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Empathising With Icons

Sometimes, an actor’s portrayal of someone real is just so lifelike or evocative; you forget you’re watching a work of fiction at all.  I do at least.

Reading an article in Total Film this morning got me thinking about how actors manage to become versions of people who have existed in history. Meryl Streep was so convincing as Margaret Thatcher it felt to me as though she must have shadowed the former Prime Minister for years. Equally, whenever I think of Mark Zuckerberg, I think of Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of the Facebook founder in The Social Network rather than the real man.

What allows an actor to convincingly emulate iconic people through history – people whom seem almost untouchable in terms of portrayal? Well, I think it’s an ability to truly empathise with people and their situation, not just their status. Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Ghandi was of course informed by what Ghandi was, but it was more critically informed by whom Ghandi was; he wasn’t just a thinker and leader, he was a person. Similarly, Bruno Ganz’s Adolf Hitler in Downfall is human and sympathetic, and a realistically flawed in his portrayal.

These actors have done their research, and in many cases they physically trained for their role or followed some regimen that allows an insight, but the most important thing they’ve done is empathically engage with their subject. Now, this has practical applications for all of us. At work or home, it is key to engage with others on a genuine level if you want to live your life at anything beyond a superficial level, but we can’t always do this.

Sometimes, because of someone’s position, they seem unapproachable or their points of view and perspectives are harder to understand. That may be because they’re an incredibly important decision maker in a business or because they do a job completely foreign to you.  They may come from a different culture, or they may act in way totally alien to what you’ve known before. The important thing to remember is that they’re people. When you present to a pitch to your sister or an Oscar winning film star, or 12 managing directors, you’re communicating with human beings and not just roles and functions. An empathy and appreciation for the angles people see things from is critical – even if you can’t understand someone else, you can consider what it may be like to be them, to deal with the things they deal with, and to feel what they sometimes feel, which ultimately won’t be far from you, another human being.

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