Using Your Real Life in Your Reel Life

images-5As actors we rarely experience in our real lives the same exact situations that our characters experience in their reel lives. But we still have to play those characters, make them honest and believable. How do we do that?images-1

First, it’s important to understand the way an audience connects with our characters and the stories we’re telling is on an emotional level. As actors, we are the guides and in order to be effective we can’t simply tell the audience about the journey—that’s what a reporter does—we have to travel the path as well.

This is one of the reasons I think actors are among the bravest people in the world. We, in order to do our jobs well, have to do in public what most people won’t/can’t do in private. We have to let other people see what we’re feeling. This is scary stuff.  But if we don’t do it, if we aren’t connected to our emotions, we can’t expect the audience to connect to theirs.

Because our brand of storytelling is time compressed, situations that could take years to unfold in our real lives have to be revealed in mere moments in our reel lives.  What do you do if you have make a transition, come to a moment when your reel character has to do something that you’ve never experienced in your real life?

John Swain discussing Mary Mackey’s scene for Stand-By

Several years ago an actor who was up for the lead in an indie film came to me for coaching. In the film his wife is murdered and he kills the man who killed her. The villain in the story – not the guy I’m coaching – is clearly guilty. The police who arrested him know he’s guilty but because of a legal snafu he’s set free.

The hero – the guy I am coaching – accidentally runs into his wife’s murderer in an alley behind a bar. He wasn’t planning to kill him but the villain taunts him, tells him he meant to do it, that he’s glad he did it. The hero loses it and kills him.

I hired a reader and we worked on the scene. After the first pass I told the actor I thought the scene was flat. He agreed. I said, “In order to play the role honestly you have to be motivated by an emotion. What emotion do you think your character needs to feel in order to take another man’s life?”

“Revenge,” he answered.

“Revenge is sub-category of another, even stronger emotion. One that’s not only more effective but also easier to play. Know what it is?”


“Right. Ever been angry enough to want to kill someone?”

“No,” he replied. “I’ve said it plenty of times but I never really meant it.”

I asked him the obvious. “Has anyone ever intentionally tried to harm your wife?”


“Threatened her?”


“Threatened or harmed you?”


I probed a little deeper. “What’s the angriest you’ve even been?”

He told me a story that had happened a few years earlier.  It was his wife’s birthday and he had arranged a surprise party for her at a friend’s apartment a few blocks from where they lived. His parents had come to town and had taken the kids (I think they were one and three – not sure about that, but young). His wife was at work. When she got off she was going to her friend’s apartment to have, she thought, a quick drink before going home to dinner with her husband and her in-laws.

The actor bought a cake and a bunch of other decorations to take to the friend’s house. He took the oldest child’s stroller and filled it with party stuff. He put the cake, which had this really cool decoration on top, in the seat of the stroller and started off.

On the way a car ran a stop light, skidded to a stop and bumped the stroller. Didn’t knock it over but bumped it and put a split in the cake, ruining the decoration. The actor was mad, the driver was apologetic, they exchanged words, the driver offered to pay for the cake, they settled and the driver drove off.

The actor said he had been really mad but then, because, other than the cake, there wasn’t any real damage, he let it go. But in the moment he was really angry. I said, “Okay, let’s work with that. So, the emotion we’re looking for is anger and the event from your real life is getting hit by a taxi in New York.”

“Well, not hit,” he said. “But bumped. The stroller got bumped.”

“What if, same situation, beautiful sunny day, only now it’s your daughter, your youngest daughter, what if she’s in the stroller instead of the cake? And what if the driver is going just five miles an hour faster? And what if he doesn’t hit his brakes as fast as he did? What then?”

The actor’s face flushed.

“And what if he knocks the stroller over and the baby tumbles out on to the pavement?”

The actor’s face got bright red and his breath was short and shallow.

“And what if, the driver skids into the stroller but instead of knocking it over he pushes it up against another car and crushes it? How do you feel then?”

Now his eyes were wide and wild looking.

“Now think about that, think about your baby getting crushed in that stroller and start the scene,” I said.

The actor brought all the anger to the piece that had been lacking before and the scene exploded off the page. The reader lost her place a couple of times because she was so scared.

“Okay,” I said after we finished. “Here’s all we did. We took an event from your real life and we expounded on it. Played a little what-if and turned the volume up on the experience. You already had the material to draw on, you just needed to remember you had it.”

“What’s important is that you had an active thought process going. Now, what you were thinking and what the audience thought you were thinking weren’t the same, not even close. But because they saw you thinking and they heard the words the character was saying they automatically made the leap that what you were thinking and what you were saying were one and the same.”

I explained to him, we don’t do this to fool the audience; we do this to create genuine emotions that will engage the audience in the storytelling.

A word of caution—when you’re scanning your real life to come up with the events you need to make those difficult moments in your reel life believable, you should only use events that are completely resolved. Psychologists say it takes at least seven years to fully process a traumatic emotional event.  Personally, I have things that happened twenty years ago I’m still processing. But that’s another story!

What’s important is that whatever event you use, you need to make sure you’re in charge of the emotion that’s attached to it. You need to be able to get into that event, get the emotional life out of it that you need and then get out of the event. If whatever you pick from you real life is not completely resolved, you may get hung up and not be able to move on to the next part of the scene.

We’re given the dialogue we have to say and the actions we have to take but it is this active thought process, this inner monologue, which makes the scene real. Not every moment you’re working will require delving into the depths of your soul. But for those moments that are difficult, when you come to a part of the scene where you need to have that something extra, it’s important that you have mapped out what you are going to use from your real life to create the reality of your reel life.

Always remember, you being you is a lot more interesting than you trying to fake being someone else. You already have a wealth of experiences to draw from. Use them. And if you, like the actor I worked with, have to turn up the volume a little to create the desired emotional state for your character, so be it. After all, we’re actors, aren’t we?

Acting – creating an active thought process that ignites an emotion that provokes a behavior.  JHS

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2 Responses to Using Your Real Life in Your Reel Life

  1. davidumansky says:

    Really great! I am constantly reminding myself to draw from my own experiences.

  2. Perfect teaching…right here on the page!

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