Mask Off: Psychological Implications of Acting & Role Preparation

“In business, sport, entertainment and beyond an idea is worth next to nothing. The energy, effort, passion, talent, tenacity, strategy, resilience and resourcefulness to see it through and make something of it is worth everything.” ― Rasheed Ogunlaru 


The entertainment business is both lucrative and riveting. There is power in storytelling by way of TV shows and movies. Entertainment in this way has withstood time, generations, and cultures. We can all be uplifted, intrigued, enlightened, inspired, and taken into a desirable escape for 90+ minutes. There is an art to the process that includes several key personnel, however the main characters if you will, are the actors/actresses that bring the written story to life. Once an actor gets casted, they eventually start the process of preparing for the character that they will portray. This preparation can affect the actor in several ways depending on their background and the actual character they are portraying. There are psychological implications that comes with the process that is often overlooked while creating the project and after the project comes out.   

The process of preparing for roles can look different for each actor. However, the end goal is usually the same: to portray the character they are assigned to with their utmost capability. When the actor embodies the character completely, viewers tend to feel more emotionally connected to the character and it makes for more provoking entertainment.   


Method Acting  

Method acting is a  technique or type of acting in which an actor aspires to encourage sincere and emotionally expressive performances by fully inhabiting the role of the character (Maio, 2020). This style attracts a lot of attention due to the extreme level of discipline that some actors are willing to go to stay in character during the entire process of filming which can be close to a year or longer. It is believed that staying in character on and off camera allows the actor to really understand and identify with the character completely. This famed technique has often led to actors who have used it receiving Oscars.   

Daniel Day-Lewis is a notable actor known for mastering this technique. He has won several awards including both an Academy award for best actor in a leading role and Golden Globe award for best actor for his performance in Lincoln and There will be blood. While preparing for Lincoln, Day-Lewis spent about a year studying and thinking about Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis found it more helpful to continue using the voice of Lincoln on and off set for the duration of filming. Journalist Charles McGrath of the New York Times writes when speaking of the movie’s most important scene which was the speech Lincoln gave explaining the importance of the 13th amendment, “Everyone’s jaw was on the floor. It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. To do that, you have to be there, in that moment. It’s not psychosis; it’s sustained concentration. Is all that necessary, the staying in character? It makes sense to me. He continued, “I’ve never seen a great actor do a major role that didn’t cost a lot. They’re sacrificial animals of a sort.” (McGrath, 2012)   

Day-Lewis expressed a great sadness when the filming was over. He stated, “I’m woefully one-track minded. Without sounding unhinged, I know I’m not Abraham Lincoln. I’m aware of that. But the truth is the entire game is about creating an illusion, and for whatever reason, and mad as it may sound, some part of me can allow myself to believe {that I am} for a period of time without questioning, and that’s the trick.”   


Working through Emotional Roles  

Jharrel Jerome won an Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a limited series for his role as Korey Wise in When They See Us, which tells the story of the exonerated Central Park Five. Jerome shared in an interview with Goldderby, “I had a very hard time shaking off a lot of the scenes after cut. They’d call cut and I would be crying uncontrollably.” He continues on saying he didn’t understand how he felt. There was a lot on his mind and the only thing he felt he could do was cry about it. He explains in another interview with Hot 97 the difficulty of going to a dark place during filming and oftentimes taking his work home and not being able to shake it off, specifically shooting the solitary confinement scene.  

This was a heavy and emotional project due to the story and the fact that these were real events and real people. That brings its own challenges, which Jerome explains. It is amazing how the director Ava DuVernay recognized this and had a crisis hotline available for the crew and actors to utilize if needed.   

Actors and Actresses take on a process when they land a role for a project. This process can include mental, emotional, and physical challenges. Some may naturally assume projects such as When They See Us, will have a greater need for mental health support. The truth is even actors in fictional projects can benefit from these services as well. Michael B. Jordan played the villain in Black Panther and opened up in an interview with Oprah about going to a dark place to get into that character and receiving therapy afterwards. Each actor/actress has their own process and that can include suppressing emotions, revisiting emotional moments in their personal lives, losing themselves in a role, mentally consuming themselves with their character and the project, etc. Being aware of the many ways that one’s mental health can be impacted during production is the first step in learning how to best manage it and promote a healthier experience.   


5 Reflection Questions that can aid in processing a role or project:   

  1. What about this character did I enjoy? Why?  
  2. What did I not enjoy? Why?  
  3. What aspects of the character would I want to keep, if any?  
  4. What did I learn from this role/project?  
  5. What was most difficult about this character portrayal? Why?  


Things for Actors/Actresses to Consider:  

  • Which technique is most useful for you? Method acting is not for everyone.   
  • How can you practice mindfulness while prepping for roles? (I.e., What space are you about to go into? What can be a safe word or place when you need a break? How can you utilize visualization?) 
  • Who can you check-in with consistently regarding your mental health?  




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