Is acting hazardous? On the risks of immersing oneself in a role.

It's easy to imagine why people link Heath Ledger's death to his treacherous penultimate role.

  • In 2008, actor Heath Ledger accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills and died, aged 28.
  • One myth that attached itself to Ledger's death was that it was somehow a result of immersing himself in the character of the Joker.
  • New research suggest that fully immersed actors "forget themselves" in the sense that they actively ignore facts about who they are, temporarily subordinating their own thoughts and feelings to those of their character.

In 2009, Heath Ledger posthumously received an Academy Award for his performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's film The Dark Knight (2008). To say that Ledger earned the recognition of his peers is to vastly understate his accomplishment.

Ledger's unflinching and disquieting performance as an anarchic sociopath – ostensibly, he played a comic-book villain, but his performance far transcended the source material — earned near-universal praise from critics and audiences alike. By the time filming wrapped up, Ledger had completed his professional transition from ingénu to serious actor. As his final director, Terry Gilliam, remarked: "I think we all thought that this was somebody, without a doubt, who was going to be the greatest actor of his generation."

During post-production, Ledger, who reportedly suffered from insomnia, accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills and died, aged 28.

In the wake of Ledger's untimely death, his performance — and the events leading up to it — were voyeuristically scrutinized. His dedication to the craft of acting was well-known, as were rumors of his ill-health during filming. He prepared obsessively for the role of the Joker, isolating himself from public life to "galvanize" the character in his own mind. And he said that his work took its toll on his sleep. So perhaps it's unsurprising that his performance was mythologized and his cause of death psychologized. To put it cynically: people like a good tragedy.

One particular myth that attached itself to Ledger was that his death was somehow a result of immersing himself in the character of the Joker. The idea is that Ledger's battle with insomnia was rooted in some sort of existential angst – an angst borne of 'becoming' an abhorrent character. Film critics stoked various versions of this narrative. David Denby of The New Yorker wrote: 'As you're watching [Ledger], you can't help wondering … how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.' Christopher Orr of The New Republic added: 'Even without Ledger's death, this would be a deeply discomfiting performance; as it is, it's hard not to view it as sign or symptom of the subsequent tragedy.' And, on the day of Ledger's death, The New Yorker's Richard Brody mused: 'As we remember Ledger, it's worth recalling the agonies that actors, from amateurs to stars, have to pull from their guts.'

Comments like these seriously misconstrue the nature of character immersion — a misunderstanding that begins with the idea that actors "lose themselves" in character or "forget" who they are. Supposedly, this is especially true of method actors, who are trained to become at 'one' with their role.

There's a grain of truth to this talk, but merely a grain. To see why, consider a theoretical model developed by cognitive scientists Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich designed to help make sense of the act of pretending. Nichols and Stich invite us to think of our minds as collections of boxes. Each box represents a different type of propositional attitude toward a sentence. For example, if you believe that Bigfoot exists, your Belief Box contains "Bigfoot exists"; if you desire that your crush likes you back, your Desire Box contains "my crush likes me back"; and so on. Nichols and Stich add a "Possible World Box," which contains things you neither believe nor desire, but simply think. Thus, if you think that grass is blue, your Possible World Box contains 'grass is blue'; and if you pretend that you are a hermit crab, your Possible World Box contains 'I am a hermit crab.'

I recently extended this model by looking at situations where character immersion comes into play. When you're fully immersed in a character, you cognitively attend exclusively to statements your character would endorse. Your attention is fixed exclusively on your Possible World Box, and your Possible World Box contains only the beliefs and desires of your character. For example, if and when Ledger was fully immersed in the character of the Joker, he consciously thought things such as "Chaos is beautiful" or "Chance alone is fair," and he did not consciously think "I am Heath Ledger" or "I am acting on a soundstage." In other words, Ledger attended only to his Possible World Box, paying no attention to his Belief and Desire boxes.

That's the way that method actors "lose themselves" or "forget who they are." They don't literally forget who they are, since their actual beliefs and desires remain the same. (Put in terms of the model: their Belief and Desire boxes retain their original contents.) However, fully immersed actors "forget themselves" in the sense that they actively ignore facts about who they are, temporarily subordinating their own thoughts and feelings to those of their character. Actors forget their identities like stoners forget the quadratic formula. The information isn't gone — just temporarily offline.

This way of thinking about character immersion has several advantages: it distinguishes immersion from delusion at the level of cognitive architecture; it countenances the phenomenon of falling out of character; and it explains how preparatory research can facilitate immersion. A similar model can be found in the works of Konstantin Stanislavski, creator of the 'system' that ultimately inspired method acting. But the model described here has a particular advantage: it accommodates actors' talk of 'getting lost in character' without taking such talk too literally.

Misplaced fear about "staring into the abyss" belies an oft-forgotten truth about acting: it's fun. Even the most serious roles can be enacted with childlike joy; it is play, after all. Ledger himself said that portraying the Joker was 'the most fun I've ever had, or probably ever will have, playing a character'. In our eagerness to honor the "serious actor", let us not forget that Ledger, like all truly serious actors, played his part with joy, and graciously invited us to watch.Aeon counter – do not remove

Samuel Kampa

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
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  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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