Do you ever wonder if actors encounter something twice, once on film and once in real life? If you act for a living, you pretend to experience monumental moments, drawing inspiration from whatever you can imagine, what you’ve heard or what you’ve read, but what if you actually lived that experience in real life? It would make sense then that that would give you a better perspective. This can also go the other way; an actor might first experience a traumatic event through a character in a movie and then something similar happens to them later in life, like a morbid dress rehearsal for the real thing. With all the films being made each year, there are bound to be some crossovers with real life, but that doesn’t mean they are any less surprising when they do happen.
There are several different types of these crossovers, call them divinely inspired or coincidences, but there are also intentional crossovers, moments when a scripted scenario becomes reality, either because the director wanted it that way or because something went wrong. This helps the actor’s performance because they’re reacting as opposed to acting, something that comes naturally to everyone. This event is now real, so the actor’s response is automatic and, of course, believable. If nothing else, these connections between character and actor make the line between the two a little thinner. Here are 15 actors who suffered similar trauma to their characters.
15. Injured Achilles, Brad Pitt – Troy
When Brad Pitt, while playing the hero Achilles, was filming the fight scene between him and the giant of a man, Boagrius, in Troy, something very ironic happened. As the Pitt jumps and stabs the man in the neck/shoulder, he lands and takes a couple of steps, looking down with a small look of confusion. Knowing what to look for, we can see that something is wrong, but Pitt managed to stay in character for the most part. It turns out that Pitt actually injured his Achilles tendon in that scene. Over the next few months, all of the action scenes had to be delayed while Pitt healed up. So why is this ironic? Well, the reason we call that tendon “the Achilles” is because the legendary character Achilles was killed by an arrow to the heel, his weakness and the only place he wasn’t invincible. This scene happens at the end of Troy, so Pitt got a crash course in how to act when your Achilles heel is damaged.
14. True Fear, The Cast – The Blair Witch Project
While filming The Blair Witch Project, there was little interaction between the filmmakers and the cast. They wanted the experience to be as genuine as possible and the actors were asked to just react to their surroundings. Directions were dropped off and the cast would use GPS systems to trek through the woods to their next location. All of the events that took place, the scare tactics, the brief encounters, were all done without the foreknowledge of the cast. In the end, the film crew managed to capture several genuine scares and reactions from the cast. Perhaps the best of these was when the children’s voices were heard outside of the actor’s tent. The cast members were said to be truly freaked out by this as they didn’t expect to hear anything of that sort. The fear, especially from Mike Williams, that was shown in the final cut is as real as it gets.
13. Fruit Diet Peril, Ashton Kutcher – Jobs
Apparently, when Steve Jobs was in the process of naming his company, Apple, he was also in the midst of a fruitarian diet. This diet didn’t last his entire life, but it must have been impactful enough that it inspired him to name the company after a fruit. He was also said to make strange proclamations during this time, such as “I’m a fruitarian and I will only eat leaves picked by virgins in the moonlight.” Because of this, when Ashton Kutcher took on the role of Steve Jobs in Jobs, he thought he would try the diet to get into character and, unfortunately for him, also probably felt the same pain as Jobs did when he was on it. That’s because this diet is horrible for you. Kutcher was hospitalized after trying it for some time, claiming, “my insulin levels got pretty messed up and my pancreas kind of went into some crazy, the levels were really off and it was painful. I didn’t know what was wrong.” It’s probably not related, but we should note that Jobs died of Pancreatic Cancer.
12. Strangled, Diane Kruger – Inglourious Basterds
Quentin Tarantino is a strange guy. You’re probably not learning that here. Since Tarantino doesn’t like the way that strangulation victims usually look in films, he wanted to get something more authentic for Inglourious Basterds. To accomplish this, he suggested that when Diane Kruger‘s character, Bridget von Hammersmark, is being choked out by Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) they actually do it for real. In other words, Tarantino wanted them to actually choke Kruger. To get it right and to ensure that all of the blame was on him (should something go wrong), Tarantino would do it himself instead of asking Waltz to take that burden on. So in that strangulation scene, those are Tarantino’s hands and that’s how Diane Kruger really looks when she’s being strangled.
11. True Fear, Entire Cast – Alien
When Ridley Scott was shooting Alien, he wanted to get some genuine fear shots from his cast, so he purposefully left out details from the script. The most telling of these examples is the famous chestburster scene, a scene in which even the behind-the-scenes stories have sort of taken on a life of their own. Leading up to this scene, the details about the chestburster were never divulged to the cast (except to John Hurt of course), so when that god awful thing pops out of Hurt’s chest, squealing and squirting blood all over the place, the cast had no idea what was going on. Those screams and looks of fear and disgust were all legitimate, all very real. Poor Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) nearly passed out and slipped on the blood on the floor. Tough day at the office for her.
10. Mourning Wife, Liam Neeson – Love Actually
In Love Actually, Liam Neeson‘s character loses his wife to cancer. It’s quite a sad sequence because he has such a positive outlook on the whole thing. Having a character widowed in a film isn’t the most original thing, so in 2003, when this film was made, no one thought anything of it. And why would they? But we were sadly reminded of Neeson’s former character when his real-life wife, actress Natasha Richardson, died from an epidural hematoma in 2009, following an unfortunate skiing accident. The two were married for 15 years and, even now, he speaks very little about the event publicly.
