How Far Should an Actor Go for a Role?

How Far Should an Actor Go for a Role?

Nov 28, 2012

Yesterday saw the DVD release of The Day, a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Dominic Monaghan, Shannyn Sossamon and Shawn Ashmore as part of a starving band of survivalists who end up at war with a ruthless clan that will go to any measure to live another day. One of the notable things about the film's production is that director Douglas Aarniokoski put his ensemble cast through extreme conditions relative to those experienced by the characters.

In an interview posted to Film School Rejects, he told me, "We could have built that set on a sound stage somewhere and been very comfortable and happy and have trailers and that kind of thing. But the whole idea was to all be there to experience this environment and to bond as a group to tell this story." 

And the actors I spoke to about the shoot claimed to have found the miserable conditions a benefit to their craft and the bond they shared in the end. But after publishing a second interview, I received comments of varied response to that approach to filmmaking. One person wrote, "The notion that you have to starve and freeze and abuse your actors in order for them to play cold, starving abused characters is an insult to the craft of acting and to every working actor everywhere." Another replied that "It's also the director job to bring the best performance out of an actor. If the actor can't bring the performance that is needed for the role, extreme measures must be taken."

It's no crazy idea at this point to hear about actors doing the method thing and immersing themselves into the experiences and behavior of their characters, but this is a bit different. Aarniokoski is like a method director, as it's initially his choice to shoot this way rather than one or two stars going that route on their own. To a degree, it's not that different than the directors who employ the real thing, a non-actor already living a life relative to the character he's cast as. But here they are well-known actors who've agreed to go through extreme measures. Before this, we've seen Werner Herzog do the same, only more forcibly. 

Obviously there are limits. Herzog has done some insane pushing, but he would never have an actor kill another. And likewise, as far as I know none of the characters in The Day who have a certain frowned upon diet weren't expected to live off that cuisine. Really the worst that Aarniokoski did was make Sossamon take a shower in freezing water and Ashley Bell run around in cold temperatures in her underwear, while other cast members may have been asked to lose weight. That's common. 

And none of the actors seem to have hated making the movie -- at least, they wouldn't tell someone in an interview sitting next to the producer. But surely there have been many shoots more grueling for actors than this and surely there have been actors who've taken it upon themselves to go greater distances and measures for a role. Between The Machinist and Herzog's Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale might take the cake as far as going overboard. And for it was worth to him, it was totally his prerogative. 



How far should an actor go for his role?

Here are some responses received so far via Twitter:







Join the next discussion on Twitter by following Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) and (@Moviesdotcom).


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