By Dr. Charlie W. Starr
I was dressing for work while watching Good Morning America. Tom Hanks was making a guest appearance to promote a movie. Elizabeth Vargas asked Hanks to step into character and say something about the film. Unfortunately, Hanks identified so completely with the sleazy character he portrayed that he cussed on national television. Hanks immediately jumped out of character and began to apologize profusely. In that moment I saw a lesson about acting.
The Acting Problem
I felt sorry for Hanks. Most Americans consider him a nice guy, and he’s made some quality films, like Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13, which show heroism in the face of danger. After GMA, Hanks apologized again on Twitter—it obviously bothered him. I’m sure we’re quick to forgive unintentional mistakes. The character Hanks was portraying wasn’t him. But then isn’t that the real paradox with acting? People make a living pretending to be someone else. And that highlights some serious moral problems.
Think about it this way. Anytime someone makes a movie about Jesus, an actor, regardless of his conviction or attention to detail, will play the role of the perfect man—an impossible role to play. Someone will also have to play Judas, the betrayer. These actors are doing their audiences a service by helping tell the gospel story in film. Yet one is pretending to be God, and the other is portraying the worst betrayal in history. You see the problem?
I’m not saying acting is sinful—not at all. Jesus, in one sense, came to do some acting—to act out God on the human stage (the difference being he also was God). Hebrews 1:3 tells us Jesus is the “exact representation of [God’s] nature.” The Greek word for representation, spelled out in English letters, is the word character.
Characters are, of course, what actors portray in plays and movies. Jesus was God and portrayed God in visible form on earth. But what about the kind of acting that pretends?
Solutions to the Problem?
Saying that acting is wrong isn’t the solution to the problem. What solutions then, are there? I think one thing actors can do is distinguish between actions that are fake and those that aren’t. I tend not to be bothered by film violence because I know no real harm is occurring. But during a love scene, it doesn’t matter how much the actors are pretending—they’re still engaged in sexual activity. Kissing is still kissing, for example, despite the actors’ claim that “It doesn’t mean anything.” Likewise, when actors cuss on camera, they’re still cussing, even if it’s just to portray a character.
Luke 6:45 says, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (New Revised Standard Version). An actor who works hard at his craft may absorb too much of a character with the result that the character becomes a part of who the actor is. For Christian actors, this could be a serious problem. Scripture also says that, “as he thinks in his heart so is he” (Proverbs 23:7, Amplified Bible). Acting can certainly be a way of taking the wrong thing into one’s heart. And I haven’t even mentioned nudity in acting yet. Actors portraying jungle tribesmen or holocaust Jews being paraded naked in front of their tormentors are not automatically sinning, but they are foregoing normal modesty, which is a Christian virtue.
I probably haven’t come up with any solutions so much as given a warning here. But in contrast to the warning, what about an actor’s calling to present his character honestly? If you were to portray Jeremiah in a movie, there’d be a time when you’d have to curse God: “Lord, you deceived me” (Jeremiah 20:7, NIV, 1984). If you were acting out Ezekiel preaching one of his prophecies, you’d come to 16:25 and scream out, “and you spread your legs to every passer-by to multiply your harlotry” (New American Standard Bible). Not exactly nice church language.
I guess if there’s an answer for Christian actors to the problems of portraying evil, the questions of holiness, and the dangers of damaging one’s own soul, it lies somewhere between the extremes of refusing to portray anything evil, and of using an “integrity of acting” excuse to do the most horrendous things on camera. It seems so many non-Christian actors lean toward this last extreme. Maybe they’d have less to apologize for if they didn’t.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.