When A Role Overtakes an Actor

If anyone ever wondered whether certain roles can wear on an actor, they can look no further than this clip featuring actor Michael K. Williams.

In a recent appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, Williams, who had a small part in the film “12 Years A Slave,” speaks on a particularly emotional scene that was not shown in theaters. In it, Williams describes being dragged on a slave ship, and after reenacting the painful event a few times, how he breaks down screaming and crying. Take a look.

I witnessed a similar event while on a film set a few years ago.

In the Summer of 2011, I was a production assistant on an independent feature film. The basic premise of the film centered on two men, one who was a terrorist, the other a college professor. In one scene, the actor who played the terrorist, kidnaps the professor and is raging mad as he is driving a cab. As we were filming the scene and re-shooting it, the actor playing the terrorist broke down at the end of the scene and began crying. Some of the crew consoled him. It was clear he had been overcome with emotion.

Intense roles like these are not easy to watch — let alone perform. Roles that involve scenes in which anger, brutality, and violence are portrayed, can often be physically and emotionally draining. That’s often when we see some of the the greatest acting performances as well. When I think people hear acting, many often associate it with ‘pretending.’ He’s pretending to be that secret agent. She’s pretending to be that ailing mother. They’re pretending to be small town citizens in a 1950s crime drama. The difference however is that acting is not so much pretending as it is becoming that person or thing while the cameras are rolling.

It’s a subtle difference that can make a good acting job be looked at as Oscar worthy. It’s why actors spend so much time researching a historical figure and spending time with those who knew them; or reading articles about an event and visiting that place where such events happened. As we’ve seen though, it’s not always easy to become someone and assume the emotional baggage that comes with that role.

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