It’s easy to look at the red carpets, the awards, the celebrity friendships and million-dollar paychecks and assume that being an actor is one of the cushiest jobs around – as long as you can make it big. With stunt doubles and special effects teams on hand to keep everything safe, and the director and audience asking you to just pretend for a few weeks, what job could be easier, right? Well, that’s not the whole story. Sometimes, the actors who truly make a name for themselves have to risk more than most people to get there. If you value your health, your safety, or your sanity, then no amount of money is going to make it worth the risk.
We’re focusing in on the less glamorous side of the film industry in our latest Docu Series: Why Acting Is An Insanely Dangerous Job.
Risking Your Neck
Sure, actors may just have to pretend to be daring adventurers, soldiers, or fictional heroes, but they’re specifically being asked to pretend they’re doing the most daring, risky things those characters have ever done in their lives. And even though there are stunt doubles ready to handle the major jobs, even small scenes can put stars in harm’s way. The world of Star Wars may be fueled by CG, but when sets are constructed from scratch, accidents happen – like when a hydraulic door closed on Harrison Ford while filming The Force Awakens. As if it wasn’t bad enough, director J.J. Abrams learned his lesson coming to Ford’s rescue – injuring his back trying to raise the door.
The stories of Hollywood injuries on set are delivered every day, from Brad Pitt actually tearing his Achilles heel while playing Achilles, or Michael J. Fox really selling being hanged in Back to the Future 3… by actually being choked. But sometimes, the injuries can be a bit more serious. Charlize Theron has made a name for herself as a star who can throw some punches, but when a backflip while filming Aeon (“Eon”) Flux almost paralyzed her, she promised then and there that she would never do anything dangerous enough for a stunt double to be called in – a decision that worked in her favor for Mad Max: Fury Road.
Risking Your Life
Sprained ankles and cracked ribs are one thing, but it seems like acting is a deadlier profession than most realize – or, at least, it can be. It’s hard to believe that even action star Jason Statham could have kept his cool when filming Expendables 3, driving a truck with fault brakes off a pier, crashing into the water and sinking instantly. He could have drowned, but at least it would have been quick, which is more than you can say for some other A-list actors who have come close to death.
Statham’s Expendables co-star Sylvester Stallone learned that fiction and fact can blur together when filming fight scenes with Dolph Lundgren for Rocky 4. Asking the actor not to hold back, Lundgren delivered a shot straight to Stallone’s chest. He knew something was wrong immediately, and rushed to the hospital to learn his heart had started to swell from the blow. It could have proven fatal, but weeks of bed rest kept the slugger in the fight. So much for movie magic.
Still, it’s probably George Clooney who puts the idea that acting is easy to bed. While other leading men risk their lives in stunts, like Tom Cruise dangling from the real Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Mission Impossible, Clooney had his brush with death after filming the 2005 drama Syriana. After seriously injuring his back during an interrogation scene, weeks of headaches followed – including a serious panic when spinal fluid began leaking from his nose. Clooney has admitted that in the weeks spent in a hospital bed unable to move, and crippled by headaches, he seriously considered taking his own life. So playing pretend isn’t always fun and games.
Risking Your Health
The stories of actors dropping weight, or gaining muscle for a role are well-known by all movie fans, but it’s still hard to believe the limits that some actors pushed their bodies to in preparation for a role. Robert De Niro set a high bar with Raging Bull, training to become a completely real boxer to play Jake LaMotta – before gaining 60 POUNDS to play him in his later years. That’s a number beaten by one famous method actor, Jared Leto, who gained a whopping 67 pounds to play John Lennon’s killer in Chapter 27. He put on the pounds by sticking to a diet of microwaved ice cream mixed with olive oil, among other foods, and developed gout in the process, saying he’ll never again put his body through the trauma.
It’s not all about weight loss, of course, but the extra measures taken to deliver the best performance – sacrificing your health to do it (and hoping that the audience will even notice the difference). Ashton Kutcher learned that copying Apple founder Steve Jobs’ all-fruit diet was a bad way to get into character, when he wound up hospitalized just days before filming was set to begin. On the superhero side of things, Hugh Jackman has turned heads and stunned audiences with his ripped physique as the X-Man Wolverine, but even that’s not all workouts and dieting. To get the shredded, veiny look he wanted, Jackman had to go days without water to thin out his skin, suffering through crippling headaches as a result. Was it really worth it?
On the far end of the spectrum of actors putting their health at risk for method acting is, as always, Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. Staying in character may be better for the movie, but when Lewis refused a winter coat in Gangs of New York, he was struck with pneumonia. When playing a man suffering from Cerebral Palsy in My Left Foot, he stayed hunched over throughout the entire production, even having crew members feed him so as not to break character. What he did break, was two ribs, from the unnatural posture. It won him an Oscar, though, so it might have been worth it.
Risking Your Sanity
Putting your body on the line for a role is one thing, or even refusing to break out of a character since getting into the mindspace of the role is seriously taxing. But what happens when an actor or actress starts to literally lose themselves in the role they’re playing?
Ask Anne Hathaway, who went even farther than the director asked for her descent into poverty in Les Miserables, cutting off her hair, losing weight, and delivering an Oscar-winning performance in the process. But she admitted that the character was such a broken, desperate soul, it took her weeks after filming to break herself out the same mental troubles, and start to feel like a normal person. Yikes.
Taking things even farther, Adrien Brody knew that his role in The Pianist could be a break out one – and committed to walking in the footsteps of a Holocaust survivor the best way he could. Leaving behind, his belongings, his home, and even his girlfriend, and headed to Europe with a bag and a keyboard. It’s hard to say if it was his acting chops, or this method research that won him his Oscar, but for his sake, we hope it was all totally necessary.
Shia LaBeouf became more famous than most young actors for his weird commitment to a role, and the World War 2-era Fury showcased the fact that he really is one of a kind. When the makeup team’s work at applying a cut to his cheek didn’t seem real enough, his co-stars say, he simply grabbed a knife, and cut his cheek open – making sure to re-open the cut throughout the shoot, and giving himself a scar for life. To go with the tooth he had pulled as evidence of his time in the war (which is never mentioned, and hardly ever seen on screen). At that point, the fact that he decided not to bathe for over a month was probably the least of his co-stars’ concerns.
And as proof that the most psychotic, unbalanced villains can’t help but bring something weird to the lives of those playing them, both Jared Leto and the late Heath Ledger seemed to truly lose themselves in the role of The Joker, Batman’s nemesis. For Ledger, it meant secluding himself in a London hotel room for over a month, exploring the insanity of the character, finding his voice and laughter. The reports of his drug use and mental conditions are almost impossible to decipher by now, but the fact that such a dark, twisted role was his last will always be the fact of the matter.
Maybe it’s lucky, then, that Leto has some co-workers to let his crazy loose on, in the form of bullets, live rats, dead pigs, and apparently even used condoms to his Suicide Squad castmates. You can’t say that he isn’t embracing the role of the Joker wholeheartedly, but even if he walks away unscathed, it looks like this is one time where it’s actually more dangerous to be working with him, not as him. Seriously, what are the odds of someone delivering a dead pig full of bullets to your office? We rest our case.