In just a couple days, we'll finally get to experience Bill Skarsgård's portrayal of Pennywise in It. Going by the trailers and reviews, the actor has nailed the character, and that's quite an achievement.
But playing such a character — or any similar bloodthirsty psychopath — isn't easy. Those roles require commitment, because an actor has to get into the mind of a deranged individual (or in It's case, a demonic presence). Have you ever wondered whether this kind of role has any effect on the person playing it? Could doing their job mess with with their heads?
Well, according to a few mental health professionals, it's a definite possibility.
Be Careful When Playing A Murderous Clown
Gizmodo asked several psychologists and actors about the potential side effects of portraying evil creatures. The whole post is worth a read, but one answer that I found particularly interesting was from Dr. Doug Jowdy, who says that emotional damage greatly depends on an actor's state of mind when tackling a role:
"I would want to know the 'potency' of the role and the quality of the person's life including their health and well-being [...] If the 'dose' is quite potent [...] (boarding on having to be quite compulsive, obsessive and perfectionistic, boarding on or full-blown workaholism), and the person is just in a bad space in life, the result could be harmful [...] So it would be crucial that the person in that role has [...] 'protective factors' in place, i.e. good support system, feeling loved and safe in the world, good dietary habits & sleep hygiene, and perhaps some degree of spirituality so this role as an evil clown does not own them and define them."
That's what many fans believe happened with #HeathLedger while portraying the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight. The actor got into the mindset of the Clown Prince of Crime and delivered an Oscar-winning performance, but that may have taken a toll on his psyche, as he revealed during a 2007 interview with the New York Times:
"Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."
It's important to note, however, that Ledger's sister disagrees the role had anything to do with his death, explaining, "[H]e was having fun. He wasn't depressed about the Joker!"
Still, according to Jowdy, an actor's similarity to their character plays an important factor in their mental health. Immersing yourself just enough in a creepy villain could eventually result in you associating yourself with the part:
"Another psychological variable would be how 'ego syntonic or dystonic' the role might be [...] In simpler terms, how consistent is this role of the evil clown with how the person sees him/herself [...]? We all have an 'evil side' [...] Depending on these psychodynamics of the actor/actress, this role could ignite regression, destabilization and/or disassociation [...] Thus, given some of these considerations, a person playing this role would benefit from being in psychotherapy to not only promote stabilization/health, but that role providing the opportunity for tremendous personal growth."
Yikes. That made me think about the people dressing up as clowns on the street to scare people. Hopefully none of them are delving too deep into their creepy personas.
Keep in mind these comments don't mean that it's all bad news for actors playing evil characters. In the same article, Dr. Cheryl Arutt proposed that evil roles can actually be helpful for actors. In some cases, the roles are a safe way for the actors to release their darkest impulses without causing any harm to themselves or others.
Psychological Damage Isn't The Only Risk That Comes With Playing Pure Evil
Most of us understand that villains in movies and TV series are just actors doing their job. But there are some fans who don't see it that way. Instead, they associate performers with their portrayals.
Turns out that can also pose a risk for an actor's psyche. Dr. Naomi Hynd explains that public perception can also theoretically influence actors' perception of themselves:
"How readily do the other actors become affected by the clown when the actor is in role. Once the film is released how do others respond? For example, when Rebecca de Mornay starred in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, public perception of her as a person changed. People believed she was the character and both avoided her and attempted to keep children away from her. How the actor perceives the character is also significant. Does the actor feel that playing an evil character somehow make them the same psychologically?"
There have been quite a few actors who've talked about people confusing their roles for their real selves. One that comes to mind is #LenaHeadey for Game of Thrones. During an interview with Rolling Stone, the actress stated that random people have actually insulted her — because they really want to insult the ruthless Cersei Lannister from the hit HBO fantasy series. Earlier this year, The Walking Dead's Josh McDermitt quit social media over death threats after his character betrayed the group.
Thankfully, the role of Pennywise didn't seem to affect #BillSkarsgard in any major way, at least going by the few interviews we've seen him in:
But now you know, if you're ever in line to play an evil clown, be careful with not getting too immersed in your portrayal. #It hits theaters on September 14, 2017.
Do you ever have trouble separating an actor from their evil character? Share your thoguhts in the comments!