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.