Brad Heller is a Los Angeles-based acting coach who has run The Heller Approach Professional Acting Studio since 1995. Brad is the founder of The Heller Approach, which teaches scene analysis, scene study, cold reading, audition technique, improv techniques, and stand-up comedy. He also helps actors overcome stage fright and offers strategies for talent to manage their careers. Brad’s alumni include Judge Reinhold, David AR White, Hector David Jr., Dimitri Lekkos, and Tyler Blackburn. But Brad himself is an actor As well, and has appeared in hundreds of television shows, commercials, and films.
As an aspiring actor, Brad found that he wasn’t enjoying the process of acting whenever he was told to tap into his past personal experiences in order to express the emotional range of his characters. Although this can be an effective tool for some performers, Brad found this practice to be mentally draining, if not traumatic. In turn, he turned to other approaches to effectively express his characters’ feelings. And in doing so, he created his own technique.
The Heller Approach
Brad does not ask actors to tap into their past personal experiences to execute a believable performance. His website states: “The Heller Approach is an acting technique that gives actors a simple, yet practical and solid foundation so that actors are ready and empowered with reliable and easily accessible tools to work in any medium. The technique and its application are based on muscle memory and not on past personal experiences… It truly frees the artist to access feelings and thoughts that are universal to all humans, helping actors to create the most believable, entertaining characters in a way that is conducive to the fast-paced entertainment industry.”
The Importance of Evoking Emotion in the Body
Brad suggests acting is 80 percent emotion. “If you took everything I taught you and did it all except evoking emotion, the best you could be would be 20 percent—[earning] an ‘F.’ On the other hand, if this [lesson about emotion] is the only thing you pulled from me and just did this, you’d be a ‘B.’” In other words, mastering the expression of emotions is absolutely essential for actors.
Heller defines “emotion” as “the fire in your eyes and in your heart, in every pore of your body.” Each emotion manifests itself physically—whether it is in chills on the back of the neck, a lightheaded feeling, a stirring in the gut, a pounding heart, sweating palms, or a dry mouth, to name just a few examples. So when actors ask Brad, “How do I evoke emotion in my body?” He focuses their efforts on breathing exercises, saying specific words, and zeroing in on the physical sensations associated with emotions.
Stating a Specific Emotion Out Loud
By simply stating the name of an emotion, such as saying, “Joy,” actors are going to feel—even if it’s to a small degree—the physical sensation associated with that emotion. Perhaps their heart will skip a beat, they’ll feel a bit of a smile coming on, and maybe they’ll feel a little bounce in their step. So stating the name of an emotion is the first step to actually feeling that emotion, but it’s certainly not enough on its own. To tap into the full intensity of a feeling, Brad says, “What we do is we say the name of the emotion, and we link that to a breathing exercise … to charge ourselves up.”
Adding Strategic Breathing
Many emotions have the ability to alter or increase a person’s breathing pattern. Angry, nervous, joyous, and surprised feelings are associated with an increased heart rate and heavier breathing. So to portray these emotions effectively, an actor’s ability to alter his or her intake and outtake of oxygen is essential. When preparing for a role that requires such feelings, an actor could actually achieve the desired level of breath by taking a jog outside, going to the gym, or simply taking deeper, larger breaths wherever they are.
“So let’s say I’m playing a lawyer”. And let’s just say that the lawyer is really nervous. How do I make my character nervous in order to play that scene?” Brad asks.
Heller’s Process to Evoke Anxiety
Please note, this process is to be done when preparing for a role—not when right about to audition or perform on set.
“First I say, ‘Anxiety.’ Then I feel the little tingle [of where the emotion is experienced in the body]. Then I’m going to take a breath in and a breath out. And after I exhale, I’m going to say, ‘Anxiety.’ [Take another big breath in and exhale out]. ‘Anxiety.’ [Take another big breath in and out]. ‘Anxiety.’” With this continued pattern of stating the emotion and then breathing in this manner, the actor will start feeling a deeper level of anxiety.
At this point, the actor says his or her lines. “Let’s say the line in the scene is, ‘How are you doing today?'” It’s nice to meet you?’ So I’m going to get myself lightheaded, and I’m a little dizzy right now, and I’m going to say my line, ‘How you doing today? It’s nice to meet you.”” After saying the line with this continued breathing pattern, Heller explains, “My body has now learned that breathing equals anxiety. And now my brain is free to think something else like my objective or maybe I’m thinking about reacting. But my mind is now free because I’ve linked the name of the emotion to breathing.”
After using this preparation technique, an actor can access the emotions via sense memory during an audition or while on set.
The Process in a Nutshell:
Say emotion, big breath in and out, say emotion, big breath in and out, say emotion, big breath in and out … then just take a big breath in and out without saying the emotion, just take a big breath in and out without Saying the emotion, just take a big breath in and out, say the lines. Big breath in and out. Continue saying the lines. Big breath in and out. Continue saying the lines.
The Goal of the Exercise
Brad explains: “What I’ve done is I’ve said my dialogue, I’m lightheaded as I’m saying it, and you’re gonna notice now I’ve linked my dialogue to this lightheaded feeling in the preparation phase of the technique. Again, this is not what you’re going to do when you’re filming; this is what you’re doing to build the foundation. When I’m executing the scene, when I’m playing the game, when I’m in it and we’re filming, there’s no more breathing—you don’t need to. Your body has now learned how to be lightheaded in the dialogue because you taught it to be there. So now I can just let go and hopefully my body will remember to be lightheaded in the right place.”
Heller demonstrates this process here.
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