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The Tortured Artist Trope: How to Inform Your Work Safely and Honestly

The tortured artist is such a culturally pervasive trope that often we don’t realize the many ways we promote and perpetuate it. It’s a familiar stock character, dating far back to civilizations past (some historians trace it all the way back to Plato). Themes of mental illness, poverty, desperation and misanthropy have long been linked to moving and provocative art. So much so that the tortured artist has become a romanticized figure in our cultural imagination. So much so, that sometimes it feels like art cannot or will not be taken seriously unless it is inextricably linked with the artist’s trauma.

Recently, movements have been made in the industry to focus more on protecting the welfare and mental health of actors. But what can each of us do to make sure we’re engaging in our craft in a way that is both healthy and authentic? Here are some ways you can examine the tortured artist trope that might give some perspective.


What about it is true?

It wouldn’t be so pervasive if there wasn’t some truth to it, right? Well, sort of. For me, what rings true is the need for life experience. If you’re going to be in the business of reflecting the human experience, it’s not a bad idea to have some of your own. However, I don’t believe those experiences must necessarily be traumatizing or negative in order to be of value. A healthy way to reframe this is to engage in life in positive ways that are unrelated to acting. Find interests, hobbies and experiences you can gather to make you a more well-rounded person. Cultivate your empathy and understanding of others. These are the experiences that will bring maturity and authenticity to your acting.


What about it is toxic?

The problem with romanticizing the tortured artist is it encourages actors to engage in their trauma in a way that may be damaging for their mental health. It encourages actors to bring their trauma into the workplace in a way that could be unhealthy not only for them but for their coworkers as well. It encourages actors to allow their work to invade every aspect of their lives. Actors who prioritize their own healing and happiness, and who set clear boundaries in their work, are no less serious or inspired or committed actors.


Handle trauma with care.

No one is saying you can’t use your own life experiences, and even your own trauma, to inform your work. But you want to make sure you’re doing it in a safe and healthy manner. Pushing your body into reliving trauma for the sake of a scene can be harmful and can even jeopardize your ability to approach your work in a professional way. If you’re using past traumatic experiences to inform your work, start by asking yourself some questions. Have I healed from this experience? Can I engage in this experience in a way that is detached and non-triggering? If the answer is no, you may be better off using your actor’s imagination to produce the same result. In fact, many times that’s the better option anyway, as it helps hone a skill that has far more reach than using your own past experiences. 


Make sure you’re de-roling.

At the end of the day, acting is still a job. Taking the work home with you every night is not sustainable, and can eventually put a strain on relationships and your own mental health. Especially for roles that are emotionally charged, make sure you have some sort of de-roling practice in place. Checking out verbally with scene partners, listening to specific music on the way home, showering before you get back to your regular life, are all great ways to help cue yourself not to remain in your character’s headspace. 


Holding the tortured artist up on a pedestal invites abuse and practices that are neither sustainable nor helpful. It’s time to romanticize the healthy, empowered, self-loving actor.