When my worlds collide- the creation of crazy in a character

17 Feb

For years, I’ve been curious — what does a script actually say when it calls for a character to be crazy? I know it seems like a weird thing to wonder, but not if you really know me. I have degrees in Psychology and the focus of my research, work, education, and life is a severely dysfunctional population.


With everything I know about behavior, it makes sense to wonder. Especially considering that while I was growing up — TV and film didn’t seem to really make an effort to show accurate portrayals of the mentally ill. Or, they portray the characters (and their illness) in a misleading way — such as the research shown here shares.

And no, I’m not saying that the article I just linked to is the be all and end all of factual info, but it does bring up a good point — most of the mentally ill characters seen on TV are violent or are depicted in a very flippant manner. You have to remember the facts (and this is way off my norm for this site but…)–persons with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than predators. However, our media likes to present stories that have the most “bang” for the buck. Puppies and kittens and hearts and flowers lose viewers to OMG-there’s-a-man-who-eats-faces-off-of-grandmothers-living-in-my-building! But that’s a subject within my dissertation, and neither here nor there (for the moment.) (Just so you know, one of the reviewers for this post — Sarah — was really glad I pointed out this reality because it really is something most people do not know.)

Back to what I was starting to say in the beginning — I find it interesting — the portrayals, I mean**. So I am always curious–where does the performance (when it’s good) come from? (I couldn’t care less about the bad ones–that can be chalked up to poor script, bad acting, laziness, etc.)

When playing a character with a certain job, I know some actors like to do ride-a-longs (or shadow someone who does that job) to get a feel for it. But how do you shadow a mental illness? Or, is everything you need to know in the script? How much is left up to the actor? Does the actor find a copy of the DSM (the handbook for psychology/psychiatry to diagnose disorders)? Do they google? Where does the character come from?

Nicholas Brendon had an amazing arc on Private Practice a few years ago. I’ll be honest; I could only watch the first episode of it. He was AMAZING. My problem — why I couldn’t watch the rest — was the doctor characters and their utter ridiculousness. From the first moment the shrink walked into the room with him, I wanted to smack the shrink. But I digress — Nick was awesome. I tried to ask him once, but I don’t think he really answered my question. So my curiosity has remained unfilled! And sometimes it gets the better of me and I start asking… like recently when I caught some lovely people via twitter-

Let’s start with the first piece — what is the definition of crazy? In my world — there is no simple definition, there is no clinical definition for “crazy” or “insanity”; these are societal terms. We utilize the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) as a tool to help diagnose, but we have to have a starting point. Knowing that in psychology we need details and information before we can begin to think about a diagnosis or explanation for behavior, I needed to know the starting point or how “crazy” is defined within a story before I could understand how it looks within a script.

I touched base with several people in regards to this topic, following up again to get a base definition. Amelia Tyler, who you may remember from our series of interviews last summer, said that “if it was critical to the plot I think it’d be mentioned by name. But to me all characters are crazy to some extent.” Which is similar to the answer provided by Tara Platt, whom you may remember from last summer when I wrote about Shelf Life the Series, wherein she stated, “all depends — sometimes [it says] just quirky [and] you run with it; sometimes [it’s] clinical ‘manic depressive’ with a compulsion for setting fires”. So… there doesn’t seem to be a definition, per se. Instead it’s open to the interpretation. Let’s see what else we can find out–Keith Coogan said, “Crazy could mean, ‘On a jag’, ‘Manic State’, super focused, slightly anti-social, outside normal thinking patterns…” So it seems like you need more information before you can truly define “crazy”, just like in the real world.

Let’s move on to what “crazy” looks like within a script — Colin Ferguson, probably best known for his role on Eureka (click the link if you haven’t read of my love for that show!)told me “It completely varies based upon the tone of the script, the personality of the writer and the purpose of the character…”. Continuing on, he said, “ in all cases it must be concise description so … it leaves ‘opportunity’ for deeper work by others – and it must.” I understand this to say that a script provides the basics of what the writer/director/lord high poo-bah, is looking for from the character; but that in the end, it’s left up to the actor to fill in the body. Fascinating.

I posed my question to several others — Tara  explained that it’s often just a brief bit of information — “sometimes it is merely descriptions (example: unloved as a child, beaten by teachers, he relishes plucking wings off bugs, etc.)”, but it may also be a bit more… intense –“sometimes it is in dialogue – specific … ‘It puts the lotion in the basket’ etc., it all depends on a writer and actors interpretation”. I asked how you take those tidbits and create the character (saying “he relishes plucking wings off bugs”, for example, doesn’t tell me a lot about a person -I need more information to truly diagnose a problem) and Tara replied that it comes from “talking with the director – reading the script to see what happens”. But, in the end, it’s truly the “imagination” that creates.

