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The Importance of Emotional Complexity

Updated: Dec 26, 2022

When it comes to emotions, are you playing the surface or the complexity of an emotion?

Emotional complexity for actors is the ability of the actor to go beyond obvious and universal emotions to more complex emotions to give the character a fuller and more interesting characterization.

Are you an acting geek? It is said, to be a geek, you must care about every detail of something. Do you care about the details of acting?

Dr. Paul Eckman was a psychologist who studied human emotions and how they are displayed on the human face. He said that the human face is a "universal signal system." He determined that certain emotions are universal in how they are displayed on the face. These emotions are coded as follows:

Every actor should read Dr. Paul Eckman's book "Emotions Revealed" as a foundation for this type of acting work. If you haven't done that yet, hop on over to Amazon now and pick up a copy of this actor must read.

As an actor, you should be aware of these basic human emotions so that you can play these in your work. However, I take this idea a little further. I say, "The devil is in the detail. What gets you cast and what doesn't get you cast, is a detail." So, how do you get this complexity in your character's emotions? One thing that you can do is to go beyond the basics of emotions and explore more complex feelings.

Let's say you decide that your character might be feeling JOY. Try moving past this basic emotion of JOY and consider more complex alternatives. You could play one of the following alternatives.


Say, "I am feeling overjoyed."

Say, "I am feeling delighted."

Say, "I am feeling triumphant"

Say, "I am feeling such glee"

Notice how each one feels slightly different even though the emotions are similar. You can even go a step further and videotape yourself saying each of these so that you can visibly see as well as observe the differences.

The benefit of playing the more COMPLEX EMOTION is that the complex emotion is less universal. It will be displayed on your face slightly different than other actors. This will help to make you different than the other actors who are auditioning for the role. It will also help you to stand out visually. Overall, it will make your character more interesting.

Next time you are preparing a script. Don't just work with basic or vague emotions. Explore the complexity of the emotions. Now you can be a true acting geek! Because when it comes to acting, the details matter!

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