This Time, It’s Personal: When Actors Dig Deep

October 23, 2019
When actors dig deep into their own lives for inspiration, the on-screen results can be staggering…

The best kind of performance is the one that feels as if it has been ripped from the actor’s very soul. The true alchemy that can light up between actor and role – where everything just feels so perfect – is truly something to behold, as the twelve examples here so richly attest. These stunning performances all find the actor directly mining their own life experiences to create from the ground up a screen character that feels like it’s constructed from honest-to-god flesh and blood, rather than just movie contrivance.

MARLON BRANDO IN LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972) When Marlon Brando signed on to star for late Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci in the sexually charged drama Last Tango In Paris, the influential actor was riding high. His bravura, Oscar winning performance in The Godfather had restored him to the position of exalted star after a number of years in the cinematic wilderness thanks to his reputation for being “difficult.” Though he had always been vocal when it came to political and social issues (particularly in the areas of civil rights for Native Americans), Brando was usually guarded when it came to his private life, which was what ultimately made Last Tango In Paris such a powerful gut-punch of an experience. The story of Paul, an ageing American (Brando), and a young, beautiful woman (Maria Schneider) who engage in a hot, sordid – but initially anonymous – affair in the eponymous city sparked outrage for its volcanic sex scenes (and stoked even more controversy in 2007 when Maria Scheider spoke about her mistreatment on set from both Bertolucci and Brando), but was more remarkable for its iconic leading man’s voluntary emotional nakedness. “Bernardo wanted me to play myself,” Brando says in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, “to improvise completely, and to play Paul as if he was an autobiographical mirror of me. He had me write virtually all my scenes and dialogue. I made up the dialogue from my memories of events, though not everything was accurate, and they didn’t necessarily happen in the sequence that I told them.” The result is one of the actor’s most wrenching and utterly believable performances, with Brando laying bare intimate, moving and occasionally disturbing details of his unhappy childhood and fractured family relationships. For Marlon Brando, however, it was the first and last time that he would excavate his own psyche so ruthlessly for a film role. “I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie,” the actor says with quiet finality in his autobiography.

DUSTIN HOFFMAN IN KRAMER VS. KRAMER (2004) When producer Stanley Jaffe and writer/director Robert Benton were putting together the 1979 film adaptation of Avery Corman’s popular novel, Kramer Vs. Kramer – the complex story of a high flyer who is forced to become a true father to his young son when his wife walks out on them – there was only one actor that they wanted for the lead role: Dustin Hoffman. There was, however, a major problem. Like Ted Kramer, the film’s central protagonist, Hoffman was going through a painful divorce. The separation from his first wife, Anne Byrne, was tearing Hoffman apart, and he was in such emotional turmoil that he was considering retiring from acting. When the actor finally read Benton’s script for Kramer Vs. Kramer, he candidly told the director that it came nowhere close to capturing the pain of what he was feeling in his own divorce. Benton responded like few other filmmakers would – he invited Hoffman into the writing and creative process, and involved him in nearly every aspect of the making of the film. Encouraging improvisation, Benton prodded Hoffman to dig into his own recent history to such an extent that Kramer Vs. Kramer rings with an almost unmatched sense of emotional authenticity. “Dustin would be playing himself, which is incredibly hard,” Benton says in the documentary, Finding The Truth. “That requires an extraordinary sense of self-observation, and there are not many actors that have the range and the discipline to play themselves. It sounds simple, but it’s the hardest thing that an actor can do.” Though not retelling the specifics of his own divorce, Hoffman says that his aim was to convey “the truth of it”, which resulted in one of his most affecting and least mannered performances. “It was the first time that I’d made a movie where I was living through what I was acting,” Hoffman says in Finding The Truth.

JANE FONDA IN ON GOLDEN POND (1981) “My father was dying, and I wanted to do a movie with him. I saw the play, and I thought, ‘Well, this is the one.’” There can hardly be a more personal reason for making a film than the one that drove actress Jane Fonda to get the ball rolling on the 1981 big screen adaptation of Ernest Thompson’s stage play, On Golden Pond. The story of a strong willed, sensitive woman who finally connects emotionally with her distant, seemingly unfeeling father, the movie quickly became a mirror of the deeply troubled relationship that Jane shared with her father, Henry Fonda, a monolithic legend of The Golden Age Of Hollywood, and a man worlds away from his daughter’s singular brand of provocative rebellion. While Jane was all frenetic energy, Henry was chipped-from-stone stoicism. “Bringing feelings to my dad was like bringing a dead animal and laying it at his feet, like my cat would do to me with mice and gophers,” Jane said of their relationship to The Guardian. “It would elicit a look like, ‘What do you want me to do about it?’ He just didn’t do it.” It was in one of On Golden Pond’s central scenes that father and daughter used the film itself to heal their emotional rift. When Fonda’s character tells her father that she wants them to be friends after years of low-wattage animus, Henry Fonda welled up with tears, and a line of communication was subsequently opened up between the pair. “These are things that I couldn’t say to my father,” Jane said on Inside The Actors Studio. “We didn’t even speak like that. It meant the world to me.” In the case of On Golden Pond, the personal also proved popular: the film was a surprise smash, and took home three Oscars.

