We know that art imitates life and sometimes, life imitates art. This is a relationship that we, as the TV and film-obsessed public, have come to expect in some ways. We also strive to humanize characters. The more closely related a character is to the actor playing them, the more we tend to connect with the character and believe in it. Obviously, the best actors in the world are able to convince us that the character they’re playing is being truly lived at that moment. Most of the time, this is just acting. But there are moments and characters that the actor is so intimately connected with that they are basically one and the same. As you might expect, the resulting performances within these rare scenarios are often incredibly convincing.
In the early 20th century, theatre and actor trainer, Constantin Stanislavski, created the Stanislavski system, a model for how actors can conjure up character emotions through a series of thoughts and motions. This is especially effective for actors who might not relate to their characters. For many of the actors on this list, their performances, their emotions, and their grief were genuine. Since the actors had experienced something so similar to their characters, they were able to draw from memory and actual feelings. For others, this emotional relationship between actor and character went the other way. They experienced something in real life that they had acted on the screen before in the past. We will look at both of these scenarios. Here are 15 Actors Who Suffered in Similar Ways to Their Famous Characters.
15. Cynthia Nixon – James White
Cynthia Nixon is best known for her role on Sex and the City, but she was recently in the film James White playing a weirdly familiar (but opposite) role to who she is in real life. In the film, Nixon plays Gail, a woman and a mother who is dying of cancer. The story is about her son caring for her as she dies and their relationship. While Nixon herself is a cancer survivor, the role struck a chord with her because she had lost her own mother less than a year prior to cancer. For Nixon, she saw life from the other side, trying to feel what her own mother must have felt just nine months before they made the film.
14. Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
Back in 2008, Mark Ruffalo‘s brother died in a strange and still somewhat unsolved way. He was brought to a hospital with a gunshot wound on his head of which he would later die from. The deceased was said to be playing Russian Roulette when it happened but that has not been confirmed. Other reports say that he was murdered execution style by his friends. Ruffalo, greatly affected by his brother’s death, has chosen roles in the past because the characters remind him of his brother, such as the one in The Kids Are Alright. But we’re more interested in Foxcatcher, which again puts the actor in a role reminiscent of his brother. In Foxcatcher, Ruffalo plays a brother who is murdered somewhat randomly, in a way such as mirroring what happened to Ruffalo’s own brother.
13. Oscar Isaac – The Promise
Not long before Oscar Isaac took on a new role in the film The Promise, his mother was in the hospital dying as the actor watched on. Her death, when it came, hit him incredibly hard. “I know it happens to everybody, but it’d never happened to me,” he said. “I know people’s mothers have died, but this was mine.” His first film role upon his return to acting was in The Promise, a role in which he plays a recently-widowed husband. Obviously, the relationship with the deceased is different in these scenarios, but the grief was similar. “I was very nervous about it,” Isaac said. “Because I was like: ‘I don’t know if I can get it up for anybody.’ You know? Or if I want to, and it ended up being so necessary in… the mirroring my own life. It’s very dark and yet I found joy in it.”
12. Oprah Winfrey – Beloved
While it may not have been Oprah Winfrey who acted out the r*pe scene in Beloved, it was she who had to play the woman living with that fact afterward. She also had to play a woman who lost a child, even if it was by her own hand. This came very close to Oprah’s own life and past. She too was r*ped as a young girl. In fact, Oprah was abused for much of her childhood and teenage years. She became pregnant at the age of 14 and hid it from her family until the baby was born. The child died in the hospital a few weeks after birth. She knows well the feelings that her character, Sethe, has in Beloved and her performance was moving because of it.
11. Dave Bautista – Guardians Of The Galaxy
Even though Dave Bautista didn’t lose his family to a slaughter as Drax did in Guardians of the Galaxy, he has said on a number of occasions that he relates to the character because they’ve both seen so much. When speaking about the connection, Bautista said, “I can just relate to Drax so much it’s not even funny. Just the simple things that we have in common. Simple things like the tattoos, the tragedy – because you know, I had a bit of tragedy in my life as well. So it’s really easy for me to pull from that.” The tragedy Bautista speaks of is probably referencing his extraordinary childhood in which he ran with gangs at a young age and saw extreme violence regularly. He has said that before the age of nine, there had been three murders committed in front of his house. He recalls playing with his friends as a small child while a body lie dead in the alley next to them, the kids completely unfazed by it.
10. John Travolta – Face/Off
John Travolta is one of those unfortunate cases who experienced a similar loss as one of his characters after playing the role. Back in 1997, Travolta played a man whose son died tragically in Face/Off. In the film, the son dies from a bullet. In real life, Travolta’s 16-year-old son died of complications following a seizure. The family was vacationing in the Bahamas when the death occurred, and there is speculation that the boy, Jett, hit his head while having a seizure which was a major contributing factor. Now, you could say that these two events are in no way relevant to each other, but it’s tough to watch Face/Off now knowing that poor Travolta would encounter a similar grief later on in real life.
9. Gabrielle Union – Birth Of A Nation
When Gabrielle Union was only 19 years old, she was assaulted at gunpoint while working at a Payless Shoe store. Later, when she had become a star and was having roles thrown at her from every direction, she always chose them carefully, sidestepping anything that came too close to reality. That all changed when she was offered a starring role in Birth of a Nation. In that film, Union’s character is assaulted as she was in real life. Now, in the film, this assault is only implied, but the emotional state that the character must get to afterward is similar to what Union experienced in real life. This role struck a chord with Union, so she took it. “Many times I’ve been offered roles where my character gets raped, and I’ve always said no,” she said. “I’ve been through too much therapy. I never wanted to go there. It never felt worth it to go there. This role felt worth it and way too important.”
