Do Actors and Actresses need emotional damage to play great roles?
by N J Howell
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As a creative performer, do you feel that the ability to create deeply scarred on damaged characters depends on your having lived a life that included pain and suffering?
As an actor, do you feel that your pain, suffering and traumatic experiences help you be more realistic playing characters who are traumatized or emotionally suffering?
I saw a wonderful TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert recently where she talks about this idea that we must suffer for our art creating something others will love takes a toll when the performer, writer or creative person feels they alone are responsible. She referred to ancient times where the Greeks and others attributed creative works to muses, daemons and other divine links to creative genius. I like that idea.
If we are simply channeling whatever gifts of creativity come to us from beyond, then we are no longer entirely responsible for what they end up being in the world.
However, this sense of responsibility isn't always the reason an artist suffers. It seems the artistic, sensitive soul often ends up in life situations, family situations and relationships that are destructive. They emerge from painful pasts but carry that pain body into their work, at no small cost to them.
When do life experiences become liabilities for actors?
Suggested Reading: Healing money issues > Healing childhood trauma
During my various visits to Los Angeles, I saw a lot of starving artists. I came close to being one myself, on more than one occasion. I also saw a lot of emotionally unhealed people. It's fair to say I was one of those emotionally unhealed people too, at least when I went to Los Angeles the first couple of times. It's a dangerous combination to be broke and to be broken.
There is a sort of mystique around the wounded artist and it has some apparent validity, much as the wounded healer does... Only someone who had been addicted to heroin, for example, would know EXACTLY how that feels. River Phoenix tapped into that reality in My Private Idaho in a literal way and it may have cost him his life. Although a rich experience that includes trama may, by it's very nature, powerfully inform dramatic roles, it is a mistake to think that only the wounded can effectively portray the wounded. This is because it is the very woundedness and imbalance which may prevent full awareness of and access to a strong, healthy creative process.
Better to heal those issues completely and walk on the set with whatever emotional history you have but without it being current in your life. More often, preceding any addiction that interferes with an actor's quality of life and performance, I see actors who have not healed the trauma of their childhood, their issues with money, and their issues with self image. And, of course, those unhealed areas may also lead the actor down some path of addiction that ends them in the news.