Acting is more than just memorizing lines and hitting marks. Sometimes, the process of fully embodying a character can take a toll on an actor’s psyche, blurring the line between the art of acting and reality.
From enduring grueling physical transformations to facing abusive directors, these Hollywood heavyweights have paid a high price for their commitment to their craft. Here are nine actors who were traumatized by these iconic roles.
Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance in ‘The Shining’
Few performances have been as haunting and memorable as Shelley Duvall’s portrayal of Wendy Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic “The Shining.”
But behind the scenes, the actress’s experience was nothing short of a nightmare.
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From the moment Duvall signed on to the project, she found herself at odds with Kubrick, a famously demanding director known for his obsessive attention to detail. Kubrick pushed Duvall to her limits, demanding take after take until she was exhausted beyond belief and emotionally drained.
Filming six days a week, 16 hours a day, as well as Kubrick’s sadistic abuse, took an inevitable toll on the actor. Duvall’s mental and physical health deteriorated; she lost weight and suffered from hair loss. At one point, the famous director forced her to film a grueling scene that required her to swing a bat at Nicholson in a record-setting 127 takes until she was nearly delirious with exhaustion.
Duvall told The Hollywood Reporter she would spend days on set crying, put on a Sony Walkman, listen to sad songs, and fill her head with dark thoughts:
“You just think about something very sad in your life or how much you miss your family or friends. But after a while, your body rebels. It says: ‘Stop doing this to me. I don’t want to cry every day,'” the actor said.
Adrien Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in ‘The Pianist’
Adrien Brody’s raw and nuanced portrayal of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish-Jewish pianist who survived the Holocaust in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” is nothing short of remarkable. The role that ultimately earned Brody an Academy Award — making him the youngest actor (at the age of 29) to win Best Actor — demanded an extraordinary preparation process and took a significant emotional and physical toll.
To get closer to Szpilman, Brody endured a period of what can be described as a “method frenzy.”
From the outset, Brody immersed himself in research, reading Szpilman’s memoir and studying footage of the man. He even learned to play the piano, spending hours upon hours practicing until he was able to play specific passages by Chopin. He also took extreme measures to adopt the mindset of a man who has experienced the loss of his family and home.
“I gave up my apartment, I sold my car, I disconnected the phones, and I left,” Brody told BBC News. “I took two bags and my keyboard and moved to Europe.”
He also took extreme measures to alter his physical appearance. He went on a starvation diet and, within a month, had lost a staggering 30 pounds, leaving him emaciated and gaunt.
“There is an emptiness that comes with really starving that I hadn’t experienced,” he told the BBC. “I couldn’t have acted that without knowing it. I’ve experienced loss, I’ve experienced sadness in my life, but I didn’t know the desperation that comes with hunger.”
Brody paid a heavy price, experiencing the lingering effects of his sacrifice long after filming.
“I was depressed for a year after ‘The Pianist,'” he told IndieWire in a 2017 interview. “And I don’t suffer from that, generally.”
Anne Hathaway as Fantine in ‘Les Misérables’
Anne Hathaway really did justice to the tormented Fantine in the 2012 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel ‘Les Misérables.’
To embody the character’s intense struggles, though, Hathaway pushed herself to her limits, undergoing a rigorous training regime that included singing lessons, dance rehearsals, and intense vocal warm-ups. She chopped her long hair and lost a shocking amount of weight: 25 pounds in two weeks by surviving on tiny portions of oatmeal paste daily.
“ I lost an unhealthy amount of weight in a short amount of time, and I was still really sick because of it,” Hathaway told Newsweek. “I had to be obsessive about it—the idea was to look near death. Looking back on the whole experience — and I don’t judge it in any way — it was definitely a little nuts. It was definitely a break with reality, but I think that’s who Fantine is anyway.”
This experience ended up taking a tremendous toll on the actress, leaving her in a state of apathy even after winning much critical acclaim and a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Her dedication to the role was apparent from the moment she stepped on set, as she poured all of her energy into crafting a raw and emotionally charged performance.
“I was in such a state of deprivation — physical and emotional. When I got home, I couldn’t react to the chaos of the world without being overwhelmed,” Hathaway told Vogue. “It took me weeks till I felt like myself again.”
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in ‘Joker’
Joaquin Phoenix’s hauntingly visceral performance as Arthur Fleck in the 2019 psychological thriller “Joker” was a tour-de-force. From the first scene, Phoenix’s physical transformation, his emaciated frame, sunken eyes, and performance conveyed a sense of palpable pain and desperation.
To prepare for the role, Phoenix underwent an intense transformation, losing 52 pounds in just a few months to achieve the emaciated physique of Arthur.
“The first thing was the weight loss, that’s really what I started with,” Phoenix told ET Canada. “As it turns out, that impacts your psychology, and you really start to go mad when you lose that much weight in that amount of time.” Phoenix was able to channel that madness into his portrayal of the Joker.
Natalie Portman as Nina in ‘Black Swan’
Natalie Portman’s performance as Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological dance thriller “Black Swan” was highly praised for its intensity, complexity, and commitment to the character.
