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Death and Acting: Managing Your Emotional State August 19, 2013

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Acting, death.

In 2003, my father passed away, after struggling with a variety of health issues. On the day he died, I was working in the data center of a bank in Chicago, being almost unreachable to my younger sister, who had been trying to call me for several hours.

About a week ago, I found myself in front of a movie camera, acting with a couple of very experienced film actors. The the scene was about three minutes long, having me deliver some bad news to another character, who happened to be played by a fairly recognizable face in the film industry.

These two events may not seem connected, but for me, they are. In both of these situations, circumstances required that I manage my emotional state. In the case of Dad’s death, managing my emotional response was a matter of safety. In front of the camera, managing my emotions helped me to not “die” on camera.

Death and the Long Drive Home

I was in a server room within a data center, surrounded by dozens of computers and unreachable by cell phone, when the call came. One of the supervisors from the HVAC company’s branch office told me that I had an emergency call that had first come to their office, and then been transferred around several times before they reached him on an office line, and he confirmed that I was in the building.

When I heard my sister’s voice breaking, I knew what had happened before she found the words. Prior to his death, Dad had been living with us, having moved back to town after living with my older sister for the bulk of the time since Mom had died. In the previous days, he’d been admitted to the hospital for a bladder infection, and was waiting for his heart to strengthen enough for the doctors to feel confident in performing some (relatively) routine surgery.

Unfortunately, Dad’s heart was much weaker than any of us anticipated, and the stress from a variety of sources apparently took its final toll. When Dad started going downhill, he did so rapidly. In fact, he degraded so quickly that my younger sister wasn’t able to get to the hospital before he died, even though she was called immediately, and was working less than 10 minutes from the hospital.

By the time she arrived, Dad was gone, and the unenviable task of calling her siblings began. My brother and older sister were apparently easy to reach, but contacting me was a different story.

By the time I got off the phone with my younger sister, it became clear that everyone else in the data center had also been given thenews I had just learned. They looked at me expectantly. I sat down at the workstation where I’d been working, told my co-worker the details of Dad’s passing, and I began carefully shutting down the systems that I had been using.

Shortly after that, I was back in my car, embarking on a five-hour trip from Chicago to Louisville, and trying to heed some of the best advice my father ever gave me: “You should be careful when suppressing powerful emotions. You can defer experiencing them, sometimes, but powerful emotions will always come out, and if you don’t give them the opportunity for release, they can come out in destructive and/or painful ways Sadly, such outbursts of emotion may occur at the very worst possible time.”

Though I remained acutely aware of what had happened, and that grief was trying its best to wash over me, I was even more aware of the cars and trucks on the road with me. I kept my brain busy with the minute details of the work I had just left, planned for several stops on my way home, and made the necessary phone calls to my wife and siblings.

When I stopped, I allowed myself some moments of reflection, and thought about happier memories with Dad. At one point, I listened to a voicemail that Dad had left me the day before:

Timothy? This is your father. I can’t talk to you right now because you’re not answering your phone. I suppose I’ll be here for a few days until they can do some rock removal. I’ll talk to you soon.

“Rock removal” was Dad’s strangely goofy way of describing the ultrasonic breakup of some kidney-stone-like deposits that had formed in his bladder. The voicemail was good for me to listen to, even though it reminded me that I would never hear that voice again.

After several more hours of repeating this routine, I was home, and gave myself a chance to sit, cry, and experience the sense of loss that had been knocking at the door of my consciousness. Dad was gone, and I cried from the emptiness of that reality.

In that moment–the moment that I finally allowed myself to grieve–the emotions came upon me as powerfully as if the news of Dad’s death had just reached my ears. However, I had successfully deferred experiencing that outpouring until I was in a place where it was safe to allow it. Had my trip taken much longer, I might not have been able to push such a powerful emotion back. As it was, it took everything I had.

“So you want to be an actor?”

For much of my adult life, I’ve performed on stages of various sizes, entertaining audiences with lip-sync, something close to standup comedy, singing, and scripted theater. Along the way, I often wondered at the differences between an actor’s performance on video or film (captured in a relatively static moment, with an audience of only the film crew), and that of the stage actor who lives constantly on the edge of disaster.

From the safety of my imagination, I had always presumed that the stage actor’s task was much more challenging. After all, a video or film actor can always ask for another take if they flub a line, can hone their performance down with subsequent takes, and can generally work without the constant distraction of a live audience’s reaction and response.

