By: Open Book
There are actors who can completely transform themselves right before our eyes. They have the innate ability to take on physical mannerisms without constraint. Leaving audiences wondering how did they do that? Some of these actor’s have portrayed legendary figures such as, Malcolm X, Gandhi, Howard Hughes, Mark Zuckerberg, Ray Charles, John Nash, Katharine Hepburn, Muhammad Ali, Erin Brockovich, Elizabeth Windsor and George VI of Britain just to name a few.
During a recent viewing of the DVD commentary of the film Aviator. A Professor of Psychiatry and researcher at the UCLA School of Medicine, Jeffrey M. Schwartz M.D. worked with Leo DiCaprio to transform him into Howard Hughes who suffered with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or (OCD). He spoke about the rituals a person adopts at an early age and the physical manifestations that derive from performing these patterns over and over again. However, as we get older we learn how to override these ritualistic behaviors through self-directed neuroplasticity. Now this is an over simplified description to give you an idea of the psychological research happening to understand what takes place inside the brain when people take on new personas.
Creature of habit is a word often used to define people. In a recent study for a European cell phone manufacturer they found 100,000 people are more predictable than not. Although, many of the people (who participated in their study) were from different parts of the world, they all had similar travel histories. Meaning they went to work, to school than home again. For most of us it’s hard to stop certain rituals we’ve come to rely on. This is why diets are a multi billion-dollar industry! Because many people have difficulty adopting new eating habits. However Swartz discovered during treating patients with OCD by way of PET scans of the brain states,
“Mindfulness, or conscious awareness, which revolves around the central idea that the mind is an active participant in the world and that its actions have a physical effect on the workings of the brain.”
Could it be some people have the inherit ability to be more consciously aware than others? Meaning can some unlock their brain more easily than others? Through self-directed neuroplasticity people are capable of rewiring their brain. In an interview from http://www.vision.org Dr. Swartz states,
“People can learn to change how their brain responds to circumstances by focusing their attention differently. Focus of attention influences how the brain responds to phenomena, and those changes leave physical traces that you can see with brain imaging.” 
Many award-winning actors have stated the challenges of portraying a legendary figure or someone with really recognizable physical conditions (case in point, Colin Firth who portrayed George VI of Britain in The King’s Speech who had a stuttering problem). Yet, there is a fine line between impersonation and complete transformation. Meaning impersonation is an exaggerated characterization of another person. However, transformation entails understanding a person’s internal dialogue of desire, fear and motivations so the physical mannerisms are more naturally adopted and complete. For example DiCaprio had to show a progression into Howard Hughes extreme OCD problem, which believed to be exasperated by his later addiction to morphine and opiates. So it required DiCaprio to be mindfully aware so he could switch back and forth, in and out of character, in order to take direction from Martin Scorsese! Simply put, he was able to rewire his brain to become a person suffering with OCD whose condition becomes more advanced over the course of the film. Now imagine films are also shot out of sequence, so some days he played Hughes with a mild case of OCD, then the next, Hughes in the most advanced stages. This had to have taken an extreme amount of self-discipline and focus to say the least.
Another, actor that comes to mind is Robert DeNiro in the 1990 film Awakenings. He played Leonard Lowe who was awakened after decades in a catatonic state. His performance in that film got him an Oscar nomination. There are many actors who are really amazing at adopting other personas. Can you think of the most amazing transformation on film by an actor and what made them so believable?
Please join us for a discussion on this topic: Thursday, 2/24/11@7pE/12UTC