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The father of individual psychology, Alfred Adler, once described empathy as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” Doesn’t that sound like the job description of an actor? Intellectually identifying with another person’s thoughts and feelings might seem like a simple enough task, but the act of empathizing can actually be confusing, if not mysterious at times. 

Empathizing with your character

Celebrated actors understand the importance of empathy in their work. Here are a few thespians explaining the key role it plays in their performances:

It’s got to do with putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing how far you can come to truly understand them. I like the empathy that comes from acting.” —Christian Bale

“As an actor, I function from a place of compassion and empathy—you have to believe 100 percent what your character is doing, because otherwise it will look like it’s not real.” —”Nashville” actress, Clare Bowen

“I use my job to engage empathy and compassion for people society might stereotype or ostracize.” —Michael K. Williams

Meryl Streep has spoken at length about empathy. Here are a few of her insights:

“Empathy is at the heart of the actor’s art.” 

“The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy. We can all sense a mysterious connection to each other.”

“I’ve thought a lot about the power of empathy. In my work, it’s the current that connects me and my actual pulse to a fictional character in a made-up story. It allows me to feel, pretend feelings and sorrows and imagined pain.”  

What is empathy?

Brené Brown, famous for her viral TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” is a scientist who researches people’s ability to love and empathize. She collects and analyzes people’s personal stories, particularly their moments of greatest struggle. With the wide range of professions that require empathy, Brown notes some distinct qualities that capture what it means to empathize:

“Perspective taking—the ability to take the perspective of another person or recognize their perspective as their truth. Staying out of judgement—not easy when you enjoy it as much as most of us do. Recognizing emotion in other people, and then communicating that.” Brown continues, “Empathy is feeling with people. I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone’s in a deep hole, and they shout from the bottom … and say, ‘I’m stuck, it’s dark, I’m overwhelmed,’ and we look as we say, ‘Hey!’ and climb down, ‘I know what it’s like down here. And you’re not alone.’” Empathy doesn’t require that you’ve lived the same experiences as another person, just that you’re present, listening, and you come to understand why someone is feeling, thinking, and acting in specific ways from their own perspective. The person who receives empathy from others feels heard and valued as a person.

What empathy is not

Brown distinguishes empathy from sympathy: “Empathy fuels a connection; sympathy drives disconnection.” Referring to her bottom-of-the-hole story, a sympathetic individual might respond to the stuck person, “Ooh! It’s bad, uh-huh? Uh, no. You want a sandwich?” Brown describes obstacles that can interfere with someone’s readiness to empathize, saying, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” To avoid these deep feelings, people may respond with an “At least …” sentence. Brown insists, “Rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with, ‘At least …’ And we do that all the time because, you know what? Someone just shared something with us that’s incredibly painful, and we’re … trying to put a silver lining around it. So, ‘I had a miscarriage.’ ‘At least you know you can get pregnant.’ ‘I think my marriage is falling apart.’ ‘At least you have a marriage.’”

Promptly trying to fix the problem is another response that interferes with making a connection with someone who is suffering. Brown encourages people to instead respond by saying, “‘I don’t even know what to say. I’m just so glad you told me.’ Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Not judging your character

Judith Weston has over three decades of experience in the industry with books, workshops and one-on-one consultations for both actors and filmmakers. “Every character is doing what they think is right—what they think is best,” she insists. “They have a reason. Everyone has a reason for everything that they do … It might be a reason that the rest of us would look at from the outside and say, ‘That’s a crappy reason. That’s a stupid reason. That’s a wrong reason.’ Of course the audience has the right to judge. But the actor has to come from a place where the character is operating out of need. They need something, and they’re doing what they can to get there. So it’s deeply empathetic, and I actually believe that acting is a kind of spiritual practice … [Actors] are students of life; they want to know more about people and about the world.” 

Not getting stuck in empathy 

Empathy might feel like a trap at times. Actors who immerse themselves in their characters’ thoughts and feelings can begin to feel they’re being held hostage to some degree. For this reason, empathy requires a balance of paying attention to others’ needs while simultaneously honoring your own. In an interview with BAFTA Guru, Viola Davis explained how her extensive years of drama school inform her ability to craft a performance. “You can leave it,” she insists. “You can sort of have a little shroud of protection around yourself and have a semblance of control of your work. You have to shape a performance. You can’t just go on the set and just go, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go hog-wild because the character is going wild. He just punches a bare wall with his fist, so I’m gonna do it,’ — and then walk away with broken fingers. I don’t want broken fingers. I just want to show you that it looks like I’m breaking my fingers. So it’s technique, a craft, that allows me to leave it behind and go home to my husband and my child.”

Maintaining your individuality

Drama student Courtney Wright, who gave a TEDx Talk on “Acting and Empathy,” draws a line between the performer and character. When playing a villain, an actor must “empathize with the lowest of the low, the worst of the worst. This is accomplished by stimulating the emotions we are least proud of: greed, hatred, jealousy, apathy,” she explains. “Empathy is not endorsement. It certainly is not praise. If we are to successfully practice empathy, this is a distinction we must make. We need the ability to understand, while retaining the ability to pass judgement.” She believes actors must empathize with people they are not like. “In doing so, we learn the skill of empathy while maintaining our individual, personal beliefs and ideals … Acting tells us that empathy does not have to have an effect on our personal beliefs or actions or ideals.”

Empathizing with yourself

Brené Brown has found that empathic people are kind to themselves first and then offer that same compassion toward others. “As it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly,” she asserts. In this line of thinking, Meryl Streep shares, “I never give any character I play less respect than I give my own life.”

But what about all the kind-hearted actors who harshly judge themselves? Weston knows many such performers; in fact, she believes 90 percent of actors struggle to empathize with themselves. She insists, “Actors are notoriously hard on themselves … to the extent where you hear a story of an actor who is not hard on themselves, and it’s really exciting and amazing, and it blows other actors’ minds.” 

Empathizing with yourself and others allows creativity to blossom

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” actor Chris Cooper once spoke about working alongside Streep in the 2002 film “Adaptation.” He told The Chicago Tribune, “A couple of weeks into the shoot, things weren’t going well, and I was mumbling to myself. I heard this little voice behind me, ‘Stop whining!’ It was Meryl. Her attitude: ‘You’re lucky to have this part … enjoy! It’s not reconstructive surgery.’ I’ve never had as much fun working with an actor.” Cooper went on to win a best supporting Oscar for that performance. Upon receiving his award he said, “Working with [Meryl] was like making great jazz.” Whenever a take didn’t work out, it wasn’t flowing, or he or she made a mistake of one kind or another, Cooper noticed Streep would exhibit an easygoing spirit and say something like, “Okay, let’s do it again.” With no heaviness or self-judgement, she was ready and eager to let her light continue to shine, this time with a fresh and different take. This was a consistent pattern for the megastar. She simply didn’t allow anything to get her down. 

Cooper worked alongside Streep ten years later in “August: Osage County.” “Each take, whether [her character] was drugged up or … taking a humorous look at something or taking her most nasty side of her character, she’d constantly toy with it, and it’s just a treasure trove for the director when it comes time to put this stuff together. He has such choices, but that was an astounding education in watching a master.” Viola Davis likewise says of Streep, “She creates an atmosphere that is comfortable enough for everyone to create.” 

It’s possible to develop one’s ability to empathize

Empathizing is a practice that can be strengthened. For example, you can listen attentively to someone and then summarize the words you are hearing and acknowledge the feelings the person is experiencing. Stay present and allow your curiosity to keep you engaged in listening, while resisting your own personal stories that come to mind, as these thoughts can distract you from empathizing. If the person offers self-judgements, allow him or her to express them without you agreeing or disagreeing with those judgements. The goal is to understand their perspective. 

As Brené Brown says, keep your overall tone: “You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you’re worthy of love and belonging.” Once your empathy and trust is firmly established, later on you can ask if they’d be open to hearing any mentoring.