The most challenging roles and the most acclaimed portrayals are those of mentally unstable characters. Such portrayals resonate with audiences for multiple reasons; most telling is the anxieties and uncertainties we face in our own lives. Likewise, such behaviors generate strong emotions that include empathy, fear or resentment. Whatever the response, we are moved and engaged; mirrored by our fears and uncertainties what if this happens to me? What if I go over the edge?
When done brilliantly, such roles are critically admired and often win industry nominations or awards. They also win critical recognition as being the pinnacle of acting. When done well, it can also result in better job offers. It sets the bar higher showing one is a competent performer, one who can play an extreme range of wants, needs, and emotions of a character on the edge. Such actors become an asset, a bankable entity to developing projects
Another reason to explore this area is that normal characters occasionally become mentally unstable. Such occasions arise when a person is overwhelmed at work, or when something catastrophic happens to a close relative. Another occasion might be when losing one’s temper and crossing the boundaries of common decency. Such events put considerable stress on a person causing them to act irrationally. These departures from the norm are opportunities to expand the role and give the character more depth.
There is limited visual evidence of how mentally unstable people behave. However, many filmmakers, directors, and actors have done in-depth research in this area and have duplicated characters exhibiting the desired unstable traits. These people have researched actual patients and even brought in consultants to further solidify these portrayals and their predominating traits.
This article reflects a consensus of these traits. This is not a clinical compiling but a dramatic compilation from well-researched films. There is a difference in that the clinical is spread out over a long treatment period while the dramatic is selective and compressed into the allotted time period. While the clinical rendition may be more authentic, the dramatic rendition gets to the same story points and does so with more impact. While these portrayals are complex, it helps to deal first with the externals.
Mentally unstable people are recognizable by certain visual traits. Most telling is the eye/nose alignment, which is more acute as the eyes often look beyond the observed to the imagined. The look exceeds normal angles, as the subject seeks avoidance, confronts paranoia or searches for answers in a chaotic world filled with uncertainties. And this uncertainty engages the audience as unstableness creates the propensity for going in multiple behavioral directions.
In “The Snake Pit”, Oscar-nominated performance by Olivia de Havilland, eye behaviors are used to portray a chaotic world, one where self-imposed guilt causes a nervous breakdown so serious, she has to be institutionalized. The story is structured around her treatment and her progressing awareness of what caused these breakdowns. Thus, the audience is alongside her as she goes through this self-discovery. We know what she knows and we identify with her struggles. Events such as a calendar date or time on a clock trigger psychotic episodes overwhelming her mental state. Through her slow recovery, there are setbacks and regressions, yet she gains enough strength to face her dilemma and discover she was not responsible for the death of her father and that of a man she dated. Part of the story is told in flashbacks when her behavior was normal. This contrast is an important part of this characterization.
Another telling behavior is shifty eyes, a paranoia that someone is watching her. It could also be apprehension knowing she doesn’t have the answers. In most cases, these are imagined entities, yet to the subject, they produce responses as if they were real. Psychotic illusions, whether manufactured or memory induced are portrayed as if seen by the darting eyes.
Other traits include facial contortions that are likely induced by stress and anxieties. Most noticeable is the tension around the lips and eyebrows as if the person is trying to make sense of his or her surroundings. In acute cases, there is a look of inner madness that has the potential to go off any which way. This ambiguity of purpose and unpredictability draws audiences to these characters. Such behaviors create pressing questions; what will happen next, what direction will she take?
In mentally unstable people there is a lack of clarity as they are weighted down with misinformation, bad assumptions, or forced perceptions. They are confused about how to identify the problem, attack and resolve it. Thus, the overriding behavior is one of inner confusion and a feeling of losing control. Their judgment is degraded to where they cannot make logical decisions. As a result, they are more likely to make bad choices, choices which could precipitate a downward spiral toward madness.
Self-awareness of being unstable leads to the behavior of trying to act normal. And how well the subject does it depends on the control he or she has over their behavior. Being normal is the primary goal of most institutionalized patients, however, they are more prone to triggers upsetting this balance. What a normal person would consider an inconvenience, an unstable one sees as a catastrophe. An analogy would be that of a drunk trying to act sober.
Memory lapses are common, as is momentary disorientation. The subject focuses most on inner self rather than the world and those around him. There is also confusion between implied and literal meanings. Behavior is incongruent (lacking appropriateness) rather than exhibiting harmony, agreement, and compatibility.
