For most of my life, I have been running away from my emotions.
I grew up believing that showing emotions was a sign of weakness.
Strong people keep everything inside. They don’t lose their temper. They don’t act impulsively. Strong people are always in control.
Strong people stay detached in order to make rational decisions. They look at facts and disregard feelings.
In my old-fashioned model of the world, it was okay for women to be emotional. Being strong was masculine, and I wanted to be a “real man,” whatever that meant.
Looking back, this attitude of “nothing affects me” might have been a coping mechanism that helped me deal with the breakdown of my parents’ marriage. I was in my teens when my dad left and I became the man of the house. I needed to be there for my mother and my younger sister.
Later on, my emotional detachment served me well in my career. As part of the news team of an international radio station, every day was a confrontation with death, disaster and human tragedy. The newsroom was and is no place for tears.
What I had yet to learn was this:
In one context, certain behavior is necessary in order to function. In another context the same behavior could be highly inappropriate. Being all business and unmoved might work when you’re anchoring the news, but not when you’re coming home and your significant other needs warmth and affection.
Looking back, my emotional detachment was a protective wall that helped me survive. It also made it hard for me and others to connect with the real, vulnerable me. But it went deeper.
The fact that I wasn’t letting the pain in, also subdued the pleasure. Without lows there were no big highs either. Because I felt the need to stay calm and collected, I lost a part of my enthusiasm and spontaneity. Deep inside, I was fearful. What would happen if I would take off the lid that kept my emotions at bay? Would people still like me? Would I like myself?
At this point you might wonder what all of this has to do with voice acting. Stay with me. I’ll get to that in a minute or two.
It took me several decades and lots of soul-searching to discover that daring to be vulnerable can be a sign of strength. The world wasn’t going to crash down on me just because I showed some emotion.
Tears can be cleansing. Laughter can be liberating. Hugs can be healing.
Keeping my feelings to myself had left me lonely. When I finally started opening up to people, it became easier for people to reach out and open up to me.
It was freeing to be able to tap into my anger and frustration. In the past, bitterness and resentment would fester inside and grow. Inward anger would lead to darkness and depression.
Once the wall had been broken down, I felt light and alive.
Looking back, I wasted so much energy on keeping the lid closed. Today, I use that energy to move forward, and I spend much of my life following my gut feeling. I use what Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Even though I’m happy to have opened my emotional house to all kinds of guests, there are consequences to wearing my feelings on my sleeve.
I’m more easily moved by the kindness of strangers and the cruelty of friends. When I see someone hurting an animal or hitting a child, I feel it in my body. I tear up when I see the veterans parade through our town, knowing that they have risked their lives so I could live in liberty.
In other words: life has become more intense, and I’ve become a sentimental wuss!
Professionally speaking, being more easily affected by my emotions has made me more effective and less effective. Let me explain.
As a (voice) actor, I believe it is vital that we can tap into a whole range of emotions. I often compare it to the colors of a painter’s palette or the instruments in an orchestra. The more colors or instruments we have at our disposal, the greater our dramatic range.
If we wish to convey genuine enthusiasm to our audience, we must access that state ourselves first, in order to be convincing. The same is true for other emotions such as disbelief, amazement, rage, being heartbroken, in love, feeling rejected, et cetera.
When our words, our tonality and our body language all say the same thing, we become believable.
However, we cannot unleash those raw emotions unfiltered and unpolished. That’s where we become ineffective.
I once asked one of my students to read a page of a novel that touched her deeply. It was about someone who had just lost her father. Little did I know that my student had recently lost her dad.
It didn’t take her long to feel the emotional impact of the story. After reading a few lines, she was overtaken by emotions and I could barely understand what she was saying. Then she started to cry.
Once she had calmed down, we talked about the experience. She realized that there and then, she did not go into character or into what I call “narrator-mode.” She was merely being herself, reading the lines as if it was her autobiography.
