Does acting through traumatic scenes or dramatic roles have a lasting impact?
According to a dissertation by Gregory Brown, Blurred Lines Between Role and Reality: A Phenomenological Study of Acting, it found that “The ability to create fantasy influenced by past traumatic events in the actor’s life might create a dissociative personality conflict, which might cause various levels of distress as well as breaks with reality.” They also discovered that “a blurring between actor and character might impact psychological growth as well as distress levels for the actors.”
In another study by Steven Brown, Peter Cockett, and Ye Yuan titled “The Neuroscience of Romeo and Juliet: an fMRI Study of Acting,” it was shown that while an actor prepares for their role, they deeply immerse themselves in the journey, which causes brain chemistry changes.
Furthermore, in a study by a Doctor of Philosophy, Mark Seton titled Traumas of Acting Physical and Psychological Violence: How Fact and Fiction Shape Bodies for Better or Worse says, “experts in trauma have found that the body does not distinguish between cognitively understood fiction and perceived experience. Therefore, the management of traumatization requires both cognitive awareness and embodied engagement with the possibilities of traumatization. What is needed is the greater duty of care in preparing those participating in theatrical, cinematic, and simulated performances.”
Regarding this study, Aleesha Saleeha, a filmmaking industry expert and editor, with other ten years of experiences adds:
“Many actors suffer from performance anxiety and report high levels of stress due to work-related stress such as low income and job insecurity. For many years, research has recognized that people who are interested in art are generally very susceptible to depression and anxiety. However, there are factors that contribute to the surprisingly high level of fear and stress that is specific to the stakeholder community. This includes the deep emotions that they access frequently and that they have to express when they play a role, and the strong identification that they can form with their characters.”
Actor Muhammad Waleed Khan has had first-hand experience dealing with problems caused by a role he has played. Muhammad grew up in Brunei and was drawn to acting at an early age. Years later, as an adult, after being given the lead role in his hometown, in an independent drama film dealing with grief from the loss of a close loved one, it left an impact. It was such a traumatic situation for Muhammad that he veered to voice acting as a means of escape in doing something he loved, acting, without being on camera.
In preparing for a role, he states:
“One thing I found common among all the actors was how they make sure they have a lot of space and quiet time to prepare before the scene. Other than that, everyone has their own process. Some use substitution, which is substituting people from your own life into the scene. And so, they spend time focusing on that and doing a lot of imaginary work.”
Muhammad will still occasionally take small stage roles but prefers to do voiceover work to this day, such as working with podcasts, audiobooks, or commercials. Recalling his experience, Muhammad says:
“Preparing for the role was a difficult job. The most difficult I’d say, more so than the acting itself. I had completely cut myself off from my family, when I began noticing changes in my behavior, as long as I was involved with the movie. I’d live in a hotel and go to work from there. I just couldn’t face my family until it was all over since I was cautious about it ruining my relationships.”
While each actor faces their own experience, based on science stating that brain chemistry does change as an actor takes on a dramatic role, and in speaking with somebody who’s had first-hand traumatic experience, it would be fair to say that there can be fallout and aftermath when choosing to play dramatic roles in a production.