July 1, 2012
Double Identity -- Distinguishing Actors and Their Roles
A few years ago I was chatting with a friend of friend. As we were barely acquainted, we kept the conversation casual and superficial ----- we were talking about TV. I said I thought the sexiest character on TV was Gil Grissom (from "CSI"). The woman I was talking to enthusiastically agreed and promptly informed me that Grissom was getting married.
I was puzzled. This was in the summer --- between seasons. How could she know that Grissom was getting married? And why would I care that Grissom was getting married? As the conversation continued, it became clear to me that she meant that William Petersen, the actor who played Gil Grissom, was getting married.
I politely refrained from rolling my eyes. I had (and have) no opinion on the level of sexiness of William Petersen. I didn't care if he was already married or getting married. I was talking about the fictional character of Gil Grissom, not the actor who played him. And I was talking with one of those people who cannot distinguish between an actor and the role.
The last time I had that problem I was 18 years old. (This woman was around 70.) When I was 18, I found out about the person of the actor Jan-Michael Vincent. I thought at the time I had a crush on Jan-Michael Vincent. I had been an admirer of Jan-Michael Vincent's face and form since I was about seven years old when he was the jaw-droppingly cute big boy I couldn't take my eyes off on the "Danger Island" serials. (Vincent was actually about 25 when he played that part.) In the years between 7 and 18, I hadn't learned about the person of Jan-Michael Vincent; he wasn't even featured in any of the teen crush magazines I had read. (Not that those articles bore any relationship to reality --- they were written to feed into the fantasies of pre-teen & teen girls.) Now at 18, I learned about the real Jan-Michael Vincent --- a chain smoker, a man in the middle of an intractable alcohol and drug problem, a man with a violent temper who, worst of all, beat his wife (and later his girlfriend). No matter how gorgeous the man was (and he was G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S, especially in a loincloth), he was not the character I had a crush on. If I had met Jan-Michael Vincent the man, at 18 I couldn't have handled someone like that and would have taken serious damage myself even trying to. And at my current age, that was the kind of man I'd have wanted to keep out of my life. (Let me make it clear I am not under any delusion that Jan-Michael Vincent would have ever been interested in me, either my looks or my personality.)
To say I was disillusioned was an understatement. Talk about this idol having feet of clay. But despite the disappointment, in the end, I was grateful I learned what I had because I never again confused any actor with the roles he played. Since then through the years I had my share of fantasy crushes, both celebrity and fictional. (I could get a crush on a character in a book. I spent most of my teenage years with a crush on Athos from the novel The Three Musketeers.) Sometimes the crush was on the character, sometimes the actor (about whom I had learned some facts). But I always distinguished between the actor and the role.
Though I had my "awakening" all at once, I figured the realization that actors are not the roles they play is something that most people would come to as they grew older. I knew there were some who never got that point. Though, hopefully, even most of them didn't take it as far as the people who called the Coast Guard to report a shipwreck and castaways back when "Gilligan's Island" aired. (Though I'd like to believe those were crank calls, I suspect some of them were serious.)
When it comes down to it, I can halfway excuse a member of the public for confusing an actor and the role. If you don't see any interviews, if all you see is what's on the TV, then you're being drawn into that world and that role is all you see of the actor.
What I have never been able to understand is how the actor can't distinguish between him/herself and the role. Whenever I hear an actor in an interview use the first person "I" to refer to the character it just creeps me out. I saw a retrospective with Ed O'Neill and Christina Applegate from the show "Married with Children." In the interview, O'Neill was talking about something that had happened. I thought he was talking about something that had actually happened. Then I realized he was talking about a scene from the show as if he and Applegate, not the characters Al and Kelly Bundy, had done the event for real.
I discovered the action-adventure spy show "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." in syndication many years after it went off the air. I really enjoyed the early seasons and was given a behind the scenes book on the show. In it there's a photograph of the stars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum with guest star Sonny Bono. Bono is lying on a cot with McCallum standing over him threatening Bono with a rifle and a menacing expression. From where he's lying Bono can see a mike, a spotlight, some square thing that looks like it has paper taped over it, a camera and three crew members.
There it was encapsulated in a single photo: Reality versus Pretending.
I took one look at that photo and thought, "I don't know how actors do it." If I had been Bono I'd have busted out laughing; I couldn't have kept a straight face much less pretended to be scared. (Hey, this is why I'm not an actor.)
Actors, more than anybody else, should have an awareness that they're pretending. They're not the character. They're the person who got up at their home in the morning, drove to the studio where they put on make-up, costumes and got handed a script with what to say. Then they go to this set filled with film equipment and people (and nowadays that "set" could mean a green screen set where they have to imagine everything) and pretend to be that character. At the end of the day, they reverse the process and go home.
But there are plenty of actors who do confuse themselves with the roles they play. That trait seems to be a staple. With Heath Ledger's death, the news mentioned how he would become the character. There are actors who take on an accent for a part then speak with it full time. A reference you'll have to be a certain age to get is when I found out that the actor Gerald McRaney was one of the actors who became his characters and I exclaimed, "You mean Delta Burke married Rick Simon and ended up with Major Dad?!" (Rick Simon was an easy-going private investigator on "Simon & Simon" and then McRaney got the role of polished ramrod up his butt Marine Corps Major McGillis on "Major Dad.")
If the actors themselves can't distinguish between themselves and the roles, and they've got the scripts, and the booms and the cameras and the make-up and all the other people working on the set, (try asking Christian Bale about someone getting in his line of sight) plus, going home to their real lives............it's understandable to a certain degree that viewers who don't have all those external reminders of the difference between the actor and the role tend to find the two indistinguishable.
But in this world of fans who can go over the line to obsession and then to stalking, whenever I hear an actor using the first person "I" when talking about a role, I can't help but think that they're encouraging the fans, including the obsessed ones, to not separate actor and role............and do they really want to do that?
I suppose actors understand this trait of losing yourself in role even if they aren't the type of actor who does it. I would guess some people gravitate to acting because they have a fluid personality, because they're natural chameleons. Then again, I don't really know. Professional actors are not a group of people I've been around.
But I always recall the apocryphal story of when Dustin Hoffman supposedly stayed up for two nights so he would look bad for the torture scene in the movie Marathon Man. The story goes that on the set his co-star, the inimitable Laurence Olivier, told him, "Try acting, dear boy............It's much easier."
Whether that actually happened or not, the essence behind the words are true............
It is acting. So let's all of us (actors and viewers) remember it's not real. It's just acting.
For more on distinguishing Hollywood from real life, read "Hollywood Romance: Fiction Versus Fact," "Hollywood's Bizarre Take on Rape," and "4 Classic Novels that Are Way More Depressing than You Think They Are Based on the Movies."
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