However, I’ve sometimes pitied the actors who work in film or television (without live audiences), since they are inherently working without feedback. If a line “works,” how do they know? How could they possibly know which variation of delivery would have the most powerful (or most hilarious) impact?

In recent years, I have started to appreciate the difficulty of working in front of a camera versus an audience, by way of a handful of short films, a web series, and the occasional TV commercial. What I didn’t realize, until my foray into film, was the difference that the scale of a production makes on the pressure an actor feels in front of the camera.

Little Accidents,” the film that I make a brief appearance in, is what’s commonly referred to as a “low budget SAG” production. Though the figures aren’t available at this time, such films typically have a budget of less than $2.5M. In the scene I appear in, I was working across from Josh Lucas, known for a variety of feature film roles, and along side Louie Lawless, another veteran film and TV actor.

Appearing with them in this scene was… me. I’m known for a variety of things, but not very widely, and none of them are film roles. You could say that I’m an acting veteran, but my experience is nothing like that of Josh or Louie.

Movie Crews and Pit Crews

If you’ve never been on a movie production set before, even a small production requires a great deal of organization. Prior to arriving on location, the actors will go through wardrobe and makeup, and typically (especially if you’re not a “name” actor) sit around for several hours, waiting for the crew to be ready for your scene(s).

Once you’re on location, and move to the actual set for the scene, a subset of the crew arrives first, and in a matter of minutes, everyone else arrives. Grip trucks appear, carrying all of the necessary c-stands, lights, gels, wiring, and other miscellaneous equipment for lighting the scene. Soon thereafter the camera and sound crews arrive, setting up a sound cart (for monitoring and recording audio), a Video Village (for various production members to watch a feed from the camera), and establishing where lenses, film, and other critical components will be stored.

After the crew has started to settle in, the 1st Assistant Director (the AD, who makes the trains run on time), the Director, and the Director of Photography (DP) pull the actors and crew together, walk through the blocking of the scene, finalize (or establish, if they haven’t seen the location before) camera angles, and determine the order in which they’ll shoot the various angles. The order establishes which “setups” come first, which in turn helps the Gaffer and his crew determine how to light the scene.

As soon as this preliminary walk-through is over, the actors exit the set, and the crew springs into a flurry of coordinated action that resembles a NASCAR pit crew (when things are going well). As the Gaffer and electrical department are positioning light fixtures, running cables, and creating the necessary “look” of the scene, the Sound Department is wiring up wireless mics to the actors who have speaking parts, figuring out how to turn off refrigerators and other noisy electrical devices, and making sure the Video Village has an operational feed from the sound cart. As this is going on, the 1st Assistant Camera (AC) is making sure everything on the camera is operational, determining how much film (or card space) is left, and making sure the lenses that the DP wants are close at hand.

As someone who puts together much smaller productions, with a much smaller crew, it was fun to watch the larger version performing similar (though much more complex) tasks. Where my productions generally have a Gaffer working alone, this production had at least three members of the electrical department helping him to put things in place. In addition, the Key Grip and his team were setting flags (to reduce light reflection off the walls), and helping the electrical department with moving lighting supports in and out.

After being wired up, I had a final makeup and wardrobe check (my butt seemed to be picking up dust from the table where I was sitting), and then went with the other actors to discuss some tweaks to the scene we were about to shoot. As is generally the case, we made some minor adjustments to the lines we were about to deliver, talked about some subtleties of interpretation with the scene’s emotional flow, and rehearsed the blocking.

Don’t Blow It!

One of the details about this particular production that I found fascinating was that they were shooting on film, instead of using video cameras and data cards. This is largely an artistic choice, as it gives a movie a “look” that can be challenging to achieve on a smaller budget. However, this look comes at a cost of approximately $10/foot, with the film moving through the camera at a rate of just under 1 ft/second.

Translation: Even if you assume that everyone on the set is working for free (and they’re not), every second that goes by when you’re shooting on film is costing you about $10. (The preceding sentence would cost about $100.)

Now, there are times that knowledge can help you. This was not one of those times.

