When actors play a character they can draw on their own inner selves to help bring the character to life. But what happens when an actor has to play a character extremely different to their usual self?
My husband and I have been discussing how difficult it must be for actors when they play roles significantly different to their usual self to re-establish that usual self after filming has finished. It was Australian actor Heath Ledger’s death by accidental overdose of a number of prescription drugs, inlcuding some for anxiety and some for insomnia, that started us on this topic.
Neither of us know Heath Ledger personally and we do not presume to know what was really going on in his life but when we look at his situation as external observers a few ideas spring to mind.
The main thing that struck us was that Heath’s recent role as the demonic Joker in the latest Batman film required him to play a character who is such an extreme opposite to how Heath Ledger was, by all accounts, in person.
So this post is an examination of what some actors might experience when moving in and out of character, and I’ve used Heath Ledger with his Joker character as the example.
If in everyday life a person lived out such opposites as ‘Heath’ and ‘The Joker’, and if they had no understanding of how the human personality is composed of many selves, with the primary selves forming a person’s identity and the disowned selves existing in the unconscious, they would suffer extreme anxiety.
(See this page on Voice Dialogue and this on the Aware Ego for an introduction to how your personality is made up of many selves, and my ebook Which Self Are You? for further explanation and an overview of 45 selves).
Playing extreme characters and letting them go
So I can imagine it would be similar for actors when they play such opposite selves. Even actors who play fairly mild roles have said it can be difficult to return to their usual self at the end of the day, that their ‘character’ does not want to leave them. If that is so, it might have been challenging to let go of a character as extreme as The Joker.
Heath Ledger himself described his Joker character as a “psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy”. And to prepare for the role he lived alone in a hotel room for a month, formulating the character’s posture, voice and psychology – that in itself would cause most people to develop anxiety.
There are many techniques available to actors to prepare for their roles but those techniques involve to some extent drawing on the energies, physicality, emotions and thoughts of their own inner selves to bring characters to life.
Handling demonic disowned selves
So Ledger would have accessed his own inner demonic energies to play The Joker. And considering that in everyday life, by all accounts, Heath had as a primary self such a Nice Guy self, you could theorise that his inner Joker would therefore have been pretty demonic indeed – for it’s a law of the psyche according to the theory underlying Voice Dialogue, the Psychology of Selves, that the more extreme the identification with a particular self, the more extreme the disowning of the opposite self; and the more extremely disowned the opposite self is, the nastier or more distorted it becomes.
The benefits of an Aware Ego Process for actors
In Voice Dialogue work, a person would not express an extremely disowned self without spending plenty of time unhooking from their primary self first so that they had a really strong Aware Ego in relation to their primary self.
(The aware ego is a process in consciousness where you are separated from the total identification with your primary self and can therefore access other parts of your psyche.)
You have to remember that if you have a primary self who is nice, that self is terrified of not-niceness. Only the aware ego can handle such an opposite.
The more aware your ego is, the less extreme your disowned selves are
And the beauty with Voice Dialogue is that the more aware ego you have in relation to a nice primary self, and the more you understand why that self has disowned its opposites, and the more you come to understand and embrace the selves that are different to the nice self, the extremity of the not-nice self dissipates naturally because it knows it is finally being understood and appreciated for who it is.
It loses the malevolent edge it would have had when it was locked away in solitary confinement.
And you, with your aware ego, would be able to handle this self now because you are no longer so fully identified with its opposite – the nice self.
Your primary self can’t handle what it has disowned – that’s why you need an aware ego
For the selves – including your everyday primary self – do not have the ability to effectively (without judgment and an agenda) handle their own opposites – that is why they repressed them in the first place and is why the aware ego is necessary if you want to integrate them.
If an actor did not have an understanding of this process and no training in unhooking from their own primary self in order to consciously draw on other facets of their personality, it would be unsettling to go straight to such an extreme character as The Joker, and to try to return to their usual personality afterwards.
Negative psychological effects of accessing demonic energies without a strong aware ego
If it were me playing such a demonic character, I know that after the filming had finished, I would still have access to the Joker character within me. If I simply tried to get on with life as usual, as if I had never met the Joker character within me, I would feel uneasy about the Joker’s psychopathic thoughts and feelings still in my mind – and they would be there.
For once such an energy has been released, and has been given such respect in the movie and in all the publicity, it would not want to go underground again.
So it would make its presence felt and it would be a struggle to get a hold on it and to lock it away again – which is what you would have to do with no aware ego process.
It would be difficult to sleep because the protective primary self would not be able to relax enough and let the guard down. And, added to that, our disowned selves like to come out to play in the dream world, and so nightmares would become frequent.
The only way I would be able to handle such an extreme energy, would be to do so with an aware ego in relation to it and my primary self, which would involve honouring the essence of both energies.
I do not envy actors who take on such extreme roles because to deal with that kind of extreme energy, so much work would need to be done with the primary self first – and the actors probably aren’t given such time in the film world, with its deadlines and budgets.
Heath Ledger must have had training in some process of re-establishing his ‘usual’ psychic equilibrium, but without an aware ego process it would have been incredibly difficult.
Please note, my analysis of Heath Ledger is all theory, based on my knowledge of the Voice Dialogue model of consciousness. But I would be interested to hear from other actors if this theory rings true for them.