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CBS Sunday Morning’s Lee Cowan recently interviewed The Wolf of Wall Street megastar Leonardo DiCaprio, and  asked him about his earliest acting aspirations. DiCaprio revealed he never attended acting school, but explained, “I went to drama class in junior high and high school, but I never had sort of formal training or anything like that, no.” With prostitution and drug dealers setting the tone in the section of Hollywood that was his childhood home, Leonardo was motivated to do something with his life that would get him out of the neighborhood. So how did he decide to strive for an acting career? “I grew up in kind of an artistic household. I was always kind of imitating my dad’s friends and I would imitate everyone around us in the neighborhood. And I’d carry that over in school and get into a lot of trouble constantly. Once I found out that people actually got paid for this, I was like, all right!” he explained.

This playful imitation–coupled with asking his mom to bring him out on auditions–ended up being the start of a phenomenal career. Many people associate a kid in class who likes to imitate others as the class clown–with an emphasis on clown. And clowns are not necessarily the culture’s idea of a high-status, respectable, admirable career choice. But many highly successful actors–from Kevin Spacey to Jim Carrey to Tina Fey–have deep roots in the art of imitation. So is there something special about this kind of play? What happens when a person imitates another?

Experiments have shown that the human brains’ mirror neurons (the kind that activate when a person imitates behaviors and actions of another) play the complex role of helping us to comprehend and understand the intentions behind someone’s action, and causes us to empathize with whoever is being mirrored. Mimicking someone’s facial expressions, for example, to a degree triggers an internal experience of the particular emotion being expressed. It certainly sounds like a legitimate strategy for an actor to increase his or her experiences with a wide variety of personal styles and personalities. In that line of thinking, do you also feel a strong sense of empathy with the characters you portray–even the most despicable?

Actors use many techniques to get to the core of a particular character, or to tap into authentic emotions. From meditation to guided imagery to improvisational play, the roads to an authentic performance are varied and profuse. And judging from the success of the masters of impression, imitation may be a valuable practice to help you reach the heights of the entertainment industry. Just ask LDC!

Who do you like to imitate?

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