It’s understandable, but unprofessional.
Acting is a most selfless profession. It can never be about ego. We don’t serve ourselves. We serve the authors, the screenwriters and the playwrights. It requires a detached involvement. If we do it well enough, the audience will believe that we are the character we portray.
In order to create that character, we need a frame of reference. It can be completely imaginary, or we can tap into our life experiences.
Our emotions are like a goldmine. We can delve into it, but we must transform the gold ore into something we can melt and mold according to our desire and design.
As a (voice) actor, we must channel and manage these emotions to create the guise of spontaneity and authenticity. We don’t act out reality. We’re merely the creators of something that looks and sounds like it.
Director Richard Linklater put it this way when he talked about his latest movie “Before Midnight.” He said:
“There is no reality in film. It’s all a huge construct. But what we’re trying to construct is something that feels like there’s nothing there, like it’s just unfolding very simply.”
Great actors are like the violinist who’s so much in control of his technique that he can forget about it and give a passionate performance. Instead of playing notes, he’s allowing the music to unfold.
While we personify the characters we play, I believe it’s healthy to keep an intimate distance to them, if only to preserve our own sense of self. Without emotion, there is no character, but if we become too emotionally invested, we may cross the line between reality and fiction.
We all know celebrities who have become their characters. Wherever they go, they’ve always got it turned on. I know a few voice-overs who can’t stop doing funny voices or strange accents no matter where they are. They have forgotten the difference between playing a character and being a character.
It is useful to learn to turn it on and turn it off. At home, Tom Kenny (the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) is just Tom Kenny, Jim Carrey keeps a straight face and Steve Martin is not this Wild & Crazy Guy.
There’s another reason why we need to keep an intimate distance to our copy and character. If we allow ourselves to be overtaken by personal grief, joy or disappointment, it can easily lead to overacting.
Here’s my rule of thumb:
The more dramatic the language and the more powerful the images, the more we must restrain ourselves as voice-overs. Otherwise, our delivery could be overemotional and could become a distraction.
Sometimes though, that’s easier said than done, especially for those who have embraced their inner emotional selves at a later age.
Almost two weeks ago, I was asked to lead a Celebration of Life for my friend Kyle Burkhart. After battling with brain cancer for many years, Kyle passed away at the age of 41. It seemed only a few years ago, that I had married Kyle and his wife, when his cancer had been in remission. For those of you who don’t know: I occasionally act as a non-denominational wedding officiant.
Leading the memorial would be honoring one of Kyle’s last wishes, and of course I accepted. In the days before the gathering, I had no idea how I would handle my emotions. I was afraid that I would break down in the middle of a reading, putting the focus on me instead of on Kyle. Then I thought of the concept of intimate distance.
In order to fulfill my job as officiant, I made sure to become intimately acquainted with what I wanted to say that day. In voice-over terms: I thoroughly familiarized myself with the script. Preparation is one of the best ways to deal with nerves and other emotions.
I also realized that in order to be there for friends and family, I had to distance myself from my own feelings. In voice-over terms: I had to focus on my role by separating the personal from the professional. It was the only way I could truly serve the purpose of this Celebration of Life.
MAKING A CHOICE
In my studio I use the same strategy. When I decide how to approach a particular script, I ask myself: For what purpose was this written? What are the intentions of the author or the client? How can I best communicate these intentions without me getting in the way?
I no longer run away from my emotions. They’re my friends. Being able to tap into them has strengthened me as a voice actor and it has made my life a lot richer. But like any color on a painter’s palette, there is a place and a time to use them.
Sometimes I listen to an audition I just recorded and I know something’s missing. It sounds too detached.
When that happens, I tell myself: “Once more, with feeling.”
Sometimes I hear myself overdoing it. I sound too sentimental.
When that happens, I hear Arnold Schwarzenegger in a scene from Kindergarten Cop, telling me the following:
“It’s time now, to turn this mush into muscles!”
Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice