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.

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Judith Ohikuare is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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