How Actors Create Emotions: A Problematic Psychology

Fully inhabiting the mind, mannerisms, and reality of a fictional character can be as alienating as it is rewarding.
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Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters

Early on in her career, Deborah Margolin realized that she was a woman nobody liked, not even herself. She was a “homely person who was pregnant all the time”—not because she enjoyed sex, according to Margolin, but because of a sense of self-loathing that led her toward the same dead end, over and over again. She was married to a man but wished that she were with a woman. Or, rather, she wished that she were a woman—a different one. She wished she were Patience or Sarah, two women whom everyone around her seemed to want.

Historical-fiction buffs might recognize the name Patience and Sarah as a novel set in the 19th-century adapted for stage. Others might recognize Deborah Margolin not as a bitter, perpetually expectant woman, but as a playwright, an Obie-award winning performance artist, and an associate professor in Yale University’s undergraduate theater studies program.

But for Margolin, the line separating her real self from her stage self became less defined the deeper into character she went. Playing a person whose existence was blight on others’ took a real toll, emotionally and physically, and possibly even affected how her peers treated her. For many actors like Margolin who land demanding roles, fully inhabiting the mind, mannerisms, and reality of a fictional character can be as alienating as it is rewarding.

“It was depressing,” Margolin recalls. “My character would cry, and I would cry. She was miserable, and I was miserable. She was a frustrated, ignorant person trapped in a narrow life, and I felt like that. Once, while I was onstage, my purse was robbed in the dressing room, and I felt like everybody backed away from me, thinking that I would infect them with tragedy. These were lovely people—I loved them dearly—but my character was unattractive and somehow, so was I. Something about that infused the community of theater actors that I was in.”

The idea that there are psychological consequences to good acting has been espoused so often that it’s easy to assume the science is there to back it up. As a result, the sudden and often surprising deaths of talented actors sometimes inspire fearful, knowing whispers about the dangers of delving “too deep” into harrowing roles. Many theatergoers have a sense that somewhere in the actor’s psyche lays the potential to forget himself when authentically getting into character.

In truth, cognitive scientists and psychologists have been reluctant to embrace acting as a serious subject of study. But researchers like Thalia Goldstein, an assistant professor of psychology at Pace University, have recently started to investigate the links between the two fields with the idea that both disciplines can be enriched by a study of their commonalities. In a joint paper from Goldstein and Yale professor Paul Bloom, “The mind on stage: why cognitive scientists should study acting,” Goldstein argues that psychologists can look to how actors create emotions in order to understand human nature in a new way.

“I think that at their cores, psychology, cognitive science, and theater are all trying to do the same thing, which is understand why people do the things they do, our range of behavior, and where it comes from,” Goldstein says. “It’s just two different ways of looking at the same question.”

Goldstein believes that a principal barrier to such research is that few people—scientists and average viewers alike—understand the work that goes into acting and what it means to convincingly portray another person onstage. She finds it helpful to first distinguish what acting is from what it isn’t, and then determine the processes involved in performing.

As a human invention, acting is hardly a hardwired part of our biology, she notes. So while there’s no such thing as a “thespian instinct” or an adaptation that makes good acting evolutionarily advantageous, we can come closer to understanding why realistic acting is so convincing by analyzing the cognitive capacities it draws upon.

Goldstein looks at three categories—pretense, lying, and acting—as they fit into a trio of cognitive parameters. First, what is being presented perceptually and if it is actually happening or is just pretend; second, what behavior is being shown and whether that behavior is a cue to reality; and finally, whether the exhibited behavior is intended to fool the audience. On the first parameter, Goldstein says, all three categories are in agreement. In the cases of pretense, lying, and acting, “what is being presented perceptually, what we’re seeing, is not real.”

In the second parameter, there is some variation among the categories. “In pretense, the behavior is a cue to the fact that what [someone] is doing is not real. You’re smiling even though you say you’re sad, or you’re not using a cup when you pretend to drink,” Goldstein explains. “In deception and acting, though, the behavior [alone] is not a cue to the fact that what you’re doing is not real.”

The final category is the trickiest of all: Are actors trying to make people believe that what they’re doing is true? Well, yes and no. Acting is not lying and neither is it pretense, but both flirt with what is “true” or real to varying degrees.

“Everybody knows that when they’re watching CSI: Miami or playing tea party with a four year old that they’re watching television and not dining with the Queen,” Goldstein says. “But with lying, only the person who is lying understands what’s going on.”On the categorical spectrum then, “acting is a form of pretense that’s done with more realistic behavior, and a form of lying that everyone is in on.”

