Getting out of character?
July 15, 2008 8:31 AM   Subscribe

What are some famous/infamous examples of actors getting so into character that they either have trouble getting out of character or the experience does some long-term psychological damage?

I'm actually posting this for a friend who is working on a project where answers to this question will be useful. I was stumped by it -- I could certainly imagine instances of physical damage from weight loss/gain for films, but psychological damage I was not so sure. Any ideas?
posted by jrb223 to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Supposedly, Heath Ledger got waaaay into his Joker character and it caused him psychological problems.
posted by amro at 8:37 AM on July 15, 2008

I have a hard time believing Christian Bale didn't have some sort of permanent damage from his weight loss in The Machinist. Even the mindset needed to do that to yourself would probably have some lasting impact.
posted by sanka at 8:37 AM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tippi Hedron for The Birds
posted by mpls2 at 8:39 AM on July 15, 2008

amro - I've read lots about it and according to all reliable sources that's not the case. Wasn't there, don't know - just saying that I've read/heard otherwise.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:40 AM on July 15, 2008

Daniel Day-Lewis? I'm thinking specifically of the incident where he supposedly saw his father's ghost on stage during a production of Hamlet
posted by kelseyq at 8:40 AM on July 15, 2008

FlamingBore - That's why I said "supposedly"... I don't know either, but I've heard it.
posted by amro at 8:42 AM on July 15, 2008

I've been working with actors for twenty years, and I think 99% of such stories are bullshit. When you act -- particularly on film -- you're in a room full of people (technicians, etc.) and you constantly have to start and stop. You shoot about a minute of the film and then you go wait in your trailer for four hours while they re-light the set.

There are plenty of disturbed actors, but most of them got that way via their upbringing or during off-work hours. It's usually about drug abuse, relationship problems, etc. If it is about "the business," it usually about the non-artistic side, e.g. directors abusing child actors or casting-couch issues.

I've never heard of a single actor who fell apart BECAUSE he was playing "Hamlet."

These sorts of urban legends will always be with us, because people want to believe that the drama in the film or play extends beyond the story itself.
posted by grumblebee at 8:50 AM on July 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

Hilary Swank after Boys Don't Cry, although I can't find a reference.
posted by mkb at 8:51 AM on July 15, 2008

Didn't Val Kilmer develop a drug problem after experimenting with them as "research" for portraying Jim Morrison?
posted by highfidelity at 8:56 AM on July 15, 2008

Herzog and Kinski on the set of Fitzcarraldo has to be the most famous example. Not sure if you can claim Herzog was in character, but he was sort of method-directing with disastrous consequences.
posted by roofus at 8:57 AM on July 15, 2008

I've been working with actors for twenty years, and I think 99% of such stories are bullshit.

I've been an actor for twenty years, and I'm inclined to agree with you, but that's not what the poster is asking.

So: I've heard the Heath Ledger stories too, and while I cannot vouch for them one way or another, they are an example. Another anecdotal example would be Bob Hoskins, who claimed to suffer from hallucinations during and after the filming of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I definitely remember Hoskins talking about this on some late night show at the time.
posted by Skot at 9:05 AM on July 15, 2008

Not psychological damage (well, besides Girl Interrupted), but there's a Vanity Fair article arguing that Angelina comes to seriously inhabit her movie roles.
posted by acidic at 9:16 AM on July 15, 2008

James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) now regularly hangs out with real mafia people- according to a director I know.
posted by Zambrano at 9:17 AM on July 15, 2008

Response by poster: I am actually inclined to agree with you too, Grumblebee, but Skot has hit the nail on the head that the question is designed to help us learn what the more well-known, if apocryphal, stories there are out there on the subject. Thanks for all the answers so far everyone, keep em coming.
posted by jrb223 at 9:19 AM on July 15, 2008

Wooderson Syndrome
posted by clunkyrobot at 9:25 AM on July 15, 2008

Robert Downey Jr. has blamed his drug addiction on his portrayal of Julian Wells in the movie Less Than Zero.
posted by Rewind at 9:26 AM on July 15, 2008

Janet Leigh would not take showers again after Psycho.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:32 AM on July 15, 2008

Gandofini's personality was obviously affected for him to enjoy the company of murderers.
posted by Zambrano at 9:35 AM on July 15, 2008

Okay, getting more into the spirit of things:

-- When Robert Wise directed "West Side Story," he didn't allow the actors playing the Jets to socialize with the actors playing the Sharks. They only time they met was in their antagonistic scenes together. Susan Oakes played Anybodys, a girl who definitely wasn't a Shark but who wanted to be part of the Jets (and was rejected by them). I heard her say, in an interview, that the shooting was traumatic for her, because the actors got so into their gang identities that no one would talk to her.