The preparation process to portray a world-class ballerina was intense as well. Portman endured months of rigorous training and dieting, transforming her body into somewhat unrecognizable. Portman, who’d studied ballet for nearly eight years, returned to intensive ballet classes five days a week for six hours a day. She also worked with a nutritionist to achieve the ultra-thin body demanded by the character, resulting in a crash diet that saw her lose a dramatic 20 pounds in a very short time.
The physical strain was immense, and it began to take a toll on Portman’s mental health.
“Basically, I didn’t do anything except work, there was no, like, meeting up with friends for dinner or going to the movies,” the actor told Hollywood News.“We’d do 16-hour days, then I’d go home and work out, because I had to stay in shape, and I’d prepare for the next day’s scenes and then get maybe five hours of sleep – it was really, really extreme.”
The hard work paid off. Her performance in the film won her rave reviews and an Oscar in 2011.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass in ‘The Revenant’
Leonardo DiCaprio, a well-known proponent of method acting, took the Stanislavski technique to a new extreme for the role of frontiersman Hugh Glass in the 2015 film “The Revenant.”
To prepare for the part, the longtime avowed vegetarian and animal-rights advocate camped out in the wilderness, slept in animal carcasses, ate raw bison liver, and swam in frozen rivers. The grueling shoot was physically and mentally taxing for the actor, who endured freezing temperatures and possible hypothermia.
Reflecting on the experience, DiCaprio said, “I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.”
DiCaprio’s hard work paid off with a well-deserved Oscar after being nominated four times previously.
Tom Hanks as Chuck Noland in ‘Cast Away’
Tom Hanks’ portrayal of FedEx analyst Chuck Noland in Robert Zemeckis’ survival drama “Cast Away” is one of his most memorable and revered performances. It is also the role that got him a life-threatening infection, made him lose 50 pounds, and, as the actor himself would put it, “made him a little crazy.”
To convincingly portray a man stranded on a deserted island, the Academy Award-winning actor underwent an intense physical transformation. In the first phase, he gained 50 pounds to portray the character before the plane crash. Following three months of filming on the Fijian island of Monuriki, Hanks spent a year on a rigorous diet to shed 55 pounds.
If the malnourishment and exhaustion were not enough, during shooting, Hanks cut his leg, which led to a nasty staph infection. Hanks continued to work through the pain and discomfort, but the infection eventually became so severe that filming had to be put on hold for several weeks.
“[Cast Away] put me in the hospital. I was there for three days with something that, believe it or not, almost killed me,” the actor said. “It was eating its way through my leg. I didn’t know it, I just thought I had a sore.”
On top of the physical toll, the constant isolation and strenuous shooting got to him.
In an interview with Graham Bensinger, Hanks revealed he was dissociated from reality and had no idea when the camera was even rolling.
“That movie was literally about physical action, and I don’t even recall where the camera was set up. It was just always set up somewhere, because what I had to was lash a raft together. I had to try to open a coconut, I had to make a fire. I had to climb in or out of a cave,” Hanks told Bensinger haltingly. “It was just me, and the box, and the lens and the behavior.”
Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in ‘Psycho’
Janet Leigh’s iconic role as Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” left an impact on the actor and the horror genre. While Leigh’s performance was lauded as a career-defining moment, the emotional toll of the role was significant.
The infamous shower scene, in which Marion is brutally murdered, was particularly harrowing for Leigh, who reportedly suffered from nightmares for years after filming.
“I stopped taking showers and I only take baths,” Leigh revealed in a 1984 interview with Woman’s World. “I make sure the doors and windows of the house are locked. I also leave the bathroom door open and shower curtain open. I’m always facing the door, watching, no matter where the shower head is.”
Leigh also received a disturbing number of frightening letters from movie fanatics of “Psycho” years after the movie premiered.
“There were people who were disturbed and who took ‘Psycho’ as a way to vent their unfortunate demons,” she said. “And I really got a lot of letters where they told me that they were going to do the same thing to me that Norman Bates did to Marion Crane.”
Kyle Richards as Lindsey Wallace in ‘Halloween’
Kyle Richards’ role as Lindsey Wallace in John Carpenter’s horror classic “Halloween” marked her feature film debut and remains a memorable moment in her career. Richards was just 8 years old when she played the part of one of the kids being babysat by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) as she is terrorized by Michael Myers.
“I had no idea what I was in for. Seeing it for the first time all pieced together was a very, very different movie,” Richards said in an interview with HalloweenDailyNews. “It was just really scary, and I really did sleep with my mom until I was 15 years old after that. I was terrified.”
Richards was so terrified that she made a decision never to act in another horror film.
“I think that’s what sealed the deal for me to get out of horror films,” the actor said. “After seeing myself in that, I was always thinking there was someone hiding behind the drapes or outside my windows or under my bed, so I would just sleep holding my mom’s arm the entire night.”
The “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star did reprise her role briefly in the 2022 installation of the franchise “Halloween Ends.” Fans were disappointed with her limited screen time.