Psychologists know very little about the cognitive underpinning of acting, a sharp contrast from what we know about the psychological skills involved in music and in visual art. Performing arts are different because they have to do with the whole complexity of the human experience.
I am currently writing a book that proposes that training in acting fosters the ability to read others’ mental states, feelings and emotions and it also helps to regulate one’s own emotions. Above all it can help us to understand what actors do to control deep emotions, feelings and thoughts that for the normal people could be unbearable.
The ability to learn to deal with such emotions, thoughts and feelings, and how to regulate them, could be used, successfully to help people with mental disorders particularly in the attempt to learn how to cope with symptoms. Given that mental disorders mostly rise due to emotional development, or the lack of, it makes a lot of sense to explore the psychological skills of the actor especially method acting and emotional regulation.
Any feedback or contribution to this enquiry would be appreciated. I like to hear what my Facebook friends have to say, think or any questions you may have. Any question, no matter how silly it seems, could be important.
The development of empathy and the acting profession
I have spoken about actors and how the acting profession can help people with mental disorders. Let me give you one example about empathy:
Imagine that you have an acting job in six months. You are going to play the part of a person that suffers with Bipolar Disorder, for example Earnest Hemingway. Where do you start? Particularly if you do not suffer with Bipolar Disorder?
Well, you start to read about Bipolar, everything, the good, the bad and the ugly. Where you get the information, and how good it is, will make all of the difference to your movie.
You may want to talk to people that suffer with the disorder, actually this is a must, so that you get to know what it is like. If you are a famous person this is easy, you are probably in the inner circle so you can ask people like Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Richard Dreyfuss, or even Stephen Fry. What is it like to have Bipolar Disorder? They will probably tell you. If you are not that famous you may have to ask sufferers and psychologists so that you can form a good idea. But it is also true that actors have access to psychologists and psychiatrists that can help them with their personality portrait.
You start to gather information, see how people with bipolar act, watch documentaries, and so on. You form a good idea about what Bipolar may be. Or do you? Maybe and maybe not because Bipolar Disorder is not one kind of disorder, it is also something mixed with personality and every individual is different.
For example, if you are lucky enough to be able to ask Jim Carrey you will only get the perspective of a Celebrity who suffers with bipolar. This is very much different from a normal person who suffers with bipolar. For example, Jim Carrey has enough money to see a therapist at anytime; he has a following of people who make him feel valuable and respected. But he also has the media to torment him. And there a host of other differences. This is much different from a person that may not have enough money to see a therapist, who has not enough knowledge to even admit that she or he has bipolar and who drowns his or her problems in alcohol and by so doing, self medicating. Different people have different experiences and financial and physical status do make a huge difference in mental health.
You can see that, as an actor, you learn and you acquire knowledge about Bipolar Disorder. What happens now is that you develop some empathy because you have had to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who suffers with bipolar and act that someone. This makes all of the differences in terms of fighting stigma. You develop empathy, you develop understanding based on knowledge and this makes a huge difference in how you are going to treat someone with a mental disorder. You will certainly become more understanding and compassionate unless you have a bad personality such as the personality of a really bad narcissist. Then you don’t care you just play the role. But to play someone with bipolar you need to have a heart and this will show in your movie.
When Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf, in the movie The Hours, she studied the character carefully but also used some of her experiences, including her experience of depression and anxiety, to play a better character. She was terrific in this movie and that was the time that Nicole reached the peak of her acting career for me. She was the best then because that was a time when she was suffering and she was not the superstar she is today. Her acting was raw, absolutely real and credible. Don’t get me wrong,. she is still one of the greatest actors today, but back then she was simply incredible and very gifted. Other early movies are The Human Stain, Cold Mountain, Moulin Rouge and a few others. These were the best movies of Nicole Kidman for me.
In conclusion, it it can be said that actors do develop empathy by putting themselves in the shoes of the character. Characters always have a story, a personality, and lots of motives as to why they have developed as they have. Like a snowflake in the winds that is shaped by currents and strong winds, so too personality is shaped by life experiences and our environment.
By developing empathy, we make progress towards the elimination of stigma and prejudice in mental health which are major sources of suicide and mental ill health. This is what the acting profession can teach us: how to develop empathy and how to learn about people but putting ourselves in their shoes. I think we should look at this enquiry closely so that we can truly help people with mental disorder in a much more efficient, healthier, and more hopeful manner than we currently do.