Stars see challenged as a challenge

Actors bare all to portray mentally ill characters

Whether psychologists like it or not, movies have helped shape our view of the mentally ill.

In some cases it’s been for the worse, as with slasher films, but in other cases for the better, with accurate depictions not only winning Oscars but also aiding the public’s understanding of a stigmatized disorder. Examples include Jack Nicholson’s obsessive compulsive in “As Good as It Gets” and Geoffrey Rush’s schizophrenic in “Shine.”

This Oscar season includes a number of award candidates playing characters who are — or are potentially — suffering from mental illnesses. While a mentally ill character presents a juicy challenge to an actor, there’s also a danger of doing too much.

“I think you could certainly go over the top with it and chew the scenery,” says “Michael Clayton” casting director Ellen Chenoweth of the role in the film played by Tom Wilkinson, a star lawyer who goes off the deep end. “It has to be a real person who’s ill who you identify with and feel for.”

Wilkinson, she adds, “knew what the line was.”

Many actors don’t like to speak of their characters as mentally ill, perhaps because it makes the role seem simplistic. The goal of acting is, after all, to play a person and not a type, and to make the character’s struggle seem universal.

“I’m not interested in ‘ill’ films,” says Julie Christie, who stars as a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s in “Away From Her.” “The film is really about … love enduring through immense difficulty.”

Nicole Kidman, when asked if her “Margot at the Wedding” character is mentally ill, responds, “No, it’s not that. Margot is someone who is having a breakdown. That’s what’s underlying. It’s why she needs to control everyone around her. Her life is not what she thought it was and the choices she has made. That’s what makes her so brittle.”

Ryan Gosling, whose character in “Lars and the Real Girl” pretends a mannequin is his girlfriend, says of the role, “We went down the road of studying mental illnesses that matched up to this kind of behavior, but at the end of the day it didn’t seem to match anything.

“If he had anything, he suffered from Don Quixote disease,” Gosling adds, referring to the character’s “almost debilitating imagination.”

Philip Bosco, on the other hand, couldn’t help but acknowledge his character’s dementia in “The Savages,” as it’s the driving force of the film — the reason why his children, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, put him in a nursing home. To Bosco, the goal was to not sentimentalize the character.

“We (didn’t) want to make this guy any kind of cuddly, cute, nice old bastard,” he says. “We wanted to play up his meanness and anger and cantankerous nature all the way through.”

Bosco’s research came years before filming, when his mother moved in with him and his wife and eventually developed dementia. He had also observed his demented former neighbor, who would wander into Bosco’s garage before the man’s wife found him.

“I didn’t specifically model (my performance) on what he would do, but I understood it,” Bosco says. “You don’t know what’s going on, and you lash out, even at this little old lady that was taking care of him.”

To prepare for his role, Gosling spent a lot of time with Bianca, the mannequin, and also observed kids.

“Kids seem to have the greatest ability to believe their own imagination,” he says. “With a kid, there really is something under their bed. I just got in touch with the little me.”