It’s not often that I watch a movie and find a performance so compelling that learning more about the actor takes precedence over everything else. Such was the case when I recently watched Heath Ledger's performance as Joker in The Dark Knight, the same actor who played the tragic role of a torn romantic homosexual in Brokeback Mountain, and Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Several months after completing filming of Batman, Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose of medications, according to the Medical Examiner of New York. Those medications included oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine.
Heath Ledger belonged to a class of actors referred to as method actors. Other similarly astonishing performances have recently been made by Christian Bale in The Machinist, Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man, to name a select few. The most compelling method actors are able to so fully immerse themselves in their roles that they truly become the character they portray: the distinction between self and role vanishing. As challenging as it is to become immersed in a character to this degree, it can be equally difficult to come out of it, as the commitment to the character becomes all-consuming. Heath Ledger described his development of the Joker character in an interview with Empire Magazine:
“I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices - it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh.
“I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath - someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts.
“He’s just an absolute sociopath, a cold-blooded, mass-murdering clown, and Chris [the Director] has given me free rein. Which is fun, because there are no real boundaries to what The Joker would say or do. Nothing intimidates him, and everything is a big joke.”
While there are processes for getting into character, there is sparse support for actors when it comes to getting out of it—it’s simply assumed that they do. Soldiers sent into battle during the Vietnam War were prepared by the military for fighting, and it was assumed that when they came home all would be well and they would easily adjust back into their former lives. The military had done its job. No more support needed. Acting school is no different. It’s left to the actor to figure out, and deal with, the psychological effects of his art on his own.
Some people are well aware of the dangers inherent in method acting, especially when the role entails extremely complex and dark emotions. Larrah Bolten commented on Quora, “You can tell yourself it was just your character going through it, but if you are a good actor, then it was *you* that just went through it so take the time to deal with it afterwards. This is why we lost Heath Ledger, I believe. His role as the Joker was too burdensome to survive. Imagine if you were that person (a demented serial killer) even briefly. Would it be difficult to deal with if it did not match up with your true morals?”
It’s easy to explain away mental illness in actors as pre-existing conditions, which is the usual attitude taken by society and the media. But, just as a huge proportion of returning soldiers from Vietnam would later be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—a disorder which manifests through a variety of neuropsychological disturbances—were clearly not due to “pre-existing” mental illness, it may likewise be prudent to consider the possibility that the process of role-acting can, itself, alter our foundational sense of identity which can in turn lead to manifestations of mental illness.
Every graduate of Stanford University’s Psychology department since 1971 knows about the Lucifer Experiment, conceived and conducted by Psychologist Phil Zimbardo. It's mission was to understand the effects of role-playing on the human psyche. Here’s what he did. He cordoned off a section of the basement of Stanford’s Psychology Department to create a make-believe jail, then enlisted student volunteers, at $15 per day, to play. Half of them would play the guards, the other half would play the prisoners. The experiment was scheduled for two weeks. Easy money, and sounding like fun, it wasn’t hard to get volunteers. It would turn out to be anything but fun for all involved.
Dr. Zimbardo, wanting to make things as realistic as possible, had the “prisoners” “arrested” by real policemen, handcuffed, blindfolded, and led to their cells where they where they were stripped naked and put in smocks. The “guards” were not told how to behave, only told their duties: wear mirror shades, put paper bags over the “prisoner’s” heads when they went to the toilet down the hall, make them memorize a long list of rules with punishment for failure to do so. They were never told to torment or harm the “prisoners.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. Saul McLeod (2008) summarized it this way:
Within hours of beginning the experiment some guards began to harass prisoners. They behaved in a brutal and sadistic manner, apparently enjoying it. Other guards joined in, and other prisoners were also tormented.
The prisoners were taunted with insults and petty orders, they were given pointless and boring tasks to accomplish, and they were generally dehumanized.
The prisoners soon adopted prisoner-like behavior too. They talked about prison issues a great deal of the time. They ‘told tales’ on each other to the guards. They started taking the prison rules very seriously, as though they were there for the prisoners’ benefit and infringement would spell disaster for all of them. Some even began siding with the guards against prisoners who did not obey the rules.
