Meryl Streep once said, “Empathy is at the heart of the actor’s art.” Studies have shown, however, that this is not necessarily the case.
Empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others—a mighty asset for character development. But despite being a compassionate virtue, an actor’s superpower is much more impressive and reliable than empathy: the ability to truly understand someone else’s mental state. “It’s called theory of mind,” says Thalia Goldstein, a social science researcher at Pace University who studies the relationship between acting and psychology.
That heightened social sensitivity is a skill that can make an actor a powerhouse, with a first-rate ability to create and write inspirational characters.
Mindy Kaling on “The Mindy Project” Credit: John Fleenor/NBC
“Having a theory of mind allows us to understand that others have unique beliefs and desires that are different from our own, enabling us to engage in daily social interaction as we interpret the mental states and infer the behaviors of those around us,” said David Premack and Guy Woodruff in a 1978 University of Pennsylvania study. Some developmental precursors necessary for humans to develop theory of mind are the ability to pretend to be like someone else (playing make-believe as a child or, you know, acting), understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, and grasping the fact that people can have different likes and dislikes. In short, it’s all the elements that, when put at odds with one another, form a compelling narrative.
Goldstein conducted two separate studies and found that acting training was significantly associated with heightened theory of mind or social perception skills. “Actors must carefully analyze the beliefs, desires, and motivations of their characters, activities that psychologists would classify as requiring sophisticated theory of mind,” she wrote in her article “Enhancing Empathy and Theory of Mind.”
What’s more, actors are able to portray those actions and emotions convincingly. This skill set creates an intrinsic understanding of what works in a script when it comes to believable characters.
Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan in “Black Panther” Courtesy Marvel Studios
Both actors and writers must have a well-developed theory of mind in order to create conflict within a story. To get into the psyche of a villain and make them compelling is a challenging art. An antagonist must be a worthy opponent to the protagonist. A great antagonist is one with a relatable motive, one that gives the hero a difficult choice to make.
Consider Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) from Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s “Black Panther,” who wants to use the resources of Wakanda to help everyone in the world who is of African descent. His motivations are noble, but his means of achieving his ends are unethical. It means that the hero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), can’t simply execute him. Instead, he hopes that he can connect with him via their common mission to protect their people. Take, on the other hand, Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson) from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s “Back to the Future.” He’s an unlikable bully with a total lack of noble motives, and he needs to be punched in the face.
To navigate even a social faux pas requires imagination and nuance. Consider when Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) from Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” chooses to host a party to try to become more popular rather than attending her friend Janis’ (Lizzy Caplan) art show; it’s a lapse in judgment that’s caused by Cady’s conflicting emotions and desires.
All of these examples require actors to, of course, embody someone other themselves, dig into the causes of certain emotional responses, and grapple with differing wants and needs.
John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” Courtesy Miramax
Good performers apply a personal touch when reading a script. They see themselves in the characters and look to create satisfying story arcs. They understand the nuance and timing of a joke, and they can feel the rhythm of a conversation. Actors are experienced with dialogue—they know when it’s hitting the mark and when it feels stilted or unbelievable.
Consider the scene in Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary’s “Pulp Fiction” when Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are heading to an apartment; they gossip and debate the nuance of personal and professional relationships. When they reach their destination, it’s revealed that they’re hitmen.
Less interesting writers than Tarantino and Avary may have written a scene where the two hit the “let’s go over the plan” trope. It’s an unnecessary choice, considering we’re about to see the plan unfold, and it would’ve ruined the surprise. Instead, the writers provided entertainment via a casual debate about whether a foot massage is the same as a sexual favor; this reveals more about the characters’ way of seeing the world than a play-by-play conversation would have.
Often, the instinct is to write exposition—dialogue that is on-the-nose and spells out a scene or deliberately advances the plot. But returning to theory of mind, imagination reminds us that humans are all driven by desire and emotion. Great screenplays realistically tease out those entertaining, surprising moments in a way that feel naturalistic.
Bill Hader on “Barry” Credit: Merrick Morton/ HBO
Empathy can be an inconsistent device in an actor’s toolkit; the performer’s personal emotions are not reliable or necessary for mapping out a truthful character performance.
Instead, the actor must be able to understand the human reactions the scene requires and replicate them. Here are a few ways to strengthen your skills:
- Reading and analyzing books: Fiction, in particular, is great for developing theory of mind, according to a study from the New School for Social Research. “When we read fiction, the parts of our brain that we use to understand stories are largely the same as those we use in interacting with other individuals,” it says. “That’s because when we read about a situation or feeling, it’s very nearly as if we’re feeling it ourselves.”
- Character study and scene study classes: These courses involve identifying behavior and then mimicking it. With repetition, the actor becomes more adept at understanding the nuances of human interactions.
- Script analysis: Actors who are able to identify subtext, underlying motivations, and emotional changes in scenes are well on their way to becoming adept in theory of mind.
The actor brings to life what the writer imagined when creating engaging characters. In doing so, the actor reveals whether the script is working or not. To be a successful actor or writer is to be one step ahead of the game.