In this article I want to explore this idea—how do we approach intense acting roles so we can go deep but also look after ourselves. To do this I will be looking into what makes an acting role intense, the experience of the actors who have played famously intense roles, some methods to use to immerse yourself in a role, and some self-care practices to keep yourself safe.
Acting is an odd profession. Let’s all admit it. Beautiful, thought provoking, challenging, powerful—yes, all of those things, but also odd. We willingly subject our souls and imaginations to situations and experiences most people spend their entire lives avoiding. Actors typically love to ‘dig their teeth into a meaty role’, which usually means portraying a character who has experienced significant trauma or challenges in their life.
Storytelling since the beginning has been primarily concerned with the dramatic and the extreme. This affords us, as actors, the privilege and opportunity to wear the shoes of characters whom we will never meet in real life, and to experience things within the safety of a dramatic structure which we will (thankfully) never actually experience. Whilst this is wonderful, special care ought to be taken by actors when performing particularly intense roles. That way they will be able to jump from role to role unscathed by their performative experience and stay safe in the process.
In my personal experience, I’d say the most intense role I’ve ever played was in a production of Journey’s End by playwright R.C Sherriff. The role required both emotional and physical stamina. The play was an epic tale of a company of soldiers in World War One, and ran just shy of three hours each performance. My role required me to research and delve into experiences such as P.T.S.D, alcoholism, grief, and depression. It was simultaneously one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of my career to date. One thing I wish I had then, however, was the tools to be able to maintain my mental health within the intensity of the role. I put my primary focus on getting close to the experiences, without a healthy respect for the potential consequences. I would attempt different access points—both physical and mental—to experience and understand the traumas of the character. By the end of the short season, I was absolutely exhausted, and it took me a while to shake off the experience of a role. It was an insight for me as to the potential damage long exposure to an intense role may bring to an actor. I myself am privileged in the sense that I had not been exposed to real trauma as the character had, and that fact may have contributed to my naïveté in approaching the role.
What Makes a Role ‘Intense’?
There are many factors which can make a character challenging and intense for an actor. And just like real-life situations, different things will cause different reactions in different people. This is why it’s important, first and foremost, to know yourself and know what areas might be unsafe for you to explore.
The most obvious ways in which a role may be intense is the subject matter. Dramatic texts often involve the extremes of human experience, such as violence (both physical and sexual), death, abuse, grief and trauma. Challenging characters will usually either be the victim or perpetrator of these acts, and both sides of the coin can be difficult to play. As the victim, the actor is required to imagine being subjected to terrible acts, whereas the perpetrator is required to access a part of their imagination where they can understand what it might be like to do something truly terrible. Both options are potentially harmful to an actor’s mental health.
Intensity can come in other ways, too. Roles which are physically and vocally demanding, or which require high amounts of energy for long periods of time. Some characters require particular skill sets the actor may not have and therefor the actor will need to spend many hours practising that skill.
Even things which have happened off-stage in the characters past can be challenging for the actor. Past trauma of the character still requires investigation from the actor, and this trauma may impact the physicality of the character, forcing the actor to hold tension in different parts of their body. Characters can also simply require an intense amount of energy being hyper active and extrovert, which may push some actors out of their comfort zones.
There are plenty of examples of actors going to extreme lengths to bring a role to life. To name a few:
The actor most famous for immersive performances, Daniel Day Lewis, has gone to some extreme lengths. For his role in My Left Foot, he played a character with cerebral palsy, and refused to get out of his wheelchair whilst on set. In the end his hunched posture resulted in him breaking two of his ribs.
For her role in ‘Black Swan’, Portman insisted that the ballet sequences were performed by her. Having nominal experience in ballet pre-shooting, Portman spent over 6 hours a day practicing with professional trainers. This was on top of rehearsals and shooting the film. Portman dislocated a rib during rehearsals and lost a lot of weight for the role.