But can a realistic scenario be overly convincing? In other words, is good acting a kind of Inception?

In the 2010 film, Dominick “Dom” Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) charges architecture student Ariadne (Ellen Page) with the task of building the most convincing possible dream world. However, Dom warns Ariadne of the dangers of borrowing too heavily from her own life, telling her to “always imagine new places.”

“You’ve got to draw from stuff you know, right?” she counters, to which Dom replies, “Building a dream from your memory is the easiest way to lose grasp on what’s real and what is a dream.”

Similarly, actors must do real work—build real worlds—to temporarily convince themselves and others of the veracity of unreal circumstances. Yet they must be mindful of how much of their own lives and experiences they imbue their characters with, something they only began to do a handful of decades ago.

What we value as “realistic” acting is a relatively new and particularly American way of depicting society. Taking into consideration the arc of Western performance from highly-symbolic Greek theater, to Laurence Olivier’s classic turn as Hamlet in 1948, to pretty much any Meryl Streep role, ever, it becomes evident that audiences’ demand to really believe what they are seeing has been a gradual, modish progression.

The trend toward realism in acting emerged in the mid-20th century due to the influence of Russian actor and director Constantin Stanislavsky, who urged actors to strive for “believable truth.” As noted on PBS.org:

Stanislavsky first employed methods such as “emotional memory.” To prepare for a role that involves fear, the actor must remember something frightening, and attempt to act the part in the emotional space of that fear they once felt. Stanislavsky believed that an actor needed to take his or her own personality onto the stage when they began to play a character. […] Later Stanislavsky concerned himself with the creation of physical entries into these emotional states, believing that the repetition of certain acts and exercises could bridge the gap between life on and off the stage.

Subsequently, heavily influenced by Stanislavsky, actor and director Lee Strasberg interpreted his teacher’s philosophy for an American audience and emphasized affective memory—a key component of what is touted as method acting, or simply, the Method. As noted by Pamela Moller Kareman, the executive director of the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City, the field was forever changed.

“Beginning way back with their interpretation of Stanislavsky, Americans have had a tremendous influence on the art of acting, internationally. What people [once] thought of as American acting is just acting today,” she says.

“Unfortunately, audiences have become a little impatient with stylized acting and now won’t even watch a black-and-white film because they think it’s boring, whereas it was stylized but very truthful. Take somebody like Quentin Tarantino—his are highly stylized films, and yet you still believe the behavior in them. It might be heightened, but it’s truthful.”

Neighborhood Playhouse teaches its students according to the principles of the Meisner Technique, an offshoot of Stanislavsky’s work developed by Sanford Meisner—a one-time friend and contemporary of Lee Strasberg. According to Kareman, the divide between the pair was that Strasberg was much more interested in actors working from their real lives and real pain, whereas Meisner thought that was “psychotherapy and had no place in acting.”

“Meisner thought that the biggest gift an actor has is his or her imagination, which is limitless, while one’s real life and real experiences were quite limited,” Kareman says.

“He also felt, and I agree with him, that you wouldn’t be able to go [to certain real-life experiences]. So, if you were ever in any way molested as a child, he never wanted you to use that; it would be a very unhealthy thing. You might subconsciously be colored by that, but your imagination could bring up something else.”

Deborah Margolin also discourages the possible romanticizing of traumatic experiences for art saying, “I’ve gone to dark places in terms of the roles I’ve played, and I’ve also gone to dark places just living. There’s this whole thing about suffering for your art and I think that’s baloney. I tell my students not to worry about the suffering. Suffering will find you—seek the joy.”

Either way, deciding whether or not to design roles around personal experiences isn’t the all-or-nothing decision that it is for Dom Cobb. Many actors create their own methods, with some mix of immersion and personal history, while others include no trace of their lives. As Professor Goldstein sees it, though, either choice may result in some subtle effect on a performer.

She cites research from late Yale professor Susan Nolen-Hoeksema on the effect of ‘ruminating’ on negative events, which has been shown to “consistently predict the onset of depression” in those who engage in it, particularly women.

To actors who might laugh that off and present acting as being purely physical, Goldstein says other research in psychology suggests that they, too, might experience emotional aftereffects from performing. She points to findings from Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy, who has said that just putting yourself into an assertive position, a “power pose,” like sitting in a chair with your chest puffed out, not only affects the way that you feel, but actually changes hormonal levels, with stress cortisol decreasing and testosterone increasing.

