The toll of a triumph

Sometimes, bringing the goods can exact a hefty price.

We’ve all heard the industry anecdotes. Actors going off of the rails and requiring weeks at a time, and entire teams of people, to pool them back up again.

Movies can be physically and mentally draining business. Coming from Atlanta, I was around when the movie scene there was just getting kicked into gear. The fact that there are tax breaks for movie studios, and a lot of non-union talent to be made use of, made Georgia a natural choice for the budget friendly produce. When I had some idle time on my hands, I usually signed up to be an extra. The first time I had one of those engagements was quite an eye-opening experience.

For the first movie I did extra work in (American Reunion/2012) everyone showed up very early to set; often at 6 or 7 in the morning. The whole rest of the day was spent walking around in the same patterns, for hours on end, for a maximum of a few scenes in a day. Usually, I would be chosen for stand-in work, which just means that I mimic the movements for a particular lead actor, to calibrate the lighting and filmography of the shot before the real actors came in. It was pretty tedious stuff, but what surprised me were the hours.

The first evening want from 7am start to a 4:30am finish, on the following day. The hours were quite brutal, and all I was doing was just standing and walking around a little bit. whoever thinks that actors don’t have to work for a living, just doesn’t understand what can go into the job.

The physical sacrifice

Photo by Wade Austin Ellis

In service of of artistic vision, many actors have gone to drastic lengths.

If you are a 6 foot-tall, 200 pound man who is set to play a holocaust victim, guess what, you’re probably going to have to lose a lot of weight. Things like this can take a toll on your metabolism, and inflict long term damage to the physiology of your body.

One obviously famous choice for this type of adaptation is Christian Bale (recently catching eyes for his Vice transformation). During the course of a few years, he has played characters of drastically different stature including a muscular Batman (Dark Night Trilogy/2005-2012), an emaciated insomniac in The Machinist (2004), a shleppy con-man in American Hustle (2013), and the morbidly obese Vice President, Dick Cheney (Vice/2018). This amount of weight fluctuation can cause diabetes, and lead to severe heart and liver related problems over time. But weight isn’t the only consideration when an actor takes on the mask of a character.

Gary Oldman, on top of gaining a good amount of weight for his role as Winston Churchill, also had to take on a persistent cigar-smoking habit. As a result of the sheer amount of cigars that he smoked, he contracted nicotine poising and became quite ill. Actors my have to habituate themselves to the schedules of a coal-miner, marathon runner, boxer, soldier, or any number of different profession with unique schedules/physical demands. The mental fatigue of all of these transitions can lead to sleeplessness, problems with coordination, joint problems, etc. In short, in order to become a social chameleon, the actor often has to take all of the issues/problems that come along with his subject.

This is to say nothing of movies with heavy/intricate action scenes. Fight scenes and stunt scenes can incur all of the signature injuries you would find in a fight or a stunt; even with the best of safety precautions.

Tom Cruise has injured himself several times; once crashing a motorcycle, and another time bashing his foot/leg jumping out of a window. Jackie Chan has had numerous injuries in the same vane (I guess I know why people use stunt doubles). But there are more serious incidents of people being severely impaired or even killed.

Actors must encounter/operate in very hazardous conditions, and with dangerous props. While filming a scene in Syriana, George Clooney was tied to a chair and accidentally tipped over. The resulting head trauma caused pain so persistent that he contemplated suicide. Brandon Lee (son of famous martial artist, Bruce Lee) was killed on set, when a prop blank-fire gun was improperly loaded with a round that was stuck in the barrel.

The mental sacrifice

Photo by Kat J

Movies are entertaining because they cover the lives of interesting characters. Personalities who are larger than life. Those kinds of personalities are seldom in a very placid mental state, at least for the majority of stories…I mean who wants to watch a show about someone who has all of their stuff together?

This can be compounded by the fact that people who are drawn to the create art, tend to be more prone to a whole host of depressive and manic psychological disorders. People who are prone to depression…being played by…people…who are prone to depression. What could go wrong?

Famously Daniel Day Lewis, a popular method actor, once hallucinated and thought that he saw his deceased father during a play. This is the event that gave rise to Tim Roth’s being hired in his breakout performance of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead (1990). Jim Carrey famously put his entire cast through the ringer, during his portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon (1999). He insisted that, not only was he methodically acting as the character, but that he had, in fact, taken on the actual being of Andy Kaufman (disclosure: I think this was probably bull$#!t, and I’m not the only one). Nonetheless, it resulted in months of nonstop antics and erratic behavior; for the entire run of the production.

Drug use is a mainstay of many of these communities, as a means of coping with extreme stress or anxiety. It has led to the turbulent, untimely deaths of such cherished actors as Heath Ledger, Marilyn Monroe, Philip Seymore Hoffman, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Elvis Presley, and the list goes on. On occasion, the exploration of the psyche of a disturbed character is said to have greatly exacerbated the decline; as is speculated with Heath Ledger. We have to empathize with some of the most vicious aspects of our society, as actors. Violence plays as a great majority of the catalyst for conflict in film. Yet serial-killers and psychopaths probably don’t often see themselves as evil individuals.

How to set yourself up for success

As a general rule, creatives are deeply empathic creatures.

This is why it is important to set yourself up for success ahead of time, to prepare for any eventualities that may come. Mentally, it never hurts to check in with a therapist from time-to-time. Parse out what your personal baggage is, and get a reality check on things you carry into the world with you and vice versa.

The best way to keep a healthy body is to exercise it, eat right, and don’t over-extend your obligations. It’s okay to let a double step in sometimes. That’s their job. If an action has an inconsequential effect on the outcome of the production, delegate that action. The more you can shift the little burdens off of yourself, the more longevity and value you will create for the studio. And that’s good for business. As an opera singer, I have many ways of alleviating the anxiety that builds up a lot of performance pressure. You can read about a number of those in my article, Routines: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Finally, best way to keep a healthy mind is to understand yourself — before you get on-set. Know what makes you tick, so that you can come back to something that resembles that when the day/job is done. “Man’s got to know his limitations,” as Dirty Harry says.

But if you absolutely, positively have to reach just a little beyond the vale, and pull a little bit of yourself out in the process…you better make sure it’s damn good

Did you enjoy this post? Do you have an art-related issue that you want to help shed light on? Let me know in the Contact portion of the blog
Featured photo by Ian Espinoza

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