What sort of person is driven to become an actor? It’s a career that demands extraordinary emotional openness, but inevitably involves a steady stream of rejections—interspersed, for the lucky few, with the occasional short-lived success.
Does this instability make actors more vulnerable to emotional problems, as so many high-profile Hollywood breakdowns would suggest? Or does the process of portraying other people—which often involves reliving tragic events onstage, night after night—help thespians come to terms with their own traumas?
Paula Thomson and S. Victoria Jaque of California State University, Northridge posed these questions in a first-of-its-kind study, and reached a complex conclusion. Their research suggests actors may be both unusually self-aware—and unusually vulnerable to psychological distress.
“Our study adds to the body of research that suggests that there is a psychological cost for participants engaged in the creative arts,” they write in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.
Thomson and Jaque assembled a group of 41 professional actors living in three cities: Los Angeles (naturally), Toronto, and Cape Town, South Africa. Each agreed to undergo the Adult Attachment Interview, a 60- to 90-minute session in which they were asked about their childhood and adolescence, including their relationships with their families.
The researchers paid close attention as the participants were asked about incidents involving loss and trauma, noting any difficulties they had in talking about the events, and any attempts they made to avoid discussing them.
Their answers were compared to those of a control group of 41 non-actors. This group included artists, dancers, athletes and musicians, along with 17 people “who expressed interest in the arts or athletics, but did not actively participate in those domains.”
Overall, “a greater proportion of actors were able to remain engaged, regulated and coherent during the interview process,” the researchers report. Perhaps comfortable after going through countless auditions (“Tell us about yourself”), they were less likely than the non-actors to dismiss or deflect questions.
But by design, more uncomfortable topics arose as the interview progressed. And as they did, the actors’ responses often became halting.
“Even though there was no difference between the two groups for past traumatic events,” the researchers report, “more actors were unable to maintain narrative coherence when discussing memories of past trauma and loss.”
Specifically, when asked about painful subjects, actors were more likely to respond with confusion, prolonged silence, or “unsuccessful failures to deny a traumatic or loss event,” Thomson and Jaque write. Combined with the actors’ own self-assessments following the interview, this suggests “the actor group may have a greater vulnerability for psychological distress.”
In addition, the researchers found the actors were more imaginative than members of the control group. “Actors may have enhanced their imagination through the practice of acting," they write, "or they may have entered a career that supports their heightened predisposition for fantasy.”
It’s worth noting that the actors studied here hadn’t been pursuing their craft professionally for all that long; their mean age was 26. Perhaps there are psychological benefits to stepping into the skins of other people, but they don’t show up for a number of years.
However, for this group, portraying characters who were coping with loss doesn’t seem to have helped them make sense of, or make peace with, their own losses. It seems the truism that theater isn’t therapy applies to the thespians themselves.