The Physical and Mental Toll of Film

Alyssa Ali

Method acting is one of the most renowned acting styles used by actors to fully embody and channel their character. This can involve losing or gaining weight to fit the look, staying in character when the camera cuts, or following a daily routine similar to that of the character. Realism is fundamental in an actor’s career, tapping into the mind of whoever they are playing and creating a more authentic performance on screen. However how far is too far? Impact‘s Alyssa Ali investigates.

A great example of method acting comes from Robert De Niro prepping for his role in Taxi Driver. De Niro gained his cab drivers license and worked 12 hour shifts in New York, working in between shoots to pick up and drive around passengers. This allowed De Niro to relate his real life experiences onto the big screen, which in return resulted in him being nominated for Best Actor at the 1977 Academy Awards. As with De Niro, method acting has often proved successful on screen, but what effects can this have on the actor themselves?
the brain supresses the self when an actor is in role
In a study done using MRI scans by the Royal Society Open Science, it was found that the part of an actor’s brain that deals with self-processing was reduced when responding in character. In simpler terms, the brain supresses the self when an actor is in role. However, films can take years to complete with many retakes to create the image the director desires, meaning that this suppression can potentially harm the actors mental state and sense of self.
One example of an actor’s harmed mental state can be seen from one of the most famous American filmmakers of all time, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick was known for his harsh treatment to his actors on set due to his perfectionism. As a result, he has made endless iconic films, winning many awards and creating high quality performances. Despite this, his expectations have pushed actors over the edge.
This can be seen in Shelly Duvall, an American actress who plays Wendy Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). The film’s success was aided by actor’s sacrifices when working on set. In role preparation, crew were told to ‘show no sympathy’ for Duvall or even interact with her. Kubrick would demand long working hours, consisting of many repeated takes. The film won the Guinness World Book of Records for the most takes of a dialogue scene, with the door scene being filmed over three days using over sixty doors in the shoots.             
Was it acting, or were the lines between actor and character blurred far beyond repair?
As expected, Duvall’s mental health took a turn for the worst, resulting in her leaving the acting profession for good. In an interview, she revealed how she lives with paranoia, delusions, and mental illness with memory loss and anxiety. Her physical state was also impacted leading to hair loss, wounded hands, extreme dehydration, and a nervous tic that can even be seen in some scenes of the film. Duvall stands as a clear example of film pushing actors too far, forcing real tears and real screams out of her. Was it acting, or were the lines between actor and character blurred far beyond repair?
In a more contemporary setting, Netflix recently came out with a new series depicting the life of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Evan Peters received immense gratification for his role and was nominated for Best Actor in a Limited Series for the Golden Globe awards recently. Despite this, he has since decided to steer clear of ‘dark roles’ like this for a while, due to its impact on his mental wellbeing.
As an actor, being asked to portray a killer can be one of the hardest personas to embody, with their heartless cold acts paired with their lack of remorse or emotion. In this case, playing a man who committed necrophilia and cannibalism on his predominantly black and gay victims is a serious and terrifying role to recreate. Evan Peters comments on how this role ‘hurts his soul’ and that the role was ‘disgusting and really awful’ for him to play. While he is now in therapy seeking help after playing this role, the long-term effects have proved difficult to rid, with Peters taking two years to fully recover from his role in American Horror Story: Cult.
It has been the case many times that actors have suffered severely, not only emotionally but physically, when performing roles. Being asked to shoot a scene or play a character far from your own personal experiences can be a challenge, meaning actors will go to great lengths to embody this.
Sometimes it is not just the director forcing actors to commit to these roles, but the actors themselves. We see times where, in order to create a convincing performance, actors engage in dangerous stunts just to get the right shot. Billy Bob Thornton, for example, put crushed glass in his shoe during takes just to create a convincing limp. Comparably, Nicholas Cage was so obligated to his role in Birdy that he pulled his teeth out without anaesthesia, and wrapped up his head for five weeks straight, causing damage to his skin and hair; all without obligation to do so.
actors do put in this extra effort by choice
It could be argued that this isn’t too far, as actors do put in this extra effort by choice. They know their own acting style and what they are willing to partake in for their jobs, however most would argue that putting themselves in danger, despite the nominations, is not worth it.
In The Machinist (2004), actor Christian Bale was asked to play a insomniac who suffers from paranoia and delusion. In preparation for this role, Bale ate one can of tuna, one apple and coffee (approx. 200 calories) everyday for four months resulting in him loosing 62 pounds / 28kg. He was said to suffer from insomnia outside of his character, only sleeping two hours a night.
Once shooting wrapped, he took up a yo-yo diet in preparation for his role as Batman six weeks after. Despite his stomach shrinking and being warned by health professionals, Bale’s diet consisted of up to five meals in a single sitting, and binging on ice cream and pizza, causing him to get physically ill within this time. While delivering an outstanding performance, Bale went to extreme lengths to achieve the look of his character by pushing his body and eating habits as a committed actor.
There are numerous time actors have tested the limits of what it means to create a real performance. Is it worth these steps? Would the actors have received as much praise for simply acting, rather than committing themselves fully to these roles? The answer is often not clear.

Alyssa Ali 

Featured image courtesy of Road Trip with Raj via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article videos courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Rotten Tomatoes TV, and SempriniUK via Youtube. No changes were made to these videos.

For more content including news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features, sport and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.

If you just can’t get enough of Entertainment, like our Facebook as a reader or a contributor.

EntertainmentFilm & TV

Leave a Reply