Your mind is a fascinating organ with complexities science is at the tip of understanding and a recent study shed a bit more light on what happens in the brain of an actor when inhabiting a character. The study, led by neuroscientist Dr. Steven Brown, found that there were deactivations in the frontal lobe that could represent a loss of self as we are consumed in the characters we’re playing. It’s not pretending, but actually becoming the identity of the role. So what do you do when this helps you with your part, but you have a hard time letting go of that personality and coming back to yourself when it’s all over?
That’s exactly what happened to Michael B. Jordan. Jordan has been open about what transpired after his exceptional performance of Killmonger in the Marvel film “Black Panther” directed by Ryan Coogler. On “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Off Camera with Sam Jones,” Jordan talked about relating to the roles he takes on by journaling extensively as the character. He went into very dark places for Killmonger and he’s discussed how being in this state of mind caught up with him. Upon wrapping, it was difficult for him to release it and he sought therapy so that he could segue back into his day to day life.
His story is inspiring in many ways for any actor to understand the journey we take on to bring life to the big screen and shows why it’s important to be aware of what’s happening when you inhabit a character so you can take steps to address it like he did. Awareness is the powerful first step to being careful about losing yourself in a role. Start that awareness by recognizing that you have a talent to deliver authentic performances from a source of real life experiences because you willingly give up your own mind to take on another. Many people do not understand why we would put ourselves through this, but we know how amazing it feels when you nail an audition for example and don’t recall what you did, but know it was damn good! You literally lost your mind and self as the study revealed. Now that you know what happened, you can appreciate your good work and are able to release it. As great acting teachers tell us, let it go as soon as you are done with it.
Spot check yourself when you’re doing the prep work for your characters too. Take a pause to recognize how deeply you’re exploring. Tell yourself this is part of the work that you’ll activate when you need to and easily release when completed. Do not lose touch with your real life. I recall one role in which I needed to break-through a block in which I was not connecting to a particular scene. I used improv to bypass the analytical mind and it went on for a long period. As soon as I felt I was “there,” immediately I released it and cried. I knew then I could visit “her” whenever I needed for the scene, but was happy to be back to me. Training your mind to release the character is just as valuable as the work to embody the character.
Some actors are concerned that if they do not live the role 24 hours a day, they will not be able to turn it on when shooting. It’s a natural worry that plagues many performers. Know that you have a powerful mind that is malleable—that means, it will think how you train it to. Speak into it. Decide what you want this experience to be like. What do you need to plan for ahead of time to ensure you do not completely lose who you are after you wrap? Identify what is fact and what was fiction. There are many examples of co-stars falling in love on set. Much of it has to do with the belief that what is happening and the emotions one is feeling are real. It can take years to get out of that hypnotic experience to see more clearly what happened. Remind yourself of this so that you can process with an objective eye.
Work with a coach who specializes in the performer’s mindset to guide you through the prep work prior to shooting, during the shoot and debriefing or what is called deconditioning from the character after the shoot. After all, when you are building the role, you are conditioning your mind to become this character. In my field, we often have to decondition a client before we can move forward. Delving deeper into a character can trigger unprocessed emotions, past history and pains from one’s real life. Another option is to seek the support of a therapist or medically licensed professional who specializes in presenting issues to help you navigate through what is being triggered, processing it and getting you back to inner fulfillment and joy in your own life.
You are in the profession of living the stories of a multitude of characters. That is pretty spectacular. However, always remind yourself that the greatest story you will ever tell is the one you actually live. Be diligent about safeguarding it.
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