Amelia was willing to share a number of thoughts on the subject, essentially bringing it back to the point that, “To be honest, though, actually ‘crazy’ characters are pretty rare. A role like that’s like fucking gold dust to an actor!” It truly “depends how good the writing is! Scripts tend to be just words/actions — research on underlying conditions is separate. At best: subtle hints at a condition, leaving director and actor to work out details. At worst: dreadful schizophrenia stereotype.” Which led to my wondering if the actor would then be left to research the disorder/behavior or ask the writer/director and go by what they say? The end result:

depends on the project/director. If the director’s good there’d be a lot of discussion during rehearsal. I’d still do my own research first, though, so I know as much as possible. Interpretation’s key. You can’t just mimic. That’s where most portrayals fall down, I think. Most actors mimic crazy — good ones really ‘go there’ by understanding why… this ‘crazy’ behavior would seem totally reasonable to the sufferer. It’s dangerous ground — can really mess your head up.

I truly love Amelia’s point about mimicry — I cannot say how many times I’ve seen a film or TV show and watched someone try to present a disorder, only to have them fail miserably because they didn’t learn about it. A little research, in my opinion, is necessary. Especially when you look at the disorders and behaviors demonstrated by clients that I work with. I’m a forensic psychologist and I specialize with sex offenders. So often they are poorly represented. Sigh. But that’s neither here nor there, again.

Great. So now I know that a script often provides a description or tidbits and that the actor builds from that; using their imagination and by working with the rest of the team — i.e. the director. The latter was reiterated by Keith Coogan — a favorite of mine since Adventures in Babysitting (yes, I did a happy dance when he responded!) when he said, “half the time it’s just a choice the director or actor makes… otherwise it looks like this: Character Enters… Freaks out!” Okay… I think I understand from this perspective. But there’s another view to consider.

For that, I tapped producer/writer/casting aficionado, Chad Darnell (you may remember Chad from a post last summer in regards to independent fundraising. Personally, I’m dying to see some of the upcoming projects he has in the works.) “I never write in details for a character, because it’s easier for casting.” Whoa. This is a bit of a different response. Though this may just be a personal preference, this goes almost a full 180 from what I’d already learned. Okay… so there’s little to no info — what do you give an actor when they come in for a role? (There has to be something, right?) “I let them come in with their own ideas. I usually give a “type” – age, race, etc.” There’s that imagination again.

I also posed my questions to writer/producer/director Dean Devlin, but only received a quick response stating, “depends on type of crazy.” This actually makes sense to me based on the other responses I have received. Crazy is too broad a term and as such, it really matters what is being said, described (in regards to the character), and what occurs in the dialogue.

keep-calm-and-practice-psychologySo what have we learned? Well… there may be a bit of information provided or none at all; the actor may discuss and create the character with the director (whoever) or they may be on their own; but the most important thing is imagination. I want to thank everyone who responded and helped me to understand this topic. I hope those reading this enjoyed this glimpse. Jane Badler — essentially a goddess to me growing up, hello? Diana from V! provided some final thoughts in regards to where a crazy/disordered character comes from — “As in life there are many types of Crazy . Isn’t Crazy the new sane?”

**I thought I should note- I was, at one point, a drama/theatre major in college as well as attended a performing arts HS and have worked in/performed in the theatre since I was a kid. I know what psychologically impaired characters look like in plays. But film and television is a different medium. There’s a different audience and it’s not a world that I have experience in. I know the scripts are different and I know that the timing in creating a character is different. That’s why I focused only on TV & film in this post…
(additional information collected by researcher, Barbara)

5 Responses to “When my worlds collide- the creation of crazy in a character”

  1. GH March 9, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

    I recall attending a Big Bang Theory panel at ComiCon following the first year of the show, where Jim Parsons was asked if he thought that Sheldon had Asperger’s. He responded that he hadn’t known the term until fans asked about it — and it wasn’t used as a character descriptor. He based his performance on people he’d known and his own experience of human behavior. Unless you’re making a medical show where the clinical term is relevant, I tend to think that the script’s job is to describe the character’s actions and imply their emotions; the actor’s expansion should come from the emotional core they build inside themselves for that character. That’s what makes them who they are, not the latinate term that categorizes them.

    • elizabeth ann March 9, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      That falls with what I am learning. This has been a very interesting topic- I look forward to revisiting it and digging deeper in a future post.


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