For his role of Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Carey refused to break character. He wanted to ‘become’ Andy, and so spent every minute of his time on the project as him. This transformation is documented in the film Jim and Andy. It’s an interesting watch, particularly from the perspective of the crew and creatives on set who are required to put up with Carey’s immersive method.
How to Access an Intense Role
So, let’s talk about some of the ways in which we can access a particularly intense role, in order to bring it to life.
Finding a physical access point to the character can be extremely useful. Based on their lived experiences, people hold tension in their bodies in different ways. Spending time in the rehearsal room or any empty space focusing on the body language of the character can be invaluable. Have a think about the following points and consider exploring them physically for yourself?
- Leading Centre – Where does the character move from? Some people like to use chakras for this process. Typically, there are 7 centres that movement may originate from. Instigating movement from these areas and sustaining that focus can drastically influence the physicality of the character and act as a physical mask for accessing the intensity of the role. Find some more info on those centres here:
- Many other physical access points are useful too – thinking about the characters history and how they hold tension is worth experimenting. Do the characters have any physical ailments or injuries? Does the character have any physical elements which are out of their control such as twitches or shakes? Be careful not to impose these external ‘prosthetic’ elements on the character without digging into the psychology of the character and why they have those conditions.
Research and Experience
You can’t act something you don’t know or understand. Whatever the character you’re playing has been through or goes through, it’s your job to investigate that experience as closely as you can. There are so many resources available to use; the simplest being the internet and its information. Going one step further, have a think about what you can do to understand your characters experience even closer. Are there documentaries on the subject? Are you able to respectfully and considerately speak to someone who understands the experience more than you do?
NB: It is a very delicate process reaching out to real-world people to ask them about certain subject matters. Any conversations about sensitive issues should be facilitated by the producers of your production.
Speaking to people whose life experience is closer to your character than yours is can be invaluable. Not only does it allow you tools to access your character more deeply, but it will often enhance the empathy and responsibility you feel playing particular roles. Remember, we are portraying reality here, and whilst that exists in the safe structure of make-belief, it can be very real for an audience watching it, especially if they understand the subject matter closely. You have a responsibility to represent life with respect.
Depending on the production’s budget and your willingness, you may be able to request that time be given to your skill development in preparation for a role. If the character you’re playing has a drastically different background to yours, or they are particularly skilled at something, understanding that subject or skill can be essential to accessing the character. A physical skill for example, such as a sport, will impact a person’s physicality, outlook on life, awareness, and how they relate to other people. Rather than trying to show all the ‘results’ of this skill, immersing yourself in the skill itself can be really helpful.
If you have a limited time, budget or resources to allocate to this process, what is the simplest version of it you can access? If you’re playing a football player, you could carry a ball around with you and familiarise yourself with that object deeply. Playing someone who has a crippling fear of crowds, for example, you might visit an event with a large number of people to experience and understand what elements of this situation might be frightening to a person.
Sometimes, depending on what it is, experiencing something first hand to allow for recall in performance can be effective. This should be done with care. One director I know, for example, used an interesting and effective method in her rehearsal process.
The characters in her play lived in a lighthouse by the sea, and were consistently awoken by the foghorns of ships passing by. One rehearsal, the director asked her actors to take a nap. “Great!” the actors thought. Not so fast. Just as her actors were drifting off to sleep, the director would blare the sound of a foghorn through the speakers. She did this several times, forcing the actors to experience first hand the physical and mental effects of this pattern of disturbance.
This technique is a perfect example of the ‘toe dip’ method of immersion. The actors were not sleep deprived for the month of rehearsal. They were not required to sacrifice their mental stability for the role. Instead, they had an experience they could refer to each night of performance which would allow themselves to drop into the role they were playing.
You may consider a similar approach to the role you are playing. What environment is the character most familiar with? Can you visit a similar place near where you live? Are there any visualisation exercises you can do which could emulate an experience the character is familiar with? Is there a safe-substitute for a characters experience. An example of this when playing a character with a military background might be to play a round of paintball, experiencing the intensity of the character’s adrenaline without actually risking your own life.
