Acting: The Real and the Unreal

How much we are to "blame" for what happens to us. We allow ourselves to be deceived. We welcome suspension of disbelief in real life—and real life includes consuming entertainment that we know isn't real. It also includes deciding, consciously or otherwise (and subconscious decisionmaking is another debate in and of itself), to not be informed of the reality of our everyday situations.

In the realm of art and entertainment, actors create a non-reality that we viewers actively help to perpetuate. But what happens to them when the play, TV show or film is finished? If we keep thinking about what we've seen, no doubt the players we've seen don't stop thinking about who they've portrayed.


Judith Ohikuare at The Atlantic explores that process of ceaseless thinking when it spills over into an actor's perceptions of who they really are (which triggers all manner of rhetorical "But who are we, really?" questioning). Having read this article, I'll never look at my actor friends the same way.


I have one disagreement with Ohikuare's story, however. She states, "...while there's no such thing as 'thespian instinct' or an adaptation that makes good acting evolutionarily advantageous, we can come closer to understanding why realistic acting is so convincing by analyzing the cognitive capacities it draws upon."

We compensate good actors tremendously well, so I argue that it is a tremendous evolutionary adaptation to be able to act well. Those actors who are evolutionarily gifted (or preternaturally talented, if you prefer) earn more, eat better, can choose to stay healthier and live longer. Their offspring are set up for greater success, too.

But we've had plenty of examples of the opposite being true. Success does not always lead to health and safety. While our suspension of disbelief may end when the lights come up, an actor might fall so deeply into the hole of unreality, of their profession, that they disbelieve themselves to harm or death.

Speaking of life-or-death scenarios in "real" life, Edward Snowden addressed a packed house at SXSW earlier today, drawing tens of thousands of live streamers all over the world who tuned in to his transmission from Russia. (I and many others Tweeted the bejeezus out of it and you can read the gist in the little Twitter box to the right of this post.)

In conversation with ACLU leaders Ben Wizner and Christopher Soghoian, Snowden's comments on technology and surveillance boiled down to the slippery-slope of public and private, and the fact that quite often it is impossible to determine the line between the two, much less who gets to determine that line.

Actors become successful in part because they give up privacy. They give it to us, the public. As such, they become our property. That is why we compensate them so greatly. They have some modicum of privacy, to be sure, but once they're out the door (and sometimes even before then), the deal is that they cannot hide.

In terms of national security, we the public consistently give up our privacy in the name of the greater good, the country's safety. We give up some measure of our privacy and presume that we are made safer for it. But our activities within these safe spaces—email, telephone conversations, text message exchanges—become unsafe, in a different way, by virtue of no longer being private because we've given the powers that be license to invade those private realms.

To me, it meant something that both of these approaches—The Atlantic article and Snowden's appearance—came to me at the same time. Both discuss the concept of "safe space". And such a concept is becoming more valuable as our world becomes more interconnected.

Snowden is still seeking his personal safe space even while encouraging as many people as possible to examine their surroundings, question their everyday activities, and to challenge what "safety" means as well as what they're willing to give up in exchange for it.

Ohikuare's article talks through the dangers that an actor might have to navigate should they discover they've gone too far after immersing themselves in a character. She writes, "Naomi Lorrain, a student in the MFA Graduate Acting Program at NYU Tisch School of the Arts mentioned the importance of safe spaces, explaining that for her, school is a safe space to do the unsafe things that are required in acting... Aside from creating a routine to reconnect with herself, Lorrain added that reconnecting with people she trusts also crucial."

The acting student goes on to say that she's happy to have people she can return home to, both literally and figuratively. "They know who I was before this character and they just remind me of home,” she says. “It can be hard. Offstage, you have to remember that it’s pretend and onstage you have to forget.”

These are two worlds that I bridge—the arts and freedom of speech, of voice, of ways and means to get those voices out into the world. And that's why I'm discussing two seemingly disparate things. In my perception of the world and humanity, it's all connected. Whistleblowers and tellers of tales both fearlessly share the human experience, and there are prices that both pay for that fearlessness.

Never before have there been more channels, platforms, and ways for people to get their thoughts out into the world. And when I say "world" I don't just mean the globe en masse; I mean your world, for we all have one—your family, your town, your school, the gang of friends you get together at the pub with. Every one of us has the power to affect our individual worlds and it ripples out to an extent that the globe en masse is, in fact, changed. So blog, write, speak, perform, discuss, inform. Get it out there via face-to-face conversation or hashtagged Tweets. It matters and you matter.

And as a nod to the two scenarios I discuss above, be aware of yourself when you're doing these things. Be an informed user of these channels—whether the stage or big screen or Googling or Facebooking—and always come back to your ground zero by keeping connected to those who have your best interest at heart, who love and embrace you even while they might not agree with your words or actions. Even Edward Snowden's got to have a best friend.

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