clean room, eventually dust will accumulate and your eye will tear up to clean itself. When you feel it starting, hold off blinking just a little longer, and you may be able to trick your ducts into full flow. When actors must do this for live performance, they avoid blinking for several lines before their cue. As you can imagine, it takes practice and a deep familiarity with one's own physical response.
The yawn technique is also au naturale, but to do it you need to be able to yawn on cue first. When the moment is coming up, the actor forces themselves to yawn, but then clenches their jaw and suppresses it. The face muscles undergo contortions trying to do this that swell and fill the tear ducts.
Using chemicals is rarely an option for the live performer, as there will often be some causal onstage event, and the actor can't exactly ask the audience to hold on while they pop open their little vial. But for film actors, an offstage event, or the layman faking it, there are a few chemicals that can be used.
- Glycerin in the eye
- Onion fumes near the eye (this was apparently what early film actors did)
- Eucalyptus oil fumes near the eye
- If you can find an importer, Japanese hard minty eye drops did the trick for me when I tried them. (Brand names include Zi and FX Neo.)
- My actor buddy Ryan, who filled me in on the yawn thing