Actors Are Not Gods. Er, Right?

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dakotafanning

Normally I wouldn’t hijack a discussion on some other site in some wholesale fashion, but there was a thread going on last week at LinkedIn that was plucking my nerves as it began to pick up steam. (It remains to be seen whether said thread will continue to catch fire.) Fortunately, the person who posted the question and kicked off the thread runs a blog about acting called Balance Your Act, so she already has a forum for her views. She is Emmanuelle Chaulet and her blog, which is rather interesting

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…is a forum to discuss holistic acting techniques, energy awareness modalities applied to acting and creative techniques, performance stress and in particular Energize! a holistic approach to acting. Discussion topics include: energy work for actors, post-performance stress, pre-performance anxiety, the actor’s higher purpose, connecting with the essence of your character, character withdrawal, post-performance blues, finding closure, life style choices for optimal performance, and finding your highest creative self…

So I took it seriously when Chaulet posted the following question on LinkedIn:

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Actors are new spiritual leaders. Nowadays people watch movies more than they go to church or listen to political or spiritual discourse… How do you prepare for this tremendous responsibility?

I happen to love the way the question is formed like a debate premise — written in the positive, designed to engender discussion. I don’t mind posting my response:

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Why must such a responsibility be assumed? This idea is really about surrendering to media empowerment, to the manufacturing of stars and faux-celebrities with or without talent, is it not?

And so began a back and forth on a subject I’d never considered quite the way Chaulet framed it. Whether one agrees with the proposition that it is the people, the fans, the moviegoers who endow actors with power, they have it. What should they do with it? For me, I believe they should do nothing with it — or at least, if they’re going to leverage their so-called power for some aim, let it serve as an expression of who they are as human beings, not because society in some manner expects them to use it. In other words, let it be the actor’s choice, not our expectation. I have more respect for someone like Paul Newman, who seized his power for the good, starting charities and generally living a decent, civil life, or someone like Sean Penn, who faithfully puts his money where his political beliefs are. I have less respect for — oy, just name them. Ashton “Million Tweet” Kutcher. You can expect a celebrity who uses phrases like “ding-dong-ditch” to actually be doing any good for the world. Go build a Habitat for Humanity house somewhere instead of bulging your cougar-inflated ego.

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There is also a deeper question here, and it’s one that Back Stage never really got into sufficiently, I think, during all my years there: Why do actors become actors? Or, better put, Why should actors become actors? Is it to entertain or is it really more for validation — that hunger for acclaim? I’m a Madonna fan from way back, but she’s the extreme form of this syndrome, even if she’s not an actor, strictly speaking. It’s not for the greater good that she sings, it’s for her own good, and we buy into it all because the songs have a great beat and we like the edginess — or what once was edginess — of her messages. Stardom is about ego and we great them the trip. That does not mean we ought to grant them the powers of a deity anymore than we already are.

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The danger in this discussion, by the way, is that it really becomes absurd after a fashion. If “actors are new spiritual leaders,” what do we make of Miley Cyrus? She is an actor. Or what of Dakota Fanning or Anne Hathaway? It seems to me that in order to have a substantive discussion on this issue, one must draw the line somewhere. Indeed, wouldn’t it make more sense to pose this question as it relates to someone like Oprah? People really do worship her. And she, I would argue, while unquestionably not without ego, has dedicated her life and work to doing something good for the world. Is she always successful? No. Is she sometimes stilted and pathetic? Yes. Overall, though, isn’t this a more apt question as it relates to Oprah than as it relates to Jennifer Love Hewitt.

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