“Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what is going on, but that there is something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.”
― Pema Chödrön
A few years ago we were bringing in MMA fighters to audition for a team of elite soldiers in a feature. One of them was a heavyweight who had won several belts. As he walked into the room and shook my hand, I remember thinking that he defined quiet confidence.
Now, presumably this is a person who would get in a ring with just about anyone and fight them. A man who has mastered his fear.
We chatted for a while about his career as a fighter and eventually got down to the business at hand. He had a few basic questions and we did the best we could to make him comfortable.
But as the camera began to roll, something very interesting happened.
Fear set in.
Not butterflies, not nerves. Fear. He was terrified, and couldn't shake it. We stopped, took a moment, restarted, stopped, took another moment, put him at ease, restarted...but nothing worked. Even he finally admitted it - the camera scared the crap out of him.
I felt horrible for him, but at the same time knew exactly what he was going through.
And it's not fear. He's not afraid of auditioning. Walking into that room isn't exactly tapping into his fight or flight mechanism. He's not anxious, either.
Fear and anxiety don't adequately explain what he, or any actor, experiences in these moments. Everyone has them - even veteran actors find themselves having to work through their nerves.
So, backing up a bit, what's the difference between fear and anxiety? Some say fear is your body's natural response to a specific threat, whereas anxiety is essentially anticipation of an unspecific threat.
Fear is seeing a dangerous person approaching in a dark alley, anxiety is walking down that dark alley thinking of what could happen.
Others say that anxiety is fear of fear itself - that you know you don't do well in dark alleys and that whatever you come across is going to scare you.
That's an interesting distinction.
Research indicates that we all have something called ITC Neurons in the Amygdala (part of the brain that regulates emotion) that are our brain's way of controlling fear and anxiety. The science of this gets complicated, reaaaallly complicated, but basically it suggests that we are as capable of fear as we are of fear 'extinction'.
We can aquire a fear of a certain Pavlovian circumstance, and we can extinguish that fear as well. In the moment, it seems, we either recall the fear memories OR the extinction memories in which we overcame that fear.
Speaking as someone who earlier in my career had a tough time with auditioning, this research on fear inhibition makes complete sense to me. I know how it feels to have your work become entangled in spider webs of doubt, self-awareness, and pressure. I know how inexplicable it is to experience it.
Back when I was acting, I remember that one of the things that kept me in the business was recalling performances (live) in which I'd gotten that feeling that I'm sure you've had, of having the audience in the palm of your hand. It doesn't happen often, but it can sustain you through tougher times.
We can 'unlearn' fear, but we can also learn how to control fear by recalling how we've done it before. But as many actors know, there is always the possibliity of a resurgance.
How does that happen?
For me, it is usually an indication of not setting up a scene properly. Expectations, deeply rooted objectives etc. - all the groundwork that allows the scene to play itself - all have to be in place. Deepen the truth of a scene, and set yourself up with a clear, definitive, forward-moving direction...and there is no space for fear.
As my great teacher Ted Kazanoff used to say, GET IT IN YOUR BODY, and OUT OF YOUR HEAD.
Make it all about the content, about getting it right then and there, and taking satisfaction in that. Empower yourself with your preparation and trust that you have done this before.
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth”
― Pema Chödrön
One thing I do know - there is not one all-encompassing psychology for inhibiting fear - we all must find our own. Anyone who tells you their method is the answer is trying to sell you something. You have to lean into your own fear and accept it as you would your courage.
I suspect much of it is rooted in our experience. We are result-oriented by nature, and any focus on results takes away from the moment. That may sound Buddhist, but I would not be the first to suggest an essentially Buddhist approach to acting and auditioning.
Either way, you must know you're not alone.
We all live with fear in one way or another. We all process way too much sensory information when we should be narrowing our focus. We all have our dark alleys we must walk down.
Even MMA fighters.