In preparation to play the Joker, Heath Ledger “locked” himself away in a hotel room, crafted a character diary, and experimented with different voices. Jaime Foxx wore prosthetic eyelids to play Ray Charles, and suffered panic attacks while wearing them. Ashton Kutcher became a ‘fruitarian’ to play Steve Jobs and ended up in the hospital two days before shooting started. Leonardo DiCaprio slept in an animal carcass for The Revenant. Denzel Washington was actually waterboarded for Safe House. Halle Berry didn’t shower for six weeks while making Jungle Fever. Jared Leto sent a variety of disturbing ‘gifts’ to his castmates, while going full method actor… our thoughts and prayers to the 2016 Suicide Squad cast.
Outlets like Variety, Collider, and Vogue are absolutely dominated by listicles that count off the ‘craziest’ things major stars have done in the preparation for big roles. Often, the introductions to these pieces will express concern for the damage caused to their mental and physical health in this process. By popular media accounts, preparing for a role seems like an intense and punishing process, and it’s the story about the profession that is most widely disseminated. Our grotesque fascination for the pre-performance preparation sometimes gives more hype than the performance itself.
But according to our local actors in Tāmaki Makaurau, getting into character doesn’t need to be traumatising.
Celine Dam emphasises that preparation is about engaging with the character, which sometimes involves close analysis of the scripts. She explains that “I work to understand my character and discover their reasonings and motivations. Especially if I’m to play a ‘dislikeable’ character, I want to understand their motivations.” Similarly, Simon Gilchrist recentres ‘work’ as an aspect of preparing for a role, explaining that for him it usually involves “heaps and heaps of homework, like script after script, reading, reading, reading, trying to get to know this person you’re going to play and the world you’re entering.” It’s the everyday details of life that actors learn from to add to their characters, in Isla Frame’s experience. The audience doesn’t see the amount of observational research behind a character, and it’s not the stuff making headlines.
For Lisa Zhang, character preparation can be as mundane as putting on the costume. “Adjusting speech or physicality has been an impactful way for me to embody the character”. There really isn’t any of the theatrics audiences expect of actors. Isla corrects us, saying that actors aren’t getting consumed in their characters, but rather the performance. “You become this larger-than-life person, you get very much swept away,” she admitted, then goes on to explain “but then the performance is over and you’re just exhausted. That’s not to say that [you] got lost in the character”. Actors aren’t necessarily losing their minds in their characters—they’re simply putting on a good performance. As Tasman Clark puts it: “I go into the character, I don’t let the character go into me.”
Popular media loves to glorify the gritty actor who goes through hell for their role—it gives them that ‘star-quality’, right? Diamonds are made under pressure, and the brightest catch the most light. The stories of intense preparation sell movie tickets, generate clicks, and convince audiences to rush to theatres to gawk at this ‘tortured’ performance.
But Simon points to the financial privileges of those high industry actors, stating that they “get paid much more for their time to dive deep. Money means time for the work at hand without worrying about the bills.” Celine takes this further, asserting that this media focus is “over-romanticisation. As if putting yourself through a character’s suffering makes you more of an actor? Like no? Prioritising your mental health is fucking cool.” Lisa and Kate Fu both noted that it’s also difficult to get an accurate idea of a star’s process, with Lisa stating you “don’t know who they are and what they go through.” However, she also ruminates on the aspects of fame, brand, and image that come into this portrayal of extreme preparations.
We fixate on these individuals like they’re consumed in some artistic vacuum, when there are entire casts and production teams carrying each project. There’s a constant sensationalising of the individual preparation process, which omits the importance of this deeply collaborative environment. This is an aspect that our local actors emphasise across the board.
Tasman distinguishes that social environments are more likely to be a source of unease, explaining “shows have impacted me negatively, but not necessarily the characters themselves.” As a director, Isla emphasised how crucial it is to foster an environment that looks after its people as “a leader without being a dictator. In the local theatre industry, we get to know each other. There’s no money in it, we build a community, we share stories. It can be a really healthy environment.” Kate relays “I’m really impacted by the environment set in the rehearsing rooms and how the director sets that tone.” She reflects that everyone involved in a production are examples to “learn to approach roles professionally whilst also finding the fun.”
These conditions so often get overlooked by audiences, as they are not a key focus of arts reporting, but they are so influential for an actor’s head space and wellbeing.
For Simon, the character and role itself didn’t create a negative experience, but he “unfortunately went through a rehearsal process where it wasn’t necessarily made safe.” The acting method itself wasn’t the source of discomfort, but the lack of “trusting and safe working standards.” He asserts that “they need to be in place, because you’re getting vulnerable. They should absolutely be [present], no compromises.” Celine credits great mentors she’s had who taught her how to safely transform into characters and prepare: “It means at the end of the day I can take off a character and return back to me.” Similarly, Lisa has been able to “go to very vulnerable places” without feeling consumed by the getting-into-character process since she has “always been in safe spaces to do so”.
Part of creating this secure space is keeping it professional. Assuming artistic arenas are safe spaces to confide in personal experiences can set unhealthy expectations. Individuals may feel pressured to overshare to belong in the acting community—that can make for toxic work environments. A secure space doesn’t mean a trauma-dump site, nor should sets lose the unique kinship that develops among the cast and crew. As Kate notes “you don’t want the vibe to be totally cold and unfeeling—there’s a balance to be struck.”
Stories of stars choosing their hardships and taking them to extremes to find the darkness in a role smacks of voyeurism—something only the privileged few are capable of. The industry doesn’t always cater to everyone.
This collection of local actors largely celebrate the joy that their own preparation could bring them, and share funny, enlightening stories about the process of exploring their craft. In order to ensure they can continue this exciting journey, we need to be genuinely interested in the environmental factors that affect their mental health—not whatever bizzare shit Jared Leto has decided to do next.
Find these actors/directors here!
Tasman Clark (he/him) and Kate Fu/傅柔 (she/her) both performed in Yang/Young/杨 in 2021.
Tasman will be in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee with North Shore Music Theatre (15th–25th July).
Kate will be in Top Girls with Stray Theatre Company (June 1–4).
Lisa Zhang (she/her) (@lningja) has starred in INKED (Neon and SkyGo) and NO EXIT (Disney+).
Isla Frame (she/her) directed Sappho: Lesbians and Lyres at Pitt Street Theatre and is directing the aforementioned Top Girls.
Celine Dam (she/her) is a screen and theatre actor, and can be found @celinedam_.
Simon Gilchrist (he/him) is a screen and theatre actor, starting work on a short film shoot later this month.