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Why Actors Won’t Judge the Characters They Play — Even If They’re Terrible People

Actors and actresses may have one of the most enviable jobs on the planet. From the outside, it seems as though these lucky individuals get to play pretend and get paid for it. With a closer look, it becomes clear that these professionals go to great lengths to give solid performances. From research to weight loss, the greatest actors will embark on mental and physical journeys in order to fully transform into their characters. Some even go as far as staying in character when the camera isn’t rolling. Dubbed ‘method acting,’ this empowers actors/actresses to seamlessly transition into the roles they’re playing.

Developing an understanding of a character’s behaviors and their motivations is one of the most important foundational steps in bringing a character to life on both the stage and screen. That becomes even more challenging when an actor is tasked with portraying divisive, problematic, or deeply flawed characters. Regardless of right or wrong, good or bad, actors must come to understand their character if they want to become them.

In an interview for the film Biutiful, Javier Bardem was asked if he approached his character Uxbal by recognizing both the good and bad in him. In his response, he quotes an actress from Spain:

“We, the actors, are lawyers of the characters we play. We have to defend them, no matter what.”

For those unfamiliar with the film, Uxbal is a deeply complicated character. Born an orphan, and left to be a single father to his two children while their mother struggles with alcoholism, Uxbal makes his living by facilitating work for illegal immigrants. Bardem, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and won the Best Actor Award at Cannes for his performance, went on to say:

“I saw [Uxbal] as a human being. I don’t believe in stereotypes. Most of the time, stereotypes are just that. But, the world is different. We are doing right and wrong, at least 20 times per day. As an actor, you can’t judge.”

Meryl Streep sums this vital part of her work into one instrumental skill: empathy. In her address to the graduating class at Barnard college, Streep stated that:

“Empathy is at the heart of the actor’s art.”

As an actress who played the cold-hearted and cruel mother in August: Osage County and the “devil,” so to speak, in The Devil Wears Prada, she knows a thing or two about finding empathy for those that loom like a dark cloud in this world. How could she nail the nuances of Miranda Priestly without deeply understanding the intense pressure she’s under every day? How could she achieve the heartbreaking nature of Violet in August: Osage County without feeling the pain of this woman’s childhood that ultimately led to her harsh nature?

At the same commencement speech at Barnard, Streep referred to a quote from Carl Jung:

“Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”

For Streep, a woman who has been acting for over three decades and received 16 Oscar nominations, this work has required her to change how she sees the world and those around her. As she puts it:

“Being an actor has opened my soul.”

If opening your soul is a necessity to truly embodying a character, it’s no wonder that reaching the depths of the most frightening characters can be truly unsettling for actors. For Rosamund Pike, who played Amy Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl, becoming a sociopath and doing it well was both a career high and a personal head trip.

[SPOILER ALERT] To prepare for the scene in which Amy slits Desi’s throat, Pike had to practice. She tied a Dora the Explorer doll to a six-foot stake to mimic the height of Neil Patrick Harris, who played Desi. She even went to a butcher to feel the sensation of wielding a knife on the various animals they’d be breaking down for their customers. Needless to say, Pike had to mentally go where Amy goes in order to complete this horrific act—there was no room to question her character because she had to make the ruthless act believable.

“Sometimes I remember getting this kind of nervous energy, especially when Amy was in control of the scene, you know, and she was being so manipulative and I knew I was doing it well and I was like this is such a precariously scary feeling of being convincing in this role,” Pike explains.

It’s easy to see how becoming a sociopath, and playing it well, can make you think twice about yourself.

While the act of murder itself is damning, no one will make you feel more confused about it than Joaquin Pheonix. His recent performance as Arthur Fleck, a man who devolves into The Joker before our very eyes, left audiences reeling. What begins as an underdog story, quickly plummets into one of an unstable man full of resentment and anger at just about everyone around him.

One of the most obvious steps Phoenix took to transform into this role was to manipulate his weight—he lost a lot of it and fast. He also studied films from the 70s, including King of Comedy starring Robert De Niro, which also follows a mentally ill man with dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. Similar to Bardem, Streep, and Pike, Pheonix did not stop at studying, he had to become.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Phoenix shares that he actually wrote the journal that his character carries around throughout the film:

“Very early on in the rehearsal, I was given the journal that he had—his journal and joke diary. And that was really helpful, because I had been there for a couple of weeks and wasn’t sure how I was going to start, and Todd sent this [empty] journal.”

For a character that has had many iterations and wonderful actors embody him, Phoenix was tasked with developing a new vision for The Joker. Phoenix was playing the man before he received his infamous nickname. So while most of us prepared for the worst when watching The Joker on screen, Phoenix looked beyond those stereotypical traits to uncover something deeper.

“I was interested in the light of Arthur, for lack of a better word,” he said. “It wasn’t just the torment; it was his struggle to find happiness, to feel connected, to find the warmth and love—that’s the part of the character I was interested in and worth exploring.”

Unveiling that light inside The Joker may just be what won Phoenix the Oscar for Best Actor in 2020. As Todd Phillips, Director of The Joker, told USA Today:

“Great actors bring humanity even when they’re playing inhuman people, and that’s not just exclusive to Joaquin, but it’s why certain people are actors and certain people are great actors. They make you feel for them even when you’re not supposed to.”

As human beings who are more-or-less born to judge, stripping away these tendencies for the sake of your job can’t be easy. But when actors do, we get the chance to see past the stereotypes too. We also discover the circumstances, mindsets, and sometimes the plain old evil that drives people to do the things that they do.

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