Preparing for a role is normal for an actor, but what happens if they get stuck in character and can’t slip back into reality?
Method acting is a technique in which an actor will place themselves in their character’s shoes to portray the true core of the character. Actions, speech, weight and overall personalities are manipulated to get the feel of their on-screen persona. Some actors have shown extreme dedication to this task.
They draw on personal experiences to bring forth emotions that are needed for the role.
Psychotherapist Brandon Srot explained the process for The Newsroom, “The human capacity for empathy is what allows one individual to try to identify with another’s emotional or mental state.”
If an actor doesn’t have a similar experience they place themselves in a similar situation to create their own memories to use in practice. However when these memories and emotions are not distinguished from their own, it can start taking effect on their personal life and psyche.
The late Australian actor Heath Ledger described his Joker character from The Dark Knight as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”. To truly capture the character, Ledger locked himself in a hotel room for a month and experimented with the voice, posture and overall personality. The actor went as far as to keep a diary in which he recorded The Joker’s thoughts and feelings. Heath’s father, Kim Ledger, said his son loved to dive into his characters, “but this time he really took it up a notch.”
Is it possible that method acting can be dangerous? A demanding role can take over an actor’s life, interfering with their mind, mannerisms and overall reality – they ultimately lose themselves in the character’s world. Are there psychological effects to great acting?
“He would often come to the set to hang out even on his days off, freaking everyone out. Towards the end of filming, he was warned by people that he had gone too far,” an unnamed source told Fox News. The source added that if anyone tried to communicate with Heath as himself instead of The Joker, he would ignore them.
Mr Srot believes that method acting could indeed be dangerous. “Having a strong sense of self helps us to navigate our relationships, our needs, professional lives and the daily stresses of life. With a strong sense of self, we might feel more confident, more self-assured, more capable, more resilient and empowered,” he said.
“Injury to our personality – or basic sense of self – may well compromise these important factors.”
Heath’s dedication to his character and his passion for acting had fatal consequences; he died of a prescription drug overdose in 2008, before he was able to accept his Oscar for best supporting actor in The Dark Knight. Whether he took the cocktail of drugs to purposefully end his life, we will never know. “Bye-Bye” were the last words the actor wrote in his Joker diary.
Another danger was portrayed in the 2010 film Inception when characters had to create a convincing dream-like world without relying heavily on their own memories.
As the film’s lead character, Dominick “Dom” Cobb, says in the script, “Building a dream from your memory is the easiest way to lose grasp on what’s real and what is a dream.”
Acting is similar to this, in that actors may use memories to build a temporary world, and then persuade themselves and their audiences that world is real. Actors, like Inception dream-builders, must remember to separate their own experiences and emotions from those of the characters they portray.
It is well known that some actors do have difficulty “debriefing” after using method acting techniques such as affective memory and personal substitution to create their character.
“I think that anything in disproportion can border on danger and that actors, like any other professional[s], need healthy boundaries and support to be able to ‘switch off’ when they leave work so as to better manage themselves, their relationships and their other commitments,” says Mr Srot.
Actor Adrien Brody also struggled, saying it took him over half a year to let go of the character he played in The Pianist. Brody practiced the piano for four hours a day, until he gained the technical capability to play passages of Chopin. In order to gain the mind-set of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a man who lost his family and home, Brody gave up his apartment in New York, turned off his mobile phone, sold his car and moved to Europe with nothing but a suitcase and a keyboard. Additionally, in order to experience the starvation that Szpilman himself endured, Brody went on a crash diet, losing 13 kilograms.
“It took over half a year after the film was done to settle back into things,” said Brody.
“The beauty of what I do,” he said, “is [that] it gives you the opportunity to give up who you are and attempt to understand someone else, another time, other struggles, other emotions.”
Not all actors struggle to return to their reality. Meryl Streep, one of the best in the business, underwent many changes for her role in the film Sophie’s Choice as a Polish migrant who survived the Nazi concentration camps. She cut off her hair, lost 11 kilograms and learnt to speak German fluently. She had no problem getting back in touch with reality very quickly.
So if a great performance requires the techniques of method acting, how do we protect those entertainers who find it hard to return to reality?
Dr Mark Seton from the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney, in a paper on the subject, summed up the dilemma.
“To address these matters, in practical terms, requires two concurrent processes: enabling actors to prepare themselves more wisely as they construct an embodied performance, and, providing support for actors, in the cool-down and aftermath, with the space and interpersonal resources to incorporate the experience of their performance in a resilient manner.”
Ensuring that actors are protected in that way might have averted the tragic loss of Heath Ledger at just 28, and save others who sacrifice their own character for a role. – Alana Scott