As I stepped back into the room, acutely aware of all the activity that was still going on (but was drawing to a close), I started thinking about the cost of screwing up. A small voice in my head reminded me that messing up my lines once the camera started rolling would be a very expensive proposition. I looked around the room and counted the bodies that weren’t on camera… “six, seven, eight, nine…” and then thought of all the people who I couldn’t see, working in the area just outside the room. All told, the crew was, by my estimation, around 30 people.

As we were preparing to shoot, I realized that people had been working for roughly 45 minutes to get things ready for this 2-3 minute scene. Shortly, they were all going to be listening and watching my every move, hoping that I would say my lines correctly, move at the right time, show the right facial expressions, and “do that actor stuff.”

If you’re not accustomed to working under pressure, it can be debilitating and defeating. For me, this pressure was fantastic. I felt confident about the interpretation that we had worked out moments before, felt comfortable with my command of the lines I’d been given, and felt like I “knew” the character and the scene.


At the start of every shot, shortly after the 1st AC says “camera’s up” you’ll hear a familiar cadence from the 1st AD: “OK… let’s lock it down… quiet please… roll sound (sound rolling)… roll camera (rolling)… slate it (scene ___ take ___)…”, and then he waits for the Director to call “Action.” The rhythm of this cadence, and the exact wording, is unique to each 1st AD, and strangely comforting in its precise repetition. Even so, the pace, tension, and tone of his or her voice will tell you a great deal about how that particular scene is going.

The actual takes were (blessedly) routine, and to the best of my knowledge, I only had a minor gaff on one line (I substituted a word from the original script for something the Director had given me when we rehearsed the scene). However, that’s not to say that the scenes were without stress. On numerous occasions, I found myself looking at Josh Lucas, knowing that my line was coming up as soon as Louie finished his, but not having the slightest idea what my line was… until Louie finished his. Then, as the last words were leaving Louie’s mouth, the line would come to me, as it always had when I’ve performed on stage.

What kind of madness is it that someone would actually enjoy this? Well, I suppose it’s my kind of madness. I found the pressure to be invigorating, and not paralyzing. As we shot additional takes, I grew more comfortable with the Director’s instructions, and had a fascinating moment where she interrupted the scene briefly, so that she could get me to deliver a half-dozen variations on a line, changing both wording and delivery. I never broke eye contact, never lost my concentration, and never forgot that every second had a very real cost.

All too soon (for me), we finished the scene, hopped in a van, and left the set. Less than an hour later, I was on my way home.

Distraction, Hyper-Focus, and Awareness

When confronted with a situation that will present you with intense or powerful emotions, I’ve found three tools are very handy. The first, which I used most notably when driving back from Chicago, is distraction.However, it was also necessary to distract myself when I was on the movie set, as my brain wanted to start worrying about my performance, and dwell on the many things that could go wrong.

Learning to spot intense emotions before they’re upon you is good, but deferring that emotion will require you to give your brain something else to do. For me, a variety of things work well in distracting me, but the most useful are complex technical problems. Find something that works for you, and will be the kind of thing that you can call up to your conscious brain at a moment’s notice.

The second tool, hyper-focus, is something that I think people either have or they don’t. If you’re blessed (or cursed) with it, you can manage to tune just about anything else in the world out. If you’re not, then you’re likely to become paralyzed in the presence of lots of input. There are no shortage of distractions when you’re shooting a film, in sharp contrast to the imaginary setting that I had envisioned. There are all sorts of people in the room with you, just out of the view of the camera, all actively working to make sure that what’s in front of the lens is exactly what the Director wants.

When I’m hyper-focused, I can almost feel the peripheral things in a room or setting start to darken and blur. However, to achieve that level of focus, I need pressure. I don’t know why, but I do, and as soon as the pressure starts to rise, I can feel my focus start to narrow.

The last tool I need for managing my emotional state is an awareness of important things that are going on, even if that risks distracting me. For example, as we were shooting the scene, the boom microphone had to sweep a path that seemed dangerously close to my head, but I had to make sure that I didn’t flinch as it moved around in the space above me. Likewise, when we were shooting a reverse angle, and my blocking dictated that I move in front of the camera, I immediately realized that I had to cheat a bit more to the left than I had been doing in the previous takes, just to make sure that I didn’t block the camera’s view of Josh’s face.

With these three tools, distraction, hyper-focus, and awareness, I can manage my emotional state fairly well. The only question you need to ask is this: Are you sure you want to be a film actor?


1. John - August 19, 2013

Thanks for sharing Tim!

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