Goldstein admits that current research doesn’t look at these behaviors in the context of acting but says, “there’s a sense that if actors are really diving into themselves, maybe they’re having some ill effects.”

For some professionals in the field, those “ill effects” can be attributed to finding glitches within their own lives, as well as in the difficulty of performing itself. Deborah Margolin evocatively compares the lasting impression that acting leaves upon her to the scar left on an ovary post-ovulation.

“The egg is not there, but it leaves a mark of having burst forth,” she says. “It may sound arcane but I feel, in this fertile way, scarred, informed, freed, and changed by every role I’ve ever played.”

And in an interview with Indiewire, Tony Greco, a veteran acting teacher who counted Philip Seymour Hoffman among his students, explained that the personal introspective work needed to mine the minds of complicated characters is what ensnares actors who push themselves. Speaking about his experiences with Hoffman and others he said:

When Phil came to me with a great role, nothing was off limits. I could talk to Phil about any part of himself. Any aspect of his life. His love of the role was so big, his wanting to get to the truth of the part, that he was willing to journey to very complicated places. I have another student who I’ve known as long as Phil, Nicole Ari Parker, and she just did ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ on Broadway. And you can imagine that if you decide to take on Blanche DuBois, when the play is done you don’t go home and not think about all the questions that these great roles bring up inside of you. If you really decide to go where these great roles will take you, then you come out of them a changed person. You come out of them different because … when an audience sees a great role, it should make them question their own lives. And when an actor takes on a great role, it should make them question their lives. They change.

Deborah Moller Kareman says she agrees. “In life we have a lot of facades—and we need them because we can’t be as vulnerable, and penetrable, and open in life as we must be onstage or in front of a camera. In art you have to be responsive. Things have to get in so that they can get out, and you can’t live the way you do your art or you’d be wounded every second.”

Nevertheless, she breezily noted that “most actors live very normal lives”—very well aware of who they are after a role has ended, even if they might tell the people around them, “That one took a lot out of me.” She is also keen to add nuance to ideas like Greco’s about “great actors” and difficult roles.

To the Neighborhood Playhouse executive, distinguishing between intensity and concentration more accurately explains the emotional and psychological travails of acting—as well as acknowledges the wide range of work that an actor might do in her lifetime, from playing Cashier Number Three to Leading Lady.

“Intensity gets misinterpreted because I don’t think that all acting is necessarily extremely intense,” says Kareman. “But it is concentrated and very much about being here, now.”

For example, consider the “teeny-tiny gal in the train station”—your standard behind-the-scenes extra—who is in the background of Grand Central Station away from the crux of the action. According to Kareman, the extra needs to be just as concentrated as the leading actors, “otherwise she’s just pretending to be in the train station.” (Or as Goldstein might put it, she is too engaged in pretense.)

“If she’s really in the train station she’ll be concentrated; and if her newspaper falls, she’ll pick it up,” Kareman says. “But if she’s not concentrated then she won’t pick it up—then all of a sudden they’ve got to stop the scene and say, ‘What was that? You dropped the paper and didn’t pick it up.’” And that’s just bad acting.

“You do lose yourself in an artistic way,” Kareman explains, “but less so”—and less dramatically, perhaps—“than the layman might think.”

Indeed, one of the ways that she, Deborah Margolin, and others in the profession insulate themselves from their own work is by disengaging from their heightened level of concentration just as doggedly as they build it up. Naomi Lorrain, a student in the MFA Graduate Acting Program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts mentioned the importance of safe spaces, explaining that for her, school is a safe space to do the unsafe things that are required in acting.

“I can’t do a really intense role and then snap out of it. Mine is a slower progression out of a character, but I’m learning a lot of physical things that help me shake it off,” Lorrain says. “I’ve learned to develop a ritual, whether a vocal exercise or yoga, to bring me back to my center.”

Aside from creating a routine to reconnect with herself, Lorrain added that reconnecting with people she trusts also crucial. “I think having an outside support system is essential for this work. I might be going crazy and losing myself in a character’s rage, or sexuality, or fear, and vulnerability—and then I go home and my fiancé Rodney’s there, or I talk to my mom or my best friends. They know who I was before this character and they just remind me of home,” she says. “It can be hard. Offstage, you have to remember that it’s pretend and onstage you have to forget.”

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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