May 24, 2019

Can Acting Be Hazardous to Your Health?

“One particular myth that attached itself to Ledger was that his death was somehow a result of immersing himself in the character of the Joker. The idea is that Ledger’s battle with insomnia was rooted in some sort of existential angst – an angst borne of ‘becoming’ an abhorrent character. Film critics stoked various versions of this narrative. David Denby of The New Yorker wrote: ‘As you’re watching [Ledger], you can’t help wondering … how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.’ Christopher Orr of The New Republic added: ‘Even without Ledger’s death, this would be a deeply discomfiting performance; as it is, it’s hard not to view it as sign or symptom of the subsequent tragedy.’ And, on the day of Ledger’s death, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody mused: ‘As we remember Ledger, it’s worth recalling the agonies that actors, from amateurs to stars, have to pull from their guts.’

Comments like these seriously misconstrue the nature of character immersion – a misunderstanding that begins with the idea that actors ‘lose themselves’ in character or ‘forget’ who they are. Supposedly, this is especially true of method actors, who are trained to become at ‘one’ with their role.

There’s a grain of truth to this talk, but merely a grain. To see why, consider a theoretical model developed by cognitive scientists Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich designed to help make sense of the act of pretending. Nichols and Stich invite us to think of our minds as collections of boxes. Each box represents a different type of propositional attitude toward a sentence. For example, if you believe that Bigfoot exists, your Belief Box contains ‘Bigfoot exists’; if you desire that your crush likes you back, your Desire Box contains ‘my crush likes me back’; and so on. Nichols and Stich add a ‘Possible World Box’, which contains things you neither believe nor desire, but simply think. Thus, if you think that grass is blue, your Possible World Box contains ‘grass is blue’; and if you pretend that you are a hermit crab, your Possible World Box contains ‘I am a hermit crab.’”

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