A Hollywood Secret: On-Set Therapy

It can lead to a more productive and less conflictual movie-making experience.

Posted Feb 26, 2020

A Hollywood Secret: On-Set Therapy

I have received many emails asking about my work as a therapist on movie sets, and Maiken Scott of NPR member station WHYY in Philadephia recently interviewed me about this very topic for her weekly health and science show, The Pulse.

We spoke about how on-set therapy can lead to a more productive movie-making experience. This interview, along with others on the topic of “Why Movies Move Us,” can be heard here. Here’s a shortened version of our talk:

Maiken Scott: Emotions can run high on movie sets, and when they boil over, you need somebody to jump in.

Barton Goldsmith: My role is to alleviate crisis on the sets in the production.

Scott: For production crews, the days are long, often at least 12 hours. There’s a lot of money at stake; everybody is stressed out. The crew spends a lot of time together, they get very close, and [you say] fights are inevitable.

Goldsmith: There’s no way you’re not going to step on somebody else’s toes or they’re not going to step on yours. When that happens, I handle it like a family. I handle it like family therapy.

Scott: He says having a therapist on the set saves time and money. People talk through their issues, big blowout fights are avoided, everything runs more smoothly.

Goldsmith: By just adding another person to the crew, that allows their cast and production crew to blow off some steam in a constructive way rather than a destructive way.

Scott: Another part of [your] job is to help actors when they are transitioning between scenes.

Goldsmith: Think of a performer who in the morning has to get ready to play a very emotional scene. A lot of crying, maybe some hitting, fighting, that they have to bring up a lot of pain and personal experience to do it really, really well. Then, in the afternoon, they have to completely switch roles and be funny and light. In the meantime, they’ve still got all the adrenaline and cortisol from all of the anger they had to manufacture in their brains and hearts coursing through their bodies.

Scott: So they need some help switching gears.

Goldsmith: You can’t push that stuff away. It’s going to keep staying inside of you until you process it out. And that processing can be talking, it can be crying, it can be beating pillows with tennis rackets. There’s a lot of different ways to go about doing it, but if you don’t process it out, it’s going to stick with you, and that meltdown is going to continue until you are able to get in touch with the feelings and release the pain.

Scott: I would think there’s so much adrenaline involved too, in acting, especially when you’re acting out stressful scenes, violent scenes, and that adrenaline has to go somewhere.

Goldsmith: As does the cortisol, and it wipes out all of your serotonin and dopamine as well. So yeah, when you’re getting into a violent scene or a very, very dramatic scene, adrenaline, cortisol, are coming into your system and, yes, it takes a while for that to go away.

Scott: And sometimes [you help] actors create those deep emotions in the first place. I’m wondering if you can give me an example. Let’s say I’m preparing for a scene in the afternoon where somebody dumps me, and I’m heartbroken, and it’s terrible, and it comes out of nowhere, how would you prepare me for that emotionally?

Goldsmith: We’d go back to the last time you were dumped, and we would talk about that, and how that made you feel, and you would get into that feeling: What you are still holding on to, what it is, how it affects you, did you use memories from your past? And then after the scene you would come back to me, and we would get you out of it. Not only does that help you get in touch with what it is you want to do on set, but it also helps you get in touch with the feelings that you had so that you can drill down on those and get rid of them, let them go after you have exploited them on stage, used them, gotten them out of your system. And then you can really get rid of them. It’s actually kind of therapeutic.

Scott: Yeah, I was thinking that it sounds empowering in a way.

Goldsmith: It can be. Let me give you another example of someone who I worked with. This person had to do a scene where she was dying of cancer, and she actually was dying of cancer. It was a very, very difficult day on set for everyone because no one knew up until this point. We had to slowly and gently walk through the entire dying process, and she had a lot of processing to do about her own fears, her own loss of life—and she loved life, loved it. One of the finest performers and performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing in my career.