MICKEY ROURKE IN THE WRESTLER (2008) When Mickey Rourke accepted the leading role in Darren Aronofsky’s deeply felt drama, The Wrestler, the once lauded actor was close to washed up in Hollywood, only able to secure roles in trashy straight-to-DVD flicks and supporting parts in the films of in-the-know filmmakers who remembered how great he once was. A monumental screw-up thanks to his own self destructive urges (most notably exercised through his much publicised return to boxing, a sport that he had excelled in before becoming a star), Rourke was on the trash heap after continually fighting with his directors and antagonising everyone from journalists and fellow actors to studio executives and producers. Randy “The Ram” Robinson, his character in The Wrestler – a once great superstar wrestler now reduced to fighting fellow has-beens and no-name up-and-comers in bottom-feeding suburban competitions – bore more than a few similarities to the actor, which was wholly and totally intentional, with director Aronofsky developing the role specifically for Mickey Rourke. It was a tough ask for the actor. “A lot of the things that Mickey had a hard time with were because he could relate so much to The Ram,” Aronofsky told FilmInk. The director actively involved Rourke in the creation of the character, even encouraging him to write his own dialogue for a climactic scene where The Ram addresses an adoring crowd at his big comeback match. “When you live hard and you play hard and burn the candle at both ends…in this life, you can lose everything you love, everything that loves you. A lot of people told me that I’d never wrestle again, they said, ‘He’s washed up’, ‘He’s finished’, ‘He’s a loser’, ‘He’s all through.’ You know what? The only ones gonna tell me when I’m through doing my thing, is you people here.” In a stunning display of actor/character alchemy, Mickey Rourke could have been talking about himself.

HAING S. NGOR IN THE KILLING FIELDS (1984) When telling the story of American journalist Sidney Schanberg – who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the civil war in Cambodia which would ultimately see the rise to power of the brutal communist regime, The Khmer Rouge – in his debut film, The Killing Fields, director Roland Joffe knew that the title role was not actually the film’s toughest to cast. With the superb Sam Waterston in place to play the noble and determined Schanberg, Joffe took the risky step of casting unprofessional actor Haing S. Ngor in the role of Dith Pran, the Cambodian local who worked as the journalist’s guide and ultimately became his friend. In a tragic turn, Pran couldn’t flee Cambodia with Schanberg, and was imprisoned and tortured by The Khmer Rouge, before ultimately being reunited with his journalist friend many years later after experiencing an almost unfathomable level of physical and mental suffering. Like Dith Pran, Haing S. Nor – a surgeon and gynecologist – had also been imprisoned and tortured by The Khmer Rouge. After the vicious regime’s fall in 1979, Ngor worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand, and eventually left for the US in 1980. Though playing Dith Pran would open old wounds for Ngor, he knew that the powerfully personal role had a higher purpose. “I wanted to show the world how many people died under the communist regime,” he told People. “My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.” Ngor won an Oscar for his wrenching performance in The Killing Fields, and featured in many films and television series before being tragically murdered in 1996. Upon Ngor’s sad and untimely passing (there is still conjecture over whether his killing was politically motivated), Dith Pran was a shattered man. “He is like a twin with me,” he told CNN. “He is like a co-messenger, and right now, I am alone.”

MARLEE MATLIN IN CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (1986) Now a highly accomplished actress (with roles in films such as It’s My Party and Hear No Evil, and television series like The L Word and My Name Is Earl), author and lobbyist, Marlee Matlin first blazed onto the big screen over thirty years ago in Children Of A Lesser God. Directed by Randa Haines, and based on a stage play by Mark Medoff, the film – about an angry, self-possessed young deaf woman – could have almost been about Matlin herself. Deaf from the age of two due to a genetically malformed cochlea, Matlin made her stage debut at the age of eight, as Dorothy in a children’s theatre version of The Wizard Of Oz, and continued to appear on stage throughout her childhood. “I have always resisted putting limitations on myself, both professionally and personally,” says Matlin, who studied criminal justice while continuing her pursuit of acting. She played the role of the fiery, aggressive Sarah Norman in the stage play of Children Of A Lesser God, and was astutely brought on board for the film version. “I like being free and doing what I want,” Matlin told The New York Daily News. “I used to be a very angry deaf person, like Sarah in Children Of A Lesser God…I even wrote a letter to President Ford asking why he didn’t have closed captions for his TV speeches. He didn’t answer.” As well as art imitating life, Marlee also experienced the opposite when she became romantically involved with her co-star, William Hurt, who ironically presented the then 21-year-old with the Best Actress Oscar for her performance, making her the youngest actress to win the gong, as well as the first deaf performer. Like their on-screen characters, Matlin and Hurt shared a violent, tempestuous affair – just another element of Children Of A Lesser God’s blistering merger of fact and fiction.

JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME IN JCVD (2008) In the eighties and nineties, Belgian-born martial arts trailblazer Jean Claude Van Damme was a legitimate superstar, toplining US action extravaganzas and even buying into the glittery restaurant chain Planet Hollywood alongside equally cashed-up icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. By the new millennium, however, Van Damme’s advancing years, reported drug abuse, and increasingly erratic behaviour had derailed his career completely, with most of the star’s films now going direct-to-DVD. In 2008, however, exciting young filmmaker Mabrouk El Mechri pushed the actor to never-before-seen levels of emotional disclosure in the self-reflexive drama, JCVD, in which Van Damme played a burn out, disillusioned version of himself, who hits a life-shift when he’s caught in the middle of a hostage crisis while going about his daily business. Battered, bruised and forlorn, he paints a haunting picture of broken dreams and shattered promises. In one mesmerising, surreal and obviously improvised scene, Van Damme indulges in something close to primal scream therapy, bravely excoriating himself for the mistakes that he’s made and the people that he’s hurt during his rise and fall. It’s nothing short of extraordinary, and forms the flinty centrepiece of a brave, unusual film that never lets its cheekiness outshine its humanity. “I told him that he could be a tremendous actor if he would let go,” El Mechri told FilmInk. “He wasn’t able to do that for so many years because he wanted to control everything, which is what happens to stars like him. The only condition I gave Jean-Claude was, ‘If you’re going to try and control the film, I’ll walk out. I want to do something special with you.’ He gave me his word, and pretty much stood by it all the way.” For Van Damme, the experience was a richly cathartic one. “That movie was my best therapy ever,” he laughed to Coming Soon.

JAMES CAVIEZEL IN THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) “To prepare for this role, I went into my backyard swimming pool and practiced walking on water,” actor James Caviezel joked while doing press for The Passion Of The Christ on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Though obviously injecting much needed levity into the firestorm of controversy that whipped up around director Mel Gibson’s blood soaked interpretation of the final days of Jesus Christ, the role was a deeply personal one for the actor. While not drawing on his own life experiences to shape his performance as the only son of The Big Guy Upstairs (though he did jest with Gibson upon accepting the part that “it is eerie. My initials are J.C. and I am 33-years-old”), Caviezel had a different bedrock upon which to lay its foundations: his own faith. A devout Catholic, the actor (whose finest moment prior to Gibson’s feverish religious mini-epic was as the Christ-like Private Witt in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line) drew upon his own strict belief system to dredge up a performance of soulful brilliance. Ironically, it nearly killed him. As well as separating his shoulder during the intensely physical shoot, Caviezel also received a thirteen-inch gash in his back through a mishap while filming the horrendous scourging scene. Most alarmingly, the actor was also struck by lightning (along with assistant director Jan Michelini) during filming of the climactic crucifixion scene. “I felt the electricity in my head,” Caviezel has said. “It didn’t hit my heart.” Though he went through his own mini-Passion Play, The Passion Of The Christ represented a different kind of personal film for the actor. “None of us did it for money; this was all for love,” Caviezel has said. “I took nothing for it, Mel took nothing for it; everyone donated their own time – they did it for love.”

MARIO VAN PEEBLES IN BAADASSSSS (2003) For Mario Van Peebles, filmmaking is in the genes. Both an accomplished actor (Heartbreak Ridge, Ali) and filmmaker (he helped kick-start a resurgence in black film with the hit thriller, New Jack City), he follows in the footsteps of his father, Melvin Van Peebles, an author, intellectual, screenwriter and director. And just as New Jack City forced a shift in film culture in 1991, Melvin’s seminal 1971 film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song, lit a fire under the movie industry that has burnt and sizzled ever since. The film was not only one of the first to be written and directed by a black filmmaker with a black actor in the lead role, but it also set the blueprint for independent American filmmaking. The film – about a lone black man’s struggle against the white power structure – was made with a multiracial crew totally outside of union guidelines, and with money begged and borrowed. To get it done, Melvin Van Peebles worked like a man possessed, nearly losing his eyesight and almost alienating himself completely from his family and friends. In 2003, Mario Van Peebles got up close and personal with his own life and history when he wrote and directed Baadasssss, in which he plays his own father during the making of the film that almost ruined him. “He didn’t want me to make a watered down Hollywood version at all, and I didn’t,” Van Peebles told FilmInk. “The studios wanted me to make him more likeable, and they wanted the film to be less sexy, and less political. But his life was political and sexy, and he had those ups and downs. It was a classic David versus Goliath story like Rocky was. It was one man driven by what would seem to be an impossible dream, and willing to go up against impossible odds. That was the fun of it.”

