How to Draw the Boundary Between Actor and Character
Drawing the Boundary Between Actor and Character: Prioritizing the Actor’s Mental Health in the Portrayal of Human Suffering & Emotional Distress
Stanislavski talks about the many inspirations an actor draws from to create a character from himself. From the power of observation and different art forms to the actors’ own experiences of life to imagination itself. The only stipulation Stanislavski states is that the actor must not lose their own identity in the process of becoming the character.
Interestingly enough Stanislavski’s emotional memory, and later Strasberg’s Method were both designed to blur the boundary between actor and character. It can be argued that this blurring is a creative state. I agree wholeheartedly. I understand the need for blurring to actualize a character. What I call into question and is of concern to me is how does the actor unblur themselves from the characters they’re portraying? I’m speaking specifically about actors who are portraying human suffering and emotional distress.
How do they ‘come back’ to themselves from such powerful states of being? Sure, they could do grounding exercises and reach out to loved ones for conversations, yoga, biking, holiday, etc. But what about the lingering from the character that still exists? That energy and emotional ‘goo’ the actor can’t just shake off.
The Impact of Vicarious Experiencing
As a certified psychodrama practitioner, I have been involved in psychodramas as an Auxiliary Ego where the experience of taking on a role has had resonances with my own life. In the group sharing, though I am able to de-role by either physically shaking off the role or verbally acknowledging that I am not the role I was playing for the protagonist, others in the group found it harder and emotional triggering was evident. For the student psychodramatist, this triggering or lingering could be held by the group leader and dealt with as part of the student’s warm-up toward their own work in sessions that followed.
For the actor who experiences the emotional journey and perspective of their character, fictional as it may be, studies have shown that they still feel as if they have lived it and that experience is unerasable. Much like an Auxiliary Ego in a psychodrama, actors must also de-roll from a character. The difference for actors is the emotional lingering may not only be unavoidable but also a burden to carry if not properly dealt with.
How it’s handled by those guiding the actor, whether it be the director or a coach, is of ethical concern to me. To this point, I have developed an approach that I have started using with actors. It respects their boundaries as being non-negotiable yet, when new perspectives arise in the actor’s awareness, can be permeable and malleable at their discretion. It considers the actor as a person who needs to take care of their wellbeing especially when submerging themselves in a character – more on this later.
Every Actor Receives the Roles They are Supposed to Play
Through the cosmic alignment of stars or whatever greater power you believe in, Actor’s get the roles they need to play. Whether it be in a scene study class, amateur theatre, professional stage, film, or TV. It seems to fall into the laws of attraction. I believe that each character portrayed is an opportunity for the actor to develop personally and increase their awareness of their own ever-expanding identities. Even the most established, veteran actor is still developing and understanding who they are as they continually unearth and reveal to themselves their human potential.
Research has shown that the creation of a role is also influenced by the actors own “social world, culture, past experiences, idealized or damaged self-perceptions, and, often, experiences of trauma” (Gregory Hippolyte Brown). In developing my coaching approach with actors, I found that the material they brought to work on was either directly or indirectly connected to their own past traumas. What’s even more interesting is that they all came to me with the issue of not being able to connect emotionally to the material.
An example of this was when Thomas (not the actors real name) offered at the outset of our session that he had been planning to be a professional figure skater when he suffered a serious accident that broke both his shins. That trauma also broke his dreams. The monologue he presented was about a young man who just lost his father and has to deal with the reality that his life isn’t going as planned. He had performed the monologue when he was attending theatre school and connected immediately to the material yet had no idea why he was flooded with tears. He needed to put defenses in place in order for him not to be overwhelmed every time he did the piece. As a result, he shut down and could no longer connect emotionally to the character. In fact, this was an ongoing issue for Thomas. He could connect immediately to material and overwhelm himself to the point of shutting down and then struggle to reconnect.
