Protecting the Actor’s Soul

New York Magazine published an interview with actor Mandy Patinkin in which he talks about the impact of a script’s subject matter on an actor’s soul.

I quote from the interview:

“The biggest public mistake I ever made was that I chose to do Criminal Minds in the first place. I thought it was something very different. I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality…I’m not making a judgment on the taste [of people who watch crime procedurals],  but I’m concerned about the effect it has. Audiences all over the world use this programming as their bedtime story. This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about.”

Thank you, Willa Paskin (@willapaskin), for including this in your article. And thank you, Mr. Patinkin, for being willing to talk about it.

I’ve written  about why writers should respect actors. Much of writing is spiritual in nature. The source of material is rooted in spirit and we draw on the spiritual connections we have to this material to access characters and translate their stories.

Actors do the same. Only more intimately, as they allow characters to embody and live vicariously through them. There is an inherent risk in material that includes graphic violence, crime, loss or torture. And while it is an actor’s job to make these scenes real in the mind of the audience, there is an underlying authenticity that makes them real to the actor’s spirit as well. It doesn’t matter that the mind knows that what is taking place is crafted and not spontaneous.

Without a way to safeguard the soul, actors can suffer from trauma – even to the extent of first or secondary post-traumatic stress disorder. But even more so, exposure to trauma can shift your spirit so that you start to see more of the dark side of life and less of the light. And this can lead to enjoying your life less, feeling fear more, and generally developing a distrust in the goodness that abundantly flows around you.

How do you protect the soul while delivering an authentic performance?

  • Know yourself. Know where you begin and the character ends. Know what you believe, value, hold to be true. Separate yourself from the character and the story.
  • Be mindful of the real spiritual nature of characters. It’s not talked about a lot, but characters are real and exist in their own dimension. Writers are the first to interact with the character, but actors must physically and emotionally experience a character and their story.
  • Remember you are a conduit. Not a character. Why are you an actor? Because you love storytelling? You are a conduit, facilitating a character’s story. You acquiesce to a character’s experience in order to share their story. If that story resonates with you in some way, you will connect to it on a deeper level. Choose roles that call to you.
  • Be aware of what a role is asking you to experience. Violence and trauma that serve a purpose in a character’s arch can be dealt with in a way that respects the actor’s soul and well-being. Support in the form of a confidential creative-spiritual life consultant, preparation for traumatic scenes and actions, and taking time to process how trauma affects you are all steps that can allow traumatic scenes and roles to drive inner growth, not damage it.
  • Understand that it’s going to impact you. Know ahead of time that violent scenes and acts are going to affect you. It’s going to bother you. It should.
  • Put boundaries on antagonists. Antagonists bring values and acts that conflict with moral principles. Their thoughts, desires and actions are not ones that will nurture your spirit. Actors who portray antagonists* are not antagonists themselves. Find ways to connect to things that support your moral beliefs, goodness, and compassion in your real life. Put boundaries on antagonist characters.
  • Develop a safe place. One just for you. No character intrusion allowed.
  • Don’t forget to create your own story. Your life goes on while you are in character. Keep it interesting and focus on what you do want to experience in life.

What if you’ve already been traumatized?

  • Accept that your feelings are real. Emotion and expression are an actor’s lifeblood. But they are your spirit’s lifeblood, too. It doesn’t matter what caused your feelings, what matters is that what you feel is real. If a role or scene bothers you, it’s okay to admit it. In fact, the more perceptive and sensitive an actor you are, the more likely that it will bother you. There’s no shame in that.
  • Ask questions. Mr. Patinkin asks a relevant question when he ponders if violent scenes are what we need to be falling asleep to. Violence certainly serves its purpose. But it requires a purpose with context for the human soul to embrace it. I, too, question the point of entertainment that involves senseless, overdone, graphic violence without ultimately delivering a life-giving story. This is a question for culture. But as storytellers, we need to be mindful of why we present stories the way we do and ultimately, the impact those choices may have on the human spirit.
  • Seek healing. The farther up the A-list you are, the more complex wounds you’ll most likely have experienced. Navigating these wounds can be a complex process as well. Don’t let yourself lose hope that healing is possible. Don’t lose sight of who you are as a being of Source. Whole. Happy. Safe. Contributing.

What about the crew?

Anyone who witnesses traumatic scenes or assists in designing them is also impacted. You don’t have to be an actor to feel the trauma. Witnessing violence portrayed as real can be very difficult to deal with. Everyone involved in the Story should be mindful of trauma and be empowered with ways to work through the emotions involved.

*A note for actors who portray antagonists. Depending on the depth of evil your character involves, you need to be extra careful to guard your spirit. The things your character may think, feel, fantasize and do may be frightening. As you give this character permission to tell a story through you, you will come up against the dark realm of the soul. One that can be shocking in itself and present some of the deepest questions in life.

You may grapple with questions about human nature, humanity, suffering, and what has to happen to a human spirit and mind in order for it to commit atrocious acts against others.  As you physically live out the character’s actions, you may find yourself struggling with your own identity in all of this. Audiences will relate to you for the dark characters you portray – and may not get to see the goodness in you as a person separate from the character. Don’t lose sight of the goodness in you. You are not the character; the character is not you. You are an actor, an artist. Let what you have learned of the dark side shine light on your work.

We are all responsible for tending to each others’ spirits

No matter your role, we are each responsible to tend to each others’ spiritual well-being during the storytelling process. Storytelling is a way to unite, to enjoy the creative calling and responsibility we’ve each been given.

Be sensitive to what others’ may perceive. Be mindful. Be kind.


About Britta Reque-Dragicevic

Inspiring, nurturing, and giving voice to the human spirit.

Posted on Saturday, in Creative Responsibility, Inspiration, Internal, Obstacles, Story. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. True for writers, too? It seems to there’s a lot of senseless violence in books- at the online writers conference I recently participates in there were multiple book pitches on young adult suicide! What?! Thanks for your thought provoking post. Sue

  2. Britta, what a fantastic article; I wish I’d known about it earlier in the year – I was grappling with these very questions in preparing characters who were deeply troubled, or antagonists in the story. I struggled throughout to come to terms with what I was experiencing (thoughts, feelings, sometimes illness) while the characters began to come to life. Learning the process of character development can be scary, especially if the performer is unaware of what is outlined so well in your article. Luckily, I also have a great coach and supportive training program that reinforced much of what is here. But I realize that I had avoided taking on such challenging roles as actress before, because I had a sense that it was dangerous to allow my imagination to incorporate their thoughts without a “safe place” for me. I am still finding out how to create the safe place. Do you have any further suggestions or resources you could point me toward? Thank you for your time!

  1. Pingback: Encouragement for Writers (and Characters) in Revision | creative inside out

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