8. Liam Neeson – The Grey
Liam Neeson, the person, does not share the exact same situation with the character he plays in The Grey, but there is a notable connection. While The Grey suffered a bit from its misleading marketing, it is a powerful film about survival and loss. In one emotional scene, Neeson’s character writes a letter to his wife, saying goodbye. For this scene, the director, Joe Carnahan, suggested to Neeson that he write the letter to his late wife, Richardson, to make it as honest as possible. Richardson died after a skiing accident and Neeson has spoken about how devastated her death left him. The letter, in essence, is him letting go of his wife, so it’s especially impactful when related to Neeson’s actual life. Of the performance, Carnahan said, “There’s a letter that Ottway’s writing to his wife, and I said, ‘Write it to Natasha.’ I wanted it to come from an innermost place… I think it’s one of Liam’s finest performances. It might honestly be his best.”
7. Vin Diesel – The Last Witch Hunter
The Last Witch Hunter is not a very good movie, but Vin Diesel is effective in the role. When he was preparing for this film, he was also dealing with death of one of his best friends, Paul Walker. The character he portrays in the film, Kaulder, is a witch hunter cursed with immortality, forced to watch his friends die while he continues on. Diesel has suggested that getting into character and working towards a resolution in the character’s story helped him deal with his own personal struggles of coming to terms with the death of Walker. He said, “Going into the character of Kaulder was somewhat therapeutic because at the core of this franchise is the concept of death and immortality. I was dealing with that in my own life so when you see the movie you’ll, I guess, be able to pick up. You’ll see why it was so appropriate to do last year.”
6. AnnaLynne McCord – 90210
The continuation of Beverly Hills, 90210, might have been a bit over-the-top, but it did have its moments and highlights. One of the better performances in 90210 was delivered by AnnaLynne McCord, who played Naomi Clark on the show. At one point, McCord’s character is raped by her teacher and has to live with the consequences and impact of that experience. For McCord, this character study helped her process her own real-life rape. “I thought I was fine and continued living, if you want to call it living – I became very dark, suicidal, [I was] self-harming, cutting up my arms,” she said. But after “months and months” of filming this character, McCord said that she was able to come to terms with her own past in a way she doesn’t think would have been possible without the character.
5. Will Smith – Collateral Beauty
Even though Will Smith‘s character in the awfully contrived film, Collateral Beauty, was grieving and trying to cope with the death of his daughter, there was a mirroring going on in the actor’s personal life. Three weeks after taking the role, Smith’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Smith has said that the role was therapeutic in many ways and has allowed him to open up to his father and grasp his eventual death. “Having to face my father’s mortality and impending death while I was preparing for this role gave us a really wonderful interaction during that time,” Smith said. “We were able to have conversations that I never would have been mature enough or open enough to have, and we confronted death head-on. So it was a beautiful way to prepare for a movie and an even more majestic way to say goodbye to my father.”
4. Chris Cooper – Demolition
The film Demolition stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Davis Mitchell, a man dealing with the death of his wife. Mitchell’s father-in-law in the film, the deceased’s father, is played by Chris Cooper. When preparing for the role, Cooper drew from his own experiences as a mourning father, recalling the emotions he felt when he lost his only son, Jesse, in real life. When speaking about the role and its connection to his own life, Copper said, “Professionally speaking, I’ve kept a respectable distance from having lost my son. I thought that after 10 or 11 years this was something I could at last deal with.” Cooper’s performance is one of the high points in the film, seemingly benefiting from the lived experiences and real emotions conjured up by the situation.
3. Mark Rylance – Wolf Hall
Mark Rylance might be one of the most underrated actors in the industry, at least underrated by the average film fan. This man is one of the living greats, and his work in the Wolf Hall miniseries displays his abilities as well as any other project. Playing Cromwell, a man suffering over the death of his daughters, Rylance was near perfect. Sadly, Rylance had to play that role in real life only a few years ago when he lost one of his stepdaughters, Nataasha van Kampen, who died tragically and unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 28. Rylance was supposed to perform a reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest during the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, but he was forced to withdraw after his daughter’s death.
2. Lily James – Cinderella
Although she had done some quality work prior to Downton Abbey, Lily James rose to major fame following her role on that show. She then landed the coveted role of Cinderella in the live-action remake of Cinderella. James, who initially went out and auditioned for one of the stepsister roles, found it especially difficult to film the father-daughter scenes because, like Cinderella, James lost her own father in 2008. She said that she found early on in the rehearsing that she was going to be tapping into her own personal emotions, “I was rehearsing a father-daughter scene with Ben Chaplin that was really dark and painful. I broke down. Ken gave me notes with tears in his eyes — he really wanted us to find the truth in the story.”
1. Lewis MacDougall – A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls is a beautiful little move about a child coping with his mother’s terminal illness. The actor, Lewis MacDougall, was just 14 years old while making the film and, sadly, had a similar experience to draw from. “Three years ago, my own mother passed away from multiple sclerosis,” he said when speaking of the role. “That helped me connect and understand and empathize what [my character] Conor was going through, although the two circumstances were different, and that helped me portray him correctly.” MacDougall puts forward a really moving performance in the film, and it makes all the more emotional knowing that it was so personal for him.
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