-- Famously, Dustin Hoffman kept himself up for days and made a wreck of himself to play his part in "Marathon Man." When Laurence Olivier saw the state he was in, he said, "Next time, try acting."

-- Not exactly what you're looking for, but Jimmy Steward had a doctor give him a drug to temporarily make him almost unable to speak so that he could believable play the final "horse voice" scene in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

-- Sue Lyon played "Lolita" in the Kubrick version. Here's a snippet from the Wikipedia article about her:

She was diagnosed as a manic-depressive and was prescribed lithium. She later said she had struggled on and off with mental issues since she was a teenager.[7]

In recent years, Lyon has been bitter about Lolita, the film that made her a star at such a tender age. In 1998, speaking with the Reuters news service regarding Adrian Lyne's remake of the film, Lyon said, "I am appalled they should revive the film that caused my destruction as a person."
posted by grumblebee at 9:37 AM on July 15, 2008

This also doesn't exactly fit what you're asking, but I once heard Laura Dern say that, when she was little, she was watching TV and "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" came on. She saw her dad, Bruce Dern, get decapitated. She went screaming to her mother. Her parents were divorced, and her mom had to get her dad on the phone to prove to Laura that he wasn't dead.
posted by grumblebee at 9:43 AM on July 15, 2008

James Fox in Performance. To prepare for the role, I believe he hung out with Johnny Binden and other Cray associates. After filming he left acting and joined a cult.
posted by the cuban at 9:44 AM on July 15, 2008

Bjork got incredibly deeply emotionally involved with her character in Dancer in the Dark, resulting in now-famous ordeals with director Lars von Trier on-set.

From Wikipedia:

Actress Björk, who is known primarily as a contemporary composer, had rarely acted before, and has described the process of making this film as so emotionally taxing that she would not appear in any film ever again (although in 2005, she appeared in Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9). She had disagreements with the director over the content of the film, wanting the ending to be more uplifting.[citation needed] Deneuve and others have described her performance as feeling rather than acting. Björk has said that it is a misunderstanding that she was put off acting by this film; rather, she never wanted to act but made an exception for Lars von Trier.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 9:46 AM on July 15, 2008

Then of course, you get actors who wanted to keep on playing their parts after death: Belu Lugosi was buried in his Dracula cape. James "Scottie" Doohan had his ashes shot into space.
posted by grumblebee at 9:46 AM on July 15, 2008

I've heard that Matt Damon has a heart condition resulting from losing so much weight for his role in 'Courage Under Fire'. Is that what you're looking for?
posted by orrnyereg at 9:47 AM on July 15, 2008

Martin Sheen, like his character Capt. Willard, had a bit of a breakdown (along with just about everyone else on set) during the filming of Apocalypse Now (scroll down for some of the details).
posted by scody at 9:47 AM on July 15, 2008

I read a magazine article once that described how Johnny Depp got waaaay into his role as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

no time to Google it right now, though.
posted by emd3737 at 9:48 AM on July 15, 2008

Tony Cliffton
posted by Freedomboy at 9:50 AM on July 15, 2008

I didn't help the thread out by going after Grumblebee either. I'm sorry.

ANYWAY. The book The Devil's Candy is about what amounts to full-production madness during the filming of the entirely horrible Bonfire of the Vanities. It's hilarious.

Similarly, Hearts of Darkness is a harrowing documentary about the legendary filming of Apocalypse Now, where it can be credibly argued that Coppola nearly lost his mind for a while.
posted by Skot at 9:52 AM on July 15, 2008

In "An Officer and a Gentleman", Louis Gossett Jr played a drill instructor. I saw an interview with him where he said that he really did get into that mode during filming, and as a result was rather difficult to be around on the set.

He also said that the directors gave him a chance to read the script, and he said he wanted to play that role. They said, OK we'll rewrite it to make it more sympathetic. His response was, No, I want to play that role.

