"It was really extreme. And I definitely felt both physical and mental aftershocks from the experience, because it was the first thing I've ever done that was this physically demanding on top of an emotionally demanding part."
The key part in Portman’s response is when she mentions the “aftershocks” she felt after she was done shooting. When an actor gets deep into a role, often times the character they embodied sticks with them long after filming ends. I’ve always said that I believe actors have one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Not only do they have to live with a different persona for months at a time, but they also are required to bare their souls emotionally in front of a camera and crew. It’s no easy task. Before I get into this even more, take a look at the Industry 101 I ran earlier about the differences between method acting and classical acting.
Most people associate an actor losing themselves in a character as part of method acting and the intense psychological toll in can have, but Natalie Portman is not a method actor:
“I'm the anti-Method actor. As soon as we finish a scene, I need to go back to being myself, because it freaks me out.”
Now, while method actors do tend to be the ones who have the most issues with shaking a character after they finish a project, Natalie Portman is proof that you don’t need to prescribe to the Method to have this experience. I’ve seen her performance in Black Swan and I can easily see why she’s had such a tough time dealing with the mental aftershocks of such a role. It was an extremely emotionally demanding part and required her to tap into some pretty dark places. And I think that’s where the problem comes for a lot of actors. In order to get to these places they need to allow the character to live inside of them or at the very least truthfully understand the emotions and thoughts of the person they’re portraying. Just think of all the seedy types of people actors have to portray: murderers, conartists, psychos, racists, lost souls, etc. Now imagine living with that persona for months on end.
There have been many noted examples of actors dealing with the effects of such a thing, the most recent case perhaps also being the most well-known... Heath Ledger. Here’s a quote from the NY Daily News about Ledger playing the Joker:
Ledger recently told reporters he "slept an average of two hours a night" while playing "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy…"
"I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."
Prescription drugs didn't help, he said.
Ledger died as a result of mixing sleeping pills with other prescription drugs. Prior to filming The Dark Knight, Ledger locked himself in a motel room for a month to get the character down. He started taking sleeping pills to catch up on all the sleep that he had lost and people said he looked tired mentally and physically months after the shoot. But Ledger’s not the only actor to have something along these lines happen. The role of Blache DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire nearly caused Vivien Leigh to lose her mind and many feel she was never the same after. Al Pacino had this to say about his method acting:
"I'm sorry to say it, but it was all a drag doing those things. When I was younger, making films, I would try to stay in the role and be in a state of isolation, both on and off set.”
Everyone knows that isolation can make a fragile emotional state even worse. But there’s also the physical demand of acting that Natalie Portman talks about. Actors are often times asked to change their appearance and learn how to perform physical feats that most people would never even dream of doing. A prime example of this is Christian Bale. He dropped nearly 63 pounds for his role in The Machinist and then put on nearly 100 pounds for Batman Begins. Needless to say, the process was extremely taxing and Bale at times found himself struggling to find enough energy just to walk. He made this remark about why he put himself through such a rigorous process:
"It's masochistic, I suppose but I enjoy the thought of the guitarist who, while learning to play, cuts up his fingers.”
Christian Bale's on-set rant was also said to have been brought about by the intense emotional state he was in while filming Terminator: Salvation. While I think he went a little too far, I do believe that his mental preparations put him in a state that made him extremely vulnerable to an episode like that. Bale truly wants to become the character he's playing. But just because an actor inhabits a role for long periods of time doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be forever scarred or emotionally damaged. Daniel Day-Lewis’ preparations for his parts are legendary. He takes years between roles just to make sure he has the character down perfectly. Yet, he’s never slipped into bouts of depression or things of that nature because of his work (that we know of... he’s a very private person).
I think it really depends on the individual and how easily they can transition from their own real life to the their character and vice-versa. What can’t be argued, however, is that acting is very demanding, both physically and emotionally, on the individuals who truly immerse themselves in this art form. Sure, actors can sometimes act like divas, but most of the time they are under such an immense amount of stress and emotional pressure that I think they deserve a little slack. After all, a lot of times they're putting themselves through a lot of torment so you, the audience, can get just as lost in the film as they did in their character.As always, feel free to start up a dialogue below.