Actors' Motivations, Callback Proclamations

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Dear Jackie:
Why do people like acting? If you ask me, it's sadomasochistic. You essentially try to feel the emotions of your character. The thing about lots of movie characters is that they have things happen to them that you definitely wouldn't want happening to you in real life. They have their hearts broken, they're tortured, they lose loved ones, and they experience emotional pain.

None of us wants to experience in our real lives the things that the characters do in movies or plays. So why would we want to experience those emotions when we act out those characters?
—No, Thank You

Dear No:
Personally, I enjoy the imaginative trip. I love getting the chance to experience another person's life, even one filled with pain. Contrary to what might seem logical, acting offers me the chance to both escape from my day-to-day reality and better understand it. And difficult, painful roles often provide the possibility of catharsis.

Merriam-Webster defines "catharsis" as the "purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art" or "a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension." Certainly, even in the toughest roles, going through an emotional release can be freeing, if exhausting.

"Acting is a privilege," says New York actor Darrell James, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of drama at Vassar College. "As actors, we immerse ourselves in the script, unpacking and parsing out the complexities of someone else's words, someone else's thoughts, and, indeed, someone else's world until we fully possess them. It is through this search for understanding that we inevitably discover the oft-hidden complexity of truths that make up ourselves as actors. I have been afforded the opportunity as an actor to live more fully in two hours' time than some people are afforded in a lifetime."

Pittsburgh actor Bria Walker agrees. "I get to use my powers of storytelling to help people lose themselves in other worlds," she says. "That immersion, that escape actually allows people to acquire a deeper sense of themselves. They've gone on an emotional roller coaster. When that ride is over, they experience a satisfaction that can only be felt by having a story told to them, and I feel so blessed to be able to experience the ride with them."

"We are drawn to tragedy," says Los Angeles actor Brian Weiss. "We recognize in the suffering of others something that is a part of ourselves. We are not separate from it, and though we may not want these things happening in our real lives, they are happening to someone, somewhere. It is my job as the actor to communicate and perhaps bridge that suffering to the audience. I do want to experience painful emotions, because it's a part of the experience of being alive. The more I grow as an actor, the more I agree with an acting teacher who said, 'Acting is a humanitarian art that illuminates what it is to be fully human.' For me, that means getting to experience deep love as well as murderous rage. The former we can all smile and feel good about openly; the latter we put away and hide from. But we know they both exist."

"Most people don't want pain in their lives, but it's inherent in our human existence," says licensed marriage and family therapist Frann Altman, who also holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. A longtime Screen Actors Guild member, Altman has a unique perspective on what makes actors enjoy difficult roles. "Therapeutically," she says, it could be an attempt "to work out issues one is struggling with, like their own depression or trauma. We try to exorcise our demons. Is that challenge enticing? Absolutely. Does it work? Sometimes. But there are instances when we open up doors that become very difficult to close. To push one's self to the edge and become that character can open up parts of us that change us beyond our expectations."

It can be risky, Altman explains, for actors with personal and emotional issues to take on some roles without help. Acting provides "a chance to be someone else, to get under someone else's skin, but when emotional issues with far deeper roots" are at play, "therapy is warranted," she says. "Heath Ledger became the Joker, and I wonder if the insanity of the character contributed to his needing the substances to quiet his innards. We'll never know. There can be a huge cost for walking out on that ledge. The mind and soul can be an enormous abyss. I believe we are changed by all we do, and having a guide or therapist while we are dancing these deep-seated dances may be of value. Not just to take us there, but to help lead us back."

Dear Jackie:
I am an unrepresented actress who recently self-submitted and was called back for a lead on a new series on a well-known cable network. I didn't get it, but the experience was exciting. I have mostly been doing experimental/indie-type work, so to be considered for something mainstream was very nice. I sent a thank-you note to the CD via email and let her know I was interested in other roles on the series if she was casting any in the near future, and I updated my website.

But now I'm sitting here wondering: Should others be made aware of this, like some of the agents I've met in the past at seminars, or should I just know it happened and move forward with self-submitting? What do you suggest I do to get the most mileage out of this callback?

Dear Close:
I wouldn't announce a callback to prospective agents, because it opens the door to the question "Did you book it?" Or worse, "Why didn't you book it?" Instead, congratulate yourself on how far you got in the process and continue submitting.

As you may have heard, there's no way of knowing why one actor wins a role. Sometimes it's talent. Sometimes it's height or hair color or some inexplicable little thing the producer loved about someone. Sometimes you just look too much like the director's ex-girlfriend. Who knows? Getting the callback was the success. You get mileage out of that success by doing good work at the callback. Hopefully, you'll be back in front of that casting director soon. In the meantime, if you get any meetings with agents, it will be fine to bring it up then.

Finally, your thank-you note to the CD was a great idea. Why not send one to the show's producer or the episode's director as well? You can thank anyone who was at your callback. Instead of an email, I'd advise a physical thank-you note mailed via the U.S. Postal Service. It's far more difficult to delete unread.