He won an Academy Award for it.
posted by Class Goat at 9:58 AM on July 15, 2008

I've read that during the shooting of the film Gosford Park, the actors playing servants only socialized with other servant actors off-set, likewise the aristocrat actors, reproducing the class divisions they were portraying.
posted by adamrice at 10:28 AM on July 15, 2008

I've read that during the shooting of the film Gosford Park, the actors playing servants only socialized with other servant actors off-set, likewise the aristocrat actors, reproducing the class divisions they were portraying.

There are tons of stories like this from the filming of the British series "Upstairs Downstairs." The actors playing the servants (though they were the leads) were given the worst dressing rooms, etc.
posted by grumblebee at 10:42 AM on July 15, 2008

I've read that during the shooting of the film Gosford Park, the actors playing servants only socialized with other servant actors off-set, likewise the aristocrat actors, reproducing the class divisions they were portraying.

I hope I'm not stirring up trouble, again, but this is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about earlier. If you watch the movie, you'll see that in most of the scenes, the servants were with the servants and the aristocrats were with the aristocrats. That means that during the filming, the servant actors didn't get to see much of the aristocrats and vice versa. So I'm guess it's more a matter of hanging out with the people you're working with than life imitating art. Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro didn't hang out during the filming of "The Godfather, Part II," because they didn't have any scenes together.
posted by grumblebee at 10:45 AM on July 15, 2008

Scott Glen - in The Silence Of The Lambs

"After working with John Douglas for some time Scott Glenn thanked him and said how fascinating it was to have been allowed into his world. Douglas laughed at this comment and told Glenn that if he really wanted to get into his world, he should listen to an audio tape of serial killers Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris torturing, raping and murdering two teenage girls. Glenn listened to less than one minute of the tape, and has since said that he feels he lost a sense of innocence in doing so and that he has never been able to forget what he heard."

and in Backdraft

"In preparation for the filming of Backdraft, he rode along with the firemen in the Chicago area and was injured when exposed to active fire."
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:52 AM on July 15, 2008

According to IMDB: Viggo Mortensen....

"Got so into his character of Aragorn that director Peter Jackson once addressed him as Aragorn for over half an hour, and Mortensen didn't even realize it."

"He became good friends with the close-knit stunt men on the "Lord of the Rings" films, but they were wary of doing fight scenes with him because, carried away with the intensity of his character Aragorn, he would frequently "really go at them" and leave the other combatants in bruises."

"I was on my way out of a Sunday rehearsal. When I was walking out of the gym, all sort of sweaty, half in street clothes and half in Aragorn's clothes, waiving the sword around, trying to keep a mental picture of what we've just done. Just walking down the street, down to where my car was parked, on a Sunday afternoon, waiving the sword around, looking like some desperate Rasputin character. Cops car comes: there's been some report..."

posted by Kickstart70 at 11:00 AM on July 15, 2008

From IMDB's entry on Klute:

"According to her autobiography, Jane Fonda hung out with call girls and pimps for a week before beginning this film in order to prepare for her role. When none of the pimps offered to "represent" her, she became convinced she wasn't desirable enough to play a prostitute and urged the director to replace her with friend Faye Dunaway."
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on July 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are lots of tales of "method" actors annoying others by refusing to step out of character. I remember an E! Hollywood True Story mentioning that Judd Nelson nearly getting fired from The Breakfast Club for such behavior (IMDB triva page supports it, for what that's worth).
posted by wheat at 11:18 AM on July 15, 2008

Didn't Spielberg make the cast of Saving Private Ryan go to boot camp? But he didn't make Matt Damon go, so the cast would sort of hate him for real, which helped with their acting.

Or I could have dreamed all of that.
posted by nushustu at 11:48 AM on July 15, 2008

Well, allegedly River Phoenix turned to heroin to get into character for My Own Private Idaho.

Wikipedia: What appeared at the outset to be a bright career prospect soon turned dark as River Phoenix was overly committed to becoming his character, drug-addicted street hustler Mike Waters. Almost immediately rumors started swirling back to L.A. that Phoenix and his castmates were using heroin and other drugs and partying hard throughout the nights. This approach proved dangerous given the role of Mike Waters. Eric Alan Edwards, one of the film's directors of photography remembers, "He looked like a street kid. In a very raw way he wore that role."

People Mag: In fact, there had been speculation about Phoenix's drug use for nearly two years. It was on the Portland set of My Own Private Idaho, the story of a band of drug-taking street hustlers and male prostitutes, that rumors first began to circulate that some of the film's actors—Phoenix among them—had begun using heroin.
posted by miss lynnster at 12:00 PM on July 15, 2008

Well, allegedly River Phoenix turned to heroin to get into character for My Own Private Idaho.

