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  • Writer's pictureHannah Kapff

An Actor’s Life for Me?

There is method in my madness

The more work you put in, the greater the pay out. With that in mind, it is no surprise that some of the best Hollywood performances required significant personal sacrifice and commitment from the actors behind the roles. Examples include the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Adrien Brody in The Pianist and Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These, and other award winning performances, aren’t crafted overnight: hours of training, research and dedication go into building these characters and their circumstances.

Method acting is one of the most universally talked about choices, with the likes of Heath Ledger, Anne Hathaway, Rooney Mara and Jim Carrey employing these techniques, which works in a way that allows the actor to ‘become’ their character. The late Heath Ledger locked himself in a hotel room for a month in preparation for The Dark Knight to explore voices and the ‘madness’ his character embodies. Rooney Mara transformed her entire appearance for Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, including some intimate piercings to help. Anne Hathaway really did cut off her own hair in Les Misérables in order to understand Fantine’s anguish.

But what is happening in these actors’ brains which enables them to ‘lose’ themselves so completely?

‘Split consciousness’

A recent study of the brain activity of method actors has started to demystify how these incredible performances affect the most complex organ in our body: The brain. Recent articles in The Guardian and The Independent reported on a unique scientific study that explored what really goes on in an actor’s brain when in character. Using MRI technology, the research at McMaster University in Canada, examined the neural basis of acting.

The McMaster experiment involved a small group of method actors (playing Romeo or Juliet) who answered a series of questions both in and out of character, whilst having their brain activity monitored using MRI scanners. When they answered the questions in character, their brain activity changed. It was almost as if their sense of self had adapted to their character’s. Dr Steven Brown, lead author of the study, noted, “It looks like when you are acting, you are suppressing yourself; almost like the character is possessing you.”

While we all play different roles in our daily lives – parent, partner, sibling, employee – these roles are just facets of the ‘self.’ Meanwhile, actors are required to completely portray other people and adapt all of their facets, while subduing their own. Dr Brown explains, “Actors have to split their consciousness – they sort of have to monitor themselves and be in character at the same time.”

It goes without saying that acting is no easy feat. It can often feel like an out of body experience, especially when the actor is really embodying their character. Meryl Streep is quoted as saying, “Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” That is what makes a believable and relatable performance.

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s (RADA) Dee Cannon touched about this in 2009 in an article discussing the basics linked to Stanislavski’s technique. Actors must ask themselves, a.k.a. the character, ‘Who am I, when am I, what do I want, and why?’ Found in both script and imagination, these are the basics of becoming a character.

Life in the Internal Theatre: Acting as ‘Science’

The ‘struggling actor/starving artist waiting for a break’ trope has been portrayed countless times on screen – all usually for comedic purpose. However there’s more to acting than just remembering lines. It’s a science.

One source of comfort for actors, whether they’re up-and-coming or well-established, is the sense of community within the performance world. It helps to laugh about the day job, or the audition that flopped. But, will experiments like the McMaster one help actors understand their brains, and develop their craft?

In 2011, The Guardian reported on Shakespeare in particular. Prof. Phillip Davis of Liverpool University carried out studies on the effects Shakespeare has on the human brain. He notes, “I had an intuition that…Shakespeare might have an impact on the pathways of the brain, which is an extraordinary internal theatre.”

Participants were read lines from Shakespeare’s plays, such as King Lear, whilst in an MRI scanner. There was a “powerful neurological response… regions normally activated by visualisation, [or] the mind’s eye” were highlighted. This apparently means that Shakespeare’s language triggers the brain to imagine and envision, even subconsciously. The ‘internal theatre’ that Professor Davis mentions is an interesting term. Participants in this experiment were not specifically actors: evidence that Shakespeare’s words triggered reactions in a wide range of backgrounds and thought processes.

Acting’s Toll on Mental Health

It is no secret that actors are often more vulnerable to mental health problems. Many find acting to be an escape from ‘real world’ problems they face, and others find it to be a therapy for dealing with their own issues. The University of Adelaide ran a research study of 20 professional actors which concluded, “There are many positives associated with acting…however, we also found that actors are highly vulnerable to depression and symptoms of anxiety,” – in the words of research leader Dr Alison Robb.

Some of our greatest talents have suffered – including the likes of Heath Ledger and Robin Williams – with not being able to find a way out. “Actors… report experiencing vicarious trauma through their acting experiences – they are so emotionally, intellectually and physically engaged in their roles that it can be difficult to switch off. Some report having nightmares and intrusive thoughts related to their roles,” explains Robb. No surprise then that there has been an outcry in the performance world for more support. The gruelling and harsh realities an acting career can have an impact on someone’s mental health and the need for proper support is key. Constantly ‘shutting down your own self and consciousness’ to put on the best performance as someone else inevitably takes a toll on the brain.

Organisations such as Industry Minds have been set up to provide help and support for members of the creative industry that are struggling, and want to break the stigma around mental health in the workplace.

Patti Murin, Broadway’s Ana in Frozen, who is an advocate for mental health awareness, opened up after pulling out of the show due to a 12 hour panic attack: “Theatre is a business with so much rejection, it’s kind of a miracle that any of us can get through it…anxiety is like some secret society. I’d like to make it a not-so-secret society,” she stated.

With actors often being household name, or idols for us to look up to, it’s important to remember what goes on behind the scenes in order for them to put on their performances. They are human, just like us, and often do more than audiences realise to achieve the ultimate in authenticity. The mind is a wonderful thing, and the creative industries do nothing but cultivate something wonderful for us to enjoy.


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