Say you’re playing a role which you know will be taxing for you. What can you do in order to prepare yourself for the role physically and mentally? Even if it’s not necessarily an emotionally intense role but there are a lot of lines to learn and you have a lot to do, making yourself a plan ahead of rehearsals to get to where you want to get in preparation is essential. How physically fit do you need to be for the role? What habits of yours will restrict your ability to access the role? What healthy practices can you introduce into your life to increase your ability to retain lines and information?
Self-Care for Intense Roles
As we’ve said before: know yourself. This must be the foundation of your self care when playing an intense role. The better you understand what will be challenging for you, the better you’ll be able to prepare yourself and build a performance and character which is safe and sustainable for you. Here are some other factors you may like to consider:
Have some clear and honest conversations with yourself about what the role requires you to explore. If the subject matter is close to any personal trauma you’ve experienced, perhaps you are better off diving into a different character or project. Only you can know the right thing to do in this situation. Be advised, however, that intensity of a role may increase significantly the longer you spend as the character and going deeper; so even if you feel like you will be strong enough to deal with the subject matter now, that strength may fade during the course of the project.
We actors put so much focus on drooping into a role, and very little on leaving the role behind us at the end of a day or project. I’d argue that developing a process for dropping out is as -if not more important than dropping in, especially if it will sustain you over many roles and projects. Consider the following few techniques for dropping out of a role:
- Have a pre and post-performance ritual. Perhaps it’s a song you like to listen to. Maybe it’s a physical action or a particular routine with another cast mate. Whatever it is, develop something personal that you will consciously do at the conclusion of each performance – whether you’re in the theatre or the director has called “cut”.
- Decompress. Though going to the pub after the show with cast-mates is fun and relaxing, it isn’t a sustainable decompression method. Decide for yourself what you need to do to decompress after a performance to leave the role behind you. This might be simply going for a walk or a run, having a shower or sitting quietly for a short while. Whatever you need, prioritise giving yourself the space and time to do it.
For more information, check out our article on How to De-Role: 8 Techniques for Getting Out of Character.
Know Your Rights
You are not alone in the process of performing an intense role, though actors often feel as though they are. There are many resources which you have access to which can support you.
You have a right to request a professional fight, stunt or intimacy director to be present on set if any action you are required to do makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable. If access to these specialists in impossible due to budget constraints, you have the right to refuse any act which you do not wish to do. Consent is essential in this industry, and you can never be legally dismissed from a role for withdrawing your consent. Know this and trust this process. An actors safety should always be paramount.
With that in mind, be aware as you can of what you are required to do in a role. Giving notice to the production team early about things you do not wish to do is really important where possible, as it will give them time to prepare and reduce your stress about having the difficult conversation.
Have a Coach
Again, you are not alone, though it may often feel as though you are. Working actors, particularly in the U.S., will rarely be without an acting coach. Just like an athlete has a team of people working around them to support them, you have access to support networks too. An acting coach will obviously be invaluable in helping you approach a role, but they can also help you manage the intensity of a role by being a person who is on your team who you can speak to and confide in.
Intense roles can be a real gift for actors, but great care is needed for them. Our imaginations are powerful forces, and our minds and bodies cannot always tell the difference between reality and make believe. This is why it’s important not only to develop a method for diving deep into a role, but also establishing a practice for self care which will sustain you throughout the process.
Let’s take a slight tangent for one second here as we finish. It’s interesting to note that in first aid training, participants will be taught who is the most important person in an emergency situation. It isn’t the injured person on the ground, it isn’t the unharmed passers-by. No; it’s you. Looking after yourself is priority number one, (Followed closely by the safety of others). This is because if you don’t look after yourself, you will become another casualty of the situation and only make things worse.
Empathy is an actors greatest asset, but empathy can be an incredibly taxing resource to use consistently. Give your characters the respect they deserve, but look after yourself in the process! Similar to the first aid example – it’s our job to make believe, so let’s keep the drama on the stage or in the camera frame!