9. True Fear, The Kids – Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
For most of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, the set pieces and Gene Wilder‘s lines were kept out of the script to allow for some real reactions from his fellow cast members, especially the kids. This is how they got such great shots from the kids when Wonka first comes out of the factory limping, falling and then somersaulting, as well as when the kids first see the inside of the factory and all the candy. The best reactions, however, were achieved in the tunnel scene when Wonka goes bat-poo crazy. The kids were not told that this was going to happen and they were all terribly freaked out by it, especially Denise Nickerson who played Violet Beauregarde. Don’t worry kids. That scene freaks everyone out.
8. True Fear, Tippie Hedren – Birds
A lot has been said over the years about the filming of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, Birds, but it’s all for good reason. The actress who played Melanie Daniels, Tippie Hedren, took the role and didn’t care what it was. She was new to the industry and this was Alfred Hitchcock. She had a fear of birds, but it was something she was going to fight through. The crew told her they were going to use mechanical birds for almost all the shots, but they ended up using live birds for a huge amount of them. It wasn’t long before Hedren was really in character because the birds, who had their beaks closed shut, went crazy. The crew would throw them at her and some of them attacked her, clawing and pecking at her face, scratching and cutting her. Hedren broke down from it all and needed to take a psychological break from filming. Hitchcock got his realistic shots though, so some people were happy.
7. Real Disgust, Jason Miller – The Exorcist
Director William Friedkin did a lot of things on the set of The Exorcist that caused reality to crash in on the filming. Ellen Burstyn was really pulled down and really hurt herself in the scene that Reagan slapped her. The scream she lets out is genuine because she badly damaged her coccyx in the fall. Then there was Father Karras (Jason Miller) and his reaction to being puked on. This was a legitimate reaction from the actor because he was told that the projectile vomit was going to hit him in the chest. The rig they had set up misfired and the green nastiness sprayed all over his face. Miller later admitted that he was pretty angry about this because it was a disgusting concoction of pea soup and he was thoroughly grossed out.
6. Hanged, Michael J. Fox – Back to the Future III
To get the best possible shot in Back to the Future III, the film crew asked Michael J. Fox if he would be willing to do the hanging scene without a box underneath his feet. They tried it a few times and Fox was able to get his fingers between his throat and the rope in such a way that it looked realistic and he wouldn’t die. Well, when it came time to film the actual thing, Fox’s hand slipped and he was unable to get his hands positioned properly, leaving him to hang for real with nothing between his throat and the rope. Fox passed out and just hung there for a minute until the crew realized something was wrong. They got him down and he didn’t die, plus they got an awesomely realistic shot, so everyone wins.
5. Drug Abuse, Robert Downey Jr. – Less Than Zero
When Less Than Zero came out, Robert Downey Jr. was young and his real-life issues were not well documented. In the film, Downey Jr. plays a drug addict who goes downhill quick, something that would happen to Downey Jr. in real life not too long after. Of the experience, RDJ would say, “Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. That changed on Less Than Zero, 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.”
4. Nearly Drowned, Viggo Mortensen – Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
While the large group is traveling to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is dragged off a cliff by a warg and presumed dead. We see his body swept down the river by the current and we’re all like, man is Aragorn ever good at playing a guy drifting down the river in the current. Then we learned that the guy really did it for that scene, but it didn’t always go as smoothly as the final shot. In one of the earlier takes, Mortensen looks to float down the river harmlessly, quickly but harmlessly, until he hit a big surge of rapids. These rapids pushed him under water and kept him under water, all the while the camera is on him, or at least where he should have been. Then, off to the side, Mortensen pops up, still in character, just floating along. What a pro.
3. Real Panic, Isla Fisher – Now You See Me
When filming an underwater escape trick on the set of Now You See Me, actress Isla Fisher chose to do the stunt herself and her performance of panic is pretty believable. Turns out, that’s because she had real-life practice with the experience. The way she tells it, Fisher chose to do the stunt herself because she thought she had to: “I didn’t know I had a choice. I thought you just had to get on with it. It’s the Australian way.” The stunt was meant to be easier than it was, Fisher said; “They had a guy who was off camera, but he was a long way away with a can of oxygen. By the time I realised I couldn’t get up and beckoned for him, I realised that I had run out of air.” Talk about getting into character.
2. Actual Wax, Steve Carell – 40-Year-Old Virgin
If you’re watching The 40-Year-Old Virgin and wonder how they got the chest waxing scene to look so real, you should know the truth. It was real. The blood, the pain, the screams and the laughter were all authentic. As Steve Carell says, “That was 100% real. We set up 5 cameras because we knew it would be one take. There would be no way in going back and doing it again. So we set up a camera on the guys, one over me, one specifically on my chest, one on the waxer… and it was not scripted. We just had an idea for where it would go. We hired a woman who was an actress/waxer-er [what co-star Paul Rudd calls, a waxtress].” While it was hysterical to see, we bet Carell immediately regretted his decision. That looks painful.
1. Mourning Son, John Travolta – Face/Off
In the 1997 film Face/Off, John Travolta’s character is shot but the bullet ends up killing his young son. Travolta’s character lays over his son and cries. The death of the child creates a void in the character’s life that sticks with him for the entire film. Though this scene was overly dramatic in Face/Off, 12 years later, Travolta would be confronted with a similar loss in real life. While vacationing in the Bahamas, Travolta’s real son, Jeff (16), suffered a seizure that claimed his life. Again, these type of coincidences are bound to happen, but it doesn’t make it any less tragic when it happens to an A-Lister like Travolta.
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