I can't tell you how many actors I've met who got hooked on smoking (regular cigarettes) from having to do it in plays. Nowadays, they generally use herbal cigs.
posted by grumblebee at 12:31 PM on July 15, 2008

I don't know if this is the kind of thing you are looking for, but back in 2003 I was really into the show "Monk" on USA Network which starred (still stars) Tony Shaloub as a detective with a very severe case of OCD. I don't know if it is still on there, but I remember in a Q&A with Tony on the USA website for Monk in which a fan asked if the character's OCD habits were rubbing off on him. His answer, in effect, was "Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes."
posted by bristolcat at 1:15 PM on July 15, 2008

didn't Ned Beatty have some trouble post-deliverance?
posted by bensherman at 1:40 PM on July 15, 2008

I remember hearing as a child that Jonathan Winters had a breakdown and was found speaking in the voices of his characters. I couldn't find anything online except references to a bipolar diagnosis and "breakdown" in 1959.
posted by PatoPata at 2:40 PM on July 15, 2008

The now infamous mugshot of Nick Nolte's DUI apparently happened at the end (or just after) filming Hulk, in which he plays a whacked-out mad scientist. Which explains the hair.
posted by zardoz at 6:05 PM on July 15, 2008

George Clooney, during Syriana. He said (paraphrased): "Everyone has a year in their life during which they age ten years. This was mine."
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:54 PM on July 15, 2008

I remember hearing as a child that Jonathan Winters had a breakdown and was found speaking in the voices of his characters. I couldn't find anything online except references to a bipolar diagnosis and "breakdown" in 1959.

Actually, my dad used to tell a story about how he witnessed Jonathan Winters having a mental breakdown in an airport. And since there's an entire write-up about him on I'm guessing it was probably a true story. Who knows whether the bipolar condition is what led him to comedy or vice versa, though. Most comedians I've known were either depressed or bipolar... kinda ironic how a comedy career often attracts naturally unhappy people.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:07 PM on July 15, 2008

Yeah, grumblebee, and among them was Tatum O'Neal, who was eight when she had to smoke lettuce cigs on screen in "Paper Moon," but soon turned to the harder stuff (crack, most recently).
posted by Scram at 2:51 AM on July 16, 2008

Well, I have heard that lettuce is a gateway vegetable... totally makes sense.

I'd say what screwed Tatum O'Neal up more than anything was having a seriously messed up family. It's easy to see that her relationship with her father left a giant void she couldn't seem to fill. I mean, not only is he physically abusive (it's well documented) but the guy encouraged her to snort cocaine as an early teen so she could lose weight... he's never exactly been the most protective, nurturing or healthy parent. She clearly needed someone to care for her, and with the cards she was dealt it's no wonder she ended up lost. She may have had privilege in other ways, but that means little when what someone really needs is love and support. Moral of the story: I wouldn't make lettuce the bad guy here, I'd totally blame Ryan O'Neal, who is (allegedly) one of the suckiest fathers imaginable. I mean, this says it all:

"...when - out of despair (from his) taunting - Tatum tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists, Ryan merely declared: 'You cut the wrong way.'"

I have far more sympathy for Tatum O'Neal's self-destructive choices than Amy Winehouse's. At least Amy has a caring family that clearly worries about her well-being. Tatum was mostly alone, well, except when she was married to John McEnroe (which was a great idea because, of course, he wasn't volatile like her father or anything).

I'm just glad Jodie Foster avoided a life of prostitution...
posted by miss lynnster at 10:11 AM on July 16, 2008

The Jonathan Winters incident happened May 12, 1959 and was a front page news story the next day. The 32-year-old Winters was involved in a dispute with the custodian of a square-rigged sailing ship on display at the San Francisco Embarcadero, claiming that he wanted to climb the rigging and jump off. Police arrived, and Winters identified himself as "John Q. from outer space." Newspapers carried photos of him making wild faces as he was taken away by police. Stories quoted unnamed psychiatrists as saying he was "quite disturbed" and in need of "long-term" care. The next day, Winters wife arrived from the East Coast and had him transferred to a private mental hospital ten miles south of San Francisco.

Three years earlier, the first use of videotape on network television was on Winters' TV series. Tape made it possible for Winters to appear with himself, or rather, to have one of his characters talk to another of his characters.
posted by Bhob at 10:19 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

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