ROBERT DOWNEY JR. IN LESS THAN ZERO (1987) “I’m not a poster boy for good behaviour and recovery in Hollywood,” Robert Downey Jr. said in 2008. “I’m just a guy who knows that he has a lot to be grateful for.” With his place in the Hollywood firmament now rock solid thanks to his entertainingly flip but deeply soulful performances as unconventional superhero Tony Stark aka Iron Man in The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr.’s blurred and bleary days as a hardcore Hollywood anti-success story are now almost long forgotten. Though confident, funny and in control today, the actor was once held tightly in the grip of drug addiction, bouncing in and out of rehab, and even landing in court and prison when he couldn’t control his baser instincts. “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth, and my finger’s on the trigger,” he admitted at a 1999 court hearing, “and I like the taste of the gunmetal.” The movie that prodded Downey Jr. toward his downward drug-induced spiral was the 1987 drama, Less Than Zero, in which the actor played poor little rich boy, Julian, who dabbles in drugs on his wealthy parents’ dime, and careens out of control to his slightly more composed friends’ dismay. “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends,” Downey Jr. told The Guardian. “Maybe I’d turn up hungover on the set, but no more so than the stuntman. That changed on Less Than Zero. I was playing this junkie-faggot guy and, for me, the role was like The Ghost Of Christmas Future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character. That lasted far longer than it needed to last.” For Robert Downey Jr., getting personal on Less Than Zero nearly proved to be fatal.

MARK WAHLBERG IN THE FIGHTER (2010) “This became my baby, and I spent four-and-a-half years trying to get this movie made.” With the caustically funny but wholly absorbing drama The Fighter, producer/star Mark Wahlberg took on a highly personal role, but at a slightly safe distance. The film tells the true story of “Irish” Micky Ward, a street-smart Boston boxer who became a champion with the help of his older brother, Dickie Eklund, a crack addict and fellow fighter who had once knocked living legend Sugar Ray Leonard on his butt in a closely contested bout. Though the true story of another man, The Fighter has so many parallels with Wahlberg’s own life – and he had such an unbreakable connection to the material – that he could very well have been telling his own life story. Both Wahlberg and Ward grew up in rough-and-tumble Boston neighbourhoods; they both have eight siblings; and both men were initially outplayed by a famous older brother who was “the apple of his mother’s eye,” says Wahlberg. As Micky Ward dealt with the shadow cast by his local hero brother, Dickie, Mark Wahlberg watched as his older sibling, Donnie, found fame with the chart topping boy band, New Kids On The Block. Furthering the similarity was the fact that both Ward and Wahlberg would eventually eclipse their famous siblings in the fame and credibility stakes. During the long process of getting The Fighter made, Wahlberg even moved Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund into his own home so he could study their relationship, and ended up becoming close friends with both men and swearing to them that he would get their story up on screen. “I always hope that there is something that I can personally connect to or identify with, and then I just go and try to make it as real as possible,” Wahlberg told Collider. Mission accomplished.

MICHAEL CAINE IN HARRY BROWN (2009) Though famous for his perfectly timed performances in the likes of Alfie, Get Carter, The Italian Job and Hannah And Her Sisters, British icon Michael Caine’s most personal role wouldn’t come until 2009 with the bleak drama, Harry Brown, in which he played the titular anti-hero, an ex-soldier and widower living out his old age in an England that he doesn’t recognise anymore. It’s a grim, grey-clouded world where youth gangs roam the streets, crime is rife, and things like respect and honour no longer exist. When Harry’s only friend, Leonard (David Bradley), is murdered by local thugs, the anguish-wracked pensioner turns unlikely avenging angel, buying a gun and using the skills that he learned as a soldier in violence-ravaged Northern Ireland to bring his own brand of justice to England’s amoral criminal underclass. “For this role, my life experience was almost set up for it,” Michael Caine has said of the role. “I come from the slums, I come from a hard background, and I was a soldier. And I was a soldier in a war that was a little bit different [Caine served in Korea], so I know what I am talking about, more than most people do. With this script, it was as though someone had been reading my thoughts.” Harry Brown was shot on the now completely shattered streets where Caine grew up, which punched home the film’s personal connections to the actor even more. “It was a gentler time when I was young,” Caine has said. “There were vicious gangsters, but they were professional gangsters. The drug addicts today have to kill anybody – it doesn’t matter who – to get the money, so you get this incredible random violence. When I was young, it wasn’t so vicious. We fought with our fists. Now they fight with knives and guns.”

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