There is a persistent inner voice that talks to the subject, weighing options, seeking answers, and struggling with implementing actions. There’s an inner turmoil between that which is real and that, which is perceived. When things go bad, what’s perceived usually outruns reality. Episodes of paranoia are clear as the subject distrusts everyone including himself.
There’s usually a strong sense of vulnerability for the subject lacks the skills to defend himself. The pain inflicted by others or himself leave long-lasting damage. There is little desire to take care of one’s self. Appearance can be disheveled and unkempt usually the result of deflated ego or an inferiority complex. Things such as hair not combed or clothes wrinkled, and often not color coordinated. Also, buttons in wrong holes, no makeup or misapplied and complexion drained of energy.
Depression soon becomes the gateway aliment and can lead later to more invasive neurosis such as an array of phobias, neurotic instability, and episodes of intense anger. Unless there are counseling and therapy, rehabilitation is doomed.
When he or she is subject to persuasion, they are easily misdirected toward detrimental consequences. This is likely because of the uncertainty about one’s judgment and capabilities.
Facial muscles and lips tighten illustrating the subject’s stress level which can be elevated for extended periods. Also, facial expressions are ambiguous reflecting multiple or even conflicting emotions. This distortion reflects the inner tumoral of being unable to bring clarity to situations. Not being able to exhibit clarity is a common trait of a mentally unstable character.
The inciting cause of becoming mentally unstable can be anything from a catastrophic loss to a brain injury to an induced breakdown. “Gaslight” is a classic example of manipulation and betrayed love. In this psychological thriller, Charles Boyer character accuses his wife played by Ingrid Bergman of losing valuable items. She also hears sounds coming from the attic and the unexplained dimming of the lights, things her husband states she’s imagining.
She portrays these anomalies through acute eye movements and questioning head turns. Soon she degenerates into a raving lunatic unable to decipher reasons for her downfall. She rambles and becomes incoherent until the policeman gets inside the house and confirms the gaslights are indeed flickering. Logic overcomes her paranoia as she finds a reasonable explanation. Her husband has attempted to drive her insane while he searches the attic for the family jewels once owned by her murdered aunt. The flickering gaslights result from his lighting the gaslights in the attic. The psychological term gaslighting, which describes a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is gradually manipulated into doubting his or her own sanity, originated from the play and its two film adaptations.
Another good resource is the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The supporting actors who play the inmates are excellent character studies. In preparing for their roles the director had them mingle with actual asylum patients for weeks and observe their behavior. Thus, this film is a great resource for creating characters. The same behaviors described earlier are articulated by these supporting players portraying inmates.
Other films which exhibit mental neurosis can be found on Wikipedia under the heading: Mental Disorders in Films. Some disorders have short definitions and the films listed have synopsis when highlighted. Sometimes, it states which character is afflicted or which actor played the role.
Mental disorders can also manifest physical ailments which add to the character’s texture. These might include headaches, stomach pain, nausea, or muscular tightness. Such ailments are often because of the stress the subject is under. Other physical traits include loss of energy and lack of coordination.
Researching the role of a mentally unstable character requires more study than the average role. An unstable character exhibits both normal and abnormal behaviors so one must research both. This contrast compares the two behaviors and provides a reference point. It tells us what life was like before the unstable behavior started. Or it tells how the character behaves in non-stress situations. This phase of the character could be episodic or revealed in flashbacks. What triggers the mental unstableness is usually stated in the script along with the medical disorder. Exploring this area can enrich the role. However, avoid playing the ailment’s symptoms. Instead, play the character’s inner struggle to deal with his incongruent, disturbing, and erratic world.
One mistake to avoid is playing too many traits for this can lead not only to confusion but also a lack of believability. Instead, pick a few of the major symptoms and play with their variations and dynamics. Also, by contrasting their real and imagined worlds, we can feel the pain of their journey into madness.
A list of all mental disorders, mental illness, and related mental health conditions, their symptoms and treatment can be found online at psychcentral.com/disorders. This information conforms with the DSN-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition used by mental health professionals.
In summary, there are many considerations in developing and portraying mentally unstable characters. Foremost is the alignment of the inner turmoil (emotions) with the external behaviors (expressions) we see and hear. Do they mesh together and create a troubled creature struggling for clarity? Next is portraying the contrast between normal and abnormal behaviors so we can gauge the departure from reality. And last, add your own touch of uncertainty, either remembered or fabricated, to create a more authentic and resonating character.