Monday, 15 October 2012


Some actors find crying on cue very easy, others impossible. There are various tricks employed to simulate tears, both psychological and physical and all are perfectly valid if the end result works. Like any technical aspect of performance, it is the effect that is important and not the cause, though it took me a long time to understand this. Just as most actors prepare themselves for roles completely differently, some working from the inside out, some crafting the external appearance, the preparation for an emotional scene is intensely personal.

Of course, it is impressive when an actor bursts into tears in the middle of a scene, the evidence of an emotion so sincerely felt that salt water is produced. But that scene will be rarely filmed from one angle in one take. Does it become more impressive if the actor can repeat the flow of tears in every shot? Or less? If an actor needs several minutes silence before the filming of the scene, are they digging deep into their character's psyche, or their own? Is the production of a single tear down one perfectly made-up cheek evidence of great art or a circus skill?

I have seen talented actors use sticks of menthol before a take and watched them transform the minty irritant into a perfect portrayal of grief. I have observed less experienced actors torment themselves for hours or days while they assumed a mantle of despair. Onions on skin, Oil of Olbas in a handkerchief, pepper, staring into bright lights, the death of a loved one, the end of the world; all are employed in the creation of a celluloid teardrop. With the increased use of CGI in films that wouldn't ordinarily call for special effects, tears can now be a post-production addition without the consent or knowledge of the actor. Should this change our appreciation of the performance?

When I was working as a child, it was quite common to use glycerine in place of tears. The effect is not very satisfactory; slimy globules that don't behave like water and have to be in place at the beginning of the scene. Perhaps it was considered less invasive than rubbing menthol in a child's eye. At 10 years old, I didn't know any better, and as I feigned grief over a stolen pony, or recovered from my possession by the devil, I would proudly let the syrup run down my face.

Then I did a play for the BBC. At that time, television plays were rehearsed as a stage play and then recorded in the studio over a few days. The denouement of this particular play is the revelation that the family's happiness is a charade and my character leaves to shoot herself offstage. For the final argument, I was to break down and cry with my father, a scene we had rehearsed in the studio with plenty of fake sobbing on my part. On the day of recording, I was in high spirits; the studio was always an exciting place to be and I loved being involved. When the time came to shoot, I could not cry and the director did not want to use glycerine. After a few takes, they called a break while they prepared for the close-ups. One of the assistant directors approached and walked me round the back of the set, out of sight of my chaperone. Leaning against the wooden frame of the house, he asked what was going on. 'You're supposed to cry in this scene.' I nodded. 'Well then,' he said 'You better bloody well cry.' I felt a mixture of guilt, at my failure, and fear, of his anger. Then my pride kicked in. I became determined that I would not cry. And for the rest of the recording that was my goal; don't cry. In the end, the make-up department used the glycerine and I expect my face didn't feature much in the final edit.

The strange thing is that ever since then I cry at the drop of a hat. Murdered, molested, married or martyred, every type of character in any medium, the tears flow with abandon. The harder thing to do, I have since found, is stop.