Though I worked with Thomas to manage his personal defenses and safely unblock his emotions connected to his characters trauma, it was also clear to me he had yet to process his own trauma. Hence the personal defenses he had in place. This was my first real insight into the blurring of boundaries between the actor and their character portrayals. When I followed up with Thomas a few weeks later to see how he was in relation to the work we had done he wrote back, “I definitely think about what we talked about a lot when it comes to emotional difficult scenes. Especially … the comparison to my own traits” (Personal communication [sic]). Had he contracted in our coaching sessions for boundary creation I would have explored it further with him. As such we only touched the tip of the iceberg.
Whether the actor is aware of it or not, they are reflecting on who they are through the characters they play. It’s in the safety and guise of the ‘character’ that they can express their unprocessed feelings about past traumas whether it be relationships gone wrong, the loss of a loved one, abuse or a plethora of other events that were too overwhelming to process at the time it happened. Through their acting they are continually looking to express themselves, be heard, acknowledged and to heal.
As is the case with Canadian actress Kate Drummond. During my podcast discussion with her she revealed her award-nominated performance in Nowhere to Be Found was a catharsis for her personal losses. The role gave her permission to grieve. With a regimented daily self-care routine and regular calls to her therapist, she was able to maintain her resiliency from her character's emotional suffering throughout the shoot.
Actor Kate Drummond, Photographed by Helen Tansey
For actors who don’t follow a self-care regime or who don’t prioritize their mental health, when the production is over, they are still left carrying their trauma because either they don’t know how to process it on their own or are unaware of the underlying link they have to the character, as was the case with Thomas. Regardless of whether they are aware of the link or not, for some actors, it can become a form of repetition compulsion where the actor repeatedly re-enacts their own unresolved material. They use the turmoil and affect it triggers as fuel for their character portrayals.
During one of my podcast discussions, British actor Gary Oliver came to the realization that, for his darker roles, he draws on an inner rage to fuel his performances. However, he is not aware of any traumas that would warrant such rage. Had I been in my role of Creative Development Facilitator/Resilience Acting Coach, I may have delved further to see if there were links but it being a podcast discussion, I respected the boundary.
Actor Gary Oliver
You Can Act but You Can’t Hide
The interpretation the actor gives to the lines, to the behaviour, to the thought process are all motivated by the actor on a conscious level. At the same time, and possibly on an unconscious level, there is much more happening that speaks volumes to the actor’s personal life and to past traumas, should they exist, that may either be limiting their artistic expression in the present, “Sometimes, your past emotional experiences can hijack your feelings in the present; thus, interfering with your creativity or performance” (Ivan Holtz 2020), or opening a floodgate of emotion that needs to be managed.
Ultimately, no matter how well the actor embodies emotionally distressed characters they cannot ignore that they are the vessel from which it came. They cannot ignore the mental, emotional, and physical impact this has on them, what personal material it may trigger – resolved or unresolved. Either way, self-reflection needs to be part of the actor’s process of character development.
That’s a Wrap
When you have mental health on one side of the scale and a career on the other side it seems that self-care is the key to balancing both. This requires the actor to be proactive and accept that there are responsibilities that come with portraying emotional distress and human suffering. One of which is to reflect on their own lives and be able to acknowledge why they have taken on the role or why they feel they were hired to play the character. What might be mirrored for them in the character and how are they different? This is where my work begins and is the first stage in the process of my own approach with actors.
If the actor neglects their own wellbeing, this very essential piece of self-care, they may well end up inadvertently minimizing and therefore ‘absorbing’ the shockwaves of their characters’ trauma. By not processing what it means to them in their own lives they are missing an incredible opportunity for self-discovery, and personal and artistic development. However, if the actor starts the character development process with personal self-reflections, whether that be journaling or in confidence with me, they make the implicit explicit, the hidden obvious, and turn their darkness into light.
This ongoing process is what creates boundaries and a greater understanding of where the actor ends, and their character begins – always negotiating what to keep and what to leave on the stage or on set. This clarity is incredibly empowering. It could even be healing as was the case with Kate Drummond’s award-nominated performance.
About the Author
From my 15+ year career as a film director in educational drama with trauma-based themes to my training as a psychodrama psychotherapist, I remain passionate about empowering artists. My unique blend of skills sensitizes me to the needs of actors as they journey on the courageous path of character e...