Monday, February 03, 2014

Acting Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

It was with great sadness that I read about the death of one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman.  His ability to transform himself into other "characters" (people) may have been what lead to his death.  I have long suspected that playing toxic roles poisons an actor's brain, but until now I have never seen any suggestions in the media that my idea might be correct.  Not that I saw anything like this doctor's conclusions in the news reports about Hoffman; I found this blog by Googling "Actors and Reality."  Of course, I don't want to make generalizations.  Not every entertainer who has died from alcohol or drug overdose had performed in dark and/or disturbing roles.  But two others come to mind: James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, and Nancy Marchand, who played his mother.  For six seasons, Gandolfini portrayed Tony Soprano's painful anxiety attacks and very dark depression.  And Marchand's character, Livia, had narcissistic personality disorder - a fancy term for someone who is evil and wicked.  Is it too much of a stretch to believe that playing these roles could have had a real physical effect on the actors?  I don't think so.  

"A source close to the actor revealed that Hoffman was spending $10,000 a month on heroin and the prescription drug, Oxycontin."  (

Is There a Blir Between Acting and Reality?
Dr. Masha Godkin (Online Therapy with Dr. Masha Blog)

One of the various explanations for why actors often struggle with problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse could be connected to the nature of the acting profession. Could there be a confusion between what is reality and what is acting, on  a subconscious level?

Acting ”As If”

There’s a famous expression called “fake it til you make it.” In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), this is called acting “as if.” So for example someone dealing with depression is instructed to act in a cheerful manner ( i.e. pretending to be self-confident by walking with shoulders back, or smiling even when the inclination may be to frown.)

What happens when an actor must dive into a difficult role? Perhaps the character has an addiction or a mental disorder.  A great deal of time is spent filming. During this time, the actor must get into the characters shoes. The actor feels all of the intense emotions of the character. Once filming of the movie finishes, then what?  Is it easy to let go of the emotions accessed for the part? The actor can of course, on a rational level, understand that it was just a role, and not who they are in real life. But what occurs on the subconscious level?  Can the brain become rewired?

Cells That Fire Together Wire Together

Hebb’s rule in neuroscience explains this rewiring. The rule is that cells that fire together, wire together. So if an individual continually tells him or herself that he/she is not a worthwile person,  that will at one point turn into an automatic thought. Or if an individual repeatedly experiences the emotions connected to certain states of minds, those emotions will be felt without conscious awareness eventually.  In other words, act depressed on a consistent basis, feel the emotions of hurt, sadness, etc. time and time again, and a habit can be formed. Those negative emotions will come up without trying. Emotions are a product of thoughts.  An actor may think back to past frustrations, traumas and  disappointments  in order to get into a depressed state of mind. The thoughts that trigger these emotions could include something like : ” I don’t deserve good things, I’m not a lovable person, I’m just going to be abandoned in the end etc.” "What the Bleep Do We Know"

It’s not simple to change thoughts and emotional states.An emotional state can be addictive! It requires consistent effort. I like to use an analogy: an actor may be required to gain a significant amount of weight for a part. Once filming is over, is the weight lost immediately? Or does it require  some effort to lose it with a plan that might include diet and exercise? “Rewiring” brain cells takes just as much hard work.

The Highs and Lows of Being a Perfomer

Performing can be exciting and fulfilling. It can be a great “high” to receive praise for a role well-played. But what happens if it’s not all praise? Or what about when it ends? It isn’t possible to be in the spotlight all the time.  Performers are very creative individuals. They possess a gift. However, with that gift, there frequently comes a price- a level of vulnerability, a sensitvity level that is elevated. A performer may deal with issues related to self-esteem. Being an entertainer involves facing multiple stressors. And for many in the industry, the  maladaptive coping mechanism becomes turning to drugs,alcohol or other addictive behavior.

I welcome any thoughts you may have on this topic.
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