A Kiss Is Just a Kiss?

Is there a blending of emotions & personality between characters and actors?

Posted Mar 06, 2014

It happens all the time—two actors film a movie together in which they are playing romantic leads, and reports start to surface: They’re in love? Or are they? They’re dating! They’ve left other partners to be together! And it all happened because they were playing people in love, and had to act as if they were in love day after day. 

Or did it?

While there is no denying that people who play characters in love often fall in love in real life, is it because they were pretending to be in love and those emotions bled over into their real world feelings? Or is it because actors spend day after day in a small space with just a few people—chatting during breaks, grabbing a drink after a long day, the same as any co-workers, fall in love.  Is the rate of coupling up higher in acting companies than insurance companies?

Last night, I saw a production of Stage Kiss at Playwrights Horizons, written by Sarah Ruhl and starring Jessica Hecht (as “she”) and Dominic Fumusa (as “he”) as well as a very strong supporting cast. The main plot, without spoiling anything, is that “she” and “he” are former lovers who are cast in a play in which they play former lovers falling in love again. Then, “she” and “he” also fall in love again out of the play. “She” asks “When I kissed you just now, did it feel like an actor kissing an actor or a person kissing a person?” At what point did they start kissing each other “for real” even when it was in character?

I think we can all agree that there are a variety of characteristics that actors have to portray as characters—the physical, the personality, the knowledge and skills, and the emotional. And I think we all have intuitions (intuitions I am currently testing, and to the best of my knowledge have never been tested before) about which of these characteristics are more likely to transfer from portrayal to actor and which are less likely to transfer. Physical characteristics (such as a broken leg or a gunshot wound) probably don’t migrate from character to actor. But knowledge and skills?  Don’t you have to know how to play guitar to play guitar onstage?  And what of emotional state and personality? Do you have to be shy to play shy? Be sad to play sad? Be in love or lust to play love or lust?

Dr. John D. Mayer, Professor of Psychology and one of the original scientists behind the concept of Emotional Intelligence wrote a piece for Salon after this past weekend’s Oscar Awards. He claims that “Science knows!” whether actors are “faking it” for the screen. He proposes that actors must change their personalities to match the personalities of those they play, and that only a few actors work from the “outside in,” using physicality to portray a character. Instead, he writes, most actors rearrange their mental lives and emotions in order to portray character. The problem is that science doesn’t actually know what is going on for actors. The one study I know of that actually tackles this question, which I’ve cited before, found that when stage actors are portraying characters, what they’re actually doing is thinking about the process of actually acting—making sure they’re facing the audience, hitting their light, saying their lines loud enough to be heard, rather than feeling anything like what their character is feeling. In other words, they are approaching acting technically rather than emotionally.

When you ask actors about their technique, how they prepare to play a role, almost none will talk about extensive rearranging of their mental states, emotional states and personality. Instead, they’ll talk about learning about the character, thinking about his or her world, learning the lines and the blocking, and figuring out why characters do and think and say what they do.

To this end, there is a separation for actors between understanding or thinking like their character, and actually feeling what their character feels. We can all understand what others think and feel, and some of us (including actors, I propose) may be able to do this better than others. But understanding what someone else is feeling does not lead us to automatically feel what someone else is feeling.

If actors felt everything they ever had to portray, they couldn’t function. Having to think about your father dying and your mother marrying his brother every night might not be pleasant, but having to emotionally relive that trauma every night, 8 times per week, for your 6-month run of Hamlet would be impossible. (Not to mention the additional traumas of accidentally killing someone, hearing about your girlfriend’s death, and thinking you saw your dead father’s ghost). No one could survive under that level of stress and duress. And although we have stereotypes of actors as emotionally dysfunctional and deregulated, the truth is much more complicated. Many famous people are dysfunctional and deregulated, including artists, musicians, actors, socialites, and reality stars. And many actors are perfectly nice, well emotionally regulated people. Although to be fair, I am only speaking from personal experience as a member of several acting companies and as someone who regularly interacts and thinks about actors. There’s a real paucity of scientific research on this area.

In the end, we all agree that acting is a type of pretending. Watching someone actually getting beat up is not pleasurable in the way that watching someone pretend to get beat up can be. But why is it hard to believe that actors can be pretending about being in love with each other? In Stage Kiss, “she” and “he” used to be lovers, and all of that kissing reminds them of what they used to have. But “she” is also talked about as often going through this experience—of relating too much to her characters and being affected by them.

Perhaps the rise of reality television can provide a clue—audience members want to see real life on screen, and therefore both reality television and believing that even in acting there is a real life love story is what fascinates us. If acting grew out of storytelling around the fire and rituals of tales passed from generation to generation, then reality should be what we want, even if that’s not what we’re getting.