Over the next few days the relationships between the guards and the prisoners changed, with a change in one leading to a change in the other. Remember that the guards were firmly in control and the prisoners were totally dependent on them.
As the prisoners became more dependent, the guards became more derisive towards them. They held the prisoners in contempt and let the prisoners know it. As the guards’ contempt for them grew, the prisoners became more submissive.
As the prisoners became more submissive, the guards became more aggressive and assertive. They demanded ever greater obedience from the prisoners. The prisoners were dependent on the guards for everything so tried to find ways to please the guards, such as telling tales on fellow prisoners.
One prisoner had to be released after 36 hours because of uncontrollable bursts of screaming, crying and anger. His thinking became disorganized and he appeared to be entering the early stages of a deep depression. Within the next few days three others also had to leave after showing signs of emotional disorder that could have had lasting consequences. (These were people who had been pronounced stable and normal a short while before).
Zimbardo (1973) had intended that the experiment should run for a fortnight, but on the sixth day it was terminated. Christina Maslach, a recent Stanford Ph.D. brought in to conduct interviews with the guards and prisoners, strongly objected when she saw the prisoners being abused by the guards. Filled with outrage, she said, "It's terrible what you are doing to these boys!" Out of 50 or more outsiders who had seen our prison, she was the only one who ever questioned its morality.
After the event, one of the guards, clearly shaken from the experience, gave this account during an interview:
I, I had really thought that I was incapable of this kind of behavior.
I, I was surprised you, no, I was dismayed to find out that I could I could really be a, that I could, uh, act in a manor so, so absolutely unaccustomed to anything I would really dream of doing.
And I, and while I was doing it, I, uh, didn't feel any regret, I didn't feel any, uh, guilt, it was only after, afterwards when I began to reflect on what I had done that this began to, this behavior began to dawn on me and I realized that this was uh, this was a part of me I hadn't really noticed before. (transcript from Quiet Rage: The Documentary)
Lots has been learned from this experiment on many levels. When people are put in situations which allow them to be “evil” they can be (not all of the guards, however, presented this way, but most did). When we act a part, the part can act on us as well, altering our behavior and even our sense of identity. Whether we think ourselves capable of evil-doings or not, this study, and others such as the famous Milgram Experiment, demonstrate that we are all susceptible to behavior we never would think ourselves capable of.
What does this have to do with Chan? Chan offers a path for understanding the nature of Self, not who we think we are but who we really are, our essential being. As we tread this path, we come also to discover what aspects of ourselves are not really, fundamentally, ourselves at all: we learn what is real and what is illusory. The process uncovers a huge assortment of mental and emotional elements that had been hidden, either through repression or through intentional avoidance. Many of the beginning steps on Chan’s path are quite challenging to get through because during them we uncover things that are dark and uncomfortable; sometimes they are scary and sometimes even terrifying. But the value of uncovering them is that, once they are known, they become harmless, no longer resident in our psyche to influence us in ways we would not want, to engender depression, anger, hate, or fear.
Acting is a powerful mechanism to draw out unconscious emotions because it gives us permission to; we are free from taking responsibility for them because, since we are acting, they are implicitly not us. Yet true expression of emotion is fundamentally real and true however we look at it. Whether we are acting or not, if we are feeling emotion then it is real: it is within us, it is of us and it affects us. Method actors, while extremely entertaining to watch, can unknowingly, and sometimes knowingly, sacrifice themselves on our behalf. Once method actors have spent time investigating their shadowy dark sides (which we all have) and unraveled them into consciousness, they are free to act with impunity to reprisals from them later. Recognizing that acting in itself can lead to a malaligned sense of identity, we should be careful not to dismiss all aberrant behaviors to mental illness when its cause may stem simply from being a normal human being.
Experiments of the kind described above are not common because of valid ethics concerns. But they should give us pause and make us reflect on who it is we think we are and investigate whether our conclusions are justified and grounded in reality or the result of some artificial desirable self-image.
As I often say, Chan is about unraveling ourselves to discover our Selves. When we fail to do this, we open ourselves to a diverse array of problems which are revealed through dark moods, attitudes, speech and behavior. It’s sad when such a talented actor as Heath Ledger is lost to the world, but it’s tragic if we fail to heed the valuable lesson of life he left us in his wake.