Being a celebrity can be hazardous to your mental health.
Recently, after years of personal struggles, Anne Heche died after a horrific car accident, fueled at least partly by drugs. A recent story about Wendy Williams in The Hollywood Reporter described the Jersey girl and former daytime diva as sometimes being so out of touch with reality, she couldn’t remember her show had been cancelled.
Meanwhile Ezra Miller, the charismatic star of the upcoming “The Flash,” has just confessed to going through a period of “intense crisis” including a string of bizarre run-ins with the police and the public. The Wyckoff native, who identifies as non-binary, also announced they were seeking treatment for “complex mental health issues.”
And, in a far less dramatic but sort of weirdly perfect note, actor and director Jonah Hill, getting ready to release “Stutz,” his documentary about mental health in general and his own anxiety attacks in particular, has stated he won’t be giving interviews about it because … well, giving interviews only worsens his mental health and anxiety attacks.
These are just stories from the last few weeks, too. There are plenty more. So what’s going on?
To be fair, there’s a lot of serious backstory behind these headlines. Heche had faced emotional challenges for years, stemming from, according to her memoir, years of sexual abuse by her father and the death of a brother in a car crash (a suicide, she maintained). Williams was well-known to be erratic, and has publicly admitted to fighting substance abuse.
Hill has had some issues, too. He once gave a famously awkward interview to Rolling Stone, complaining they weren’t treating him like the serious actor he was. He has publicly pleaded with fans to stop making comments “good or bad” about his weight. (It’s also probable that — with his kid sister, Beanie Feldstein, having just fled her much-hyped Broadway engagement in “Funny Girl” — he wanted to avoid the press entirely.)
But there are plenty of other examples as well, and the real question remains. Does show business create emotionally fragile people, or does it simply attract them? Does fame forge character, or reveal it?
And the simplest answer is: Yes.
Of course, everyone wants affection, approval and attention. And if you don’t get enough from your friends and family, one way to garner more is to put yourself in the public eye as an actor or performer. (The less coordinated, more introverted among us seek it by becoming writers, instead.)
“I’m worth noticing” is what you’re declaring, and then you dedicate yourself to making sure people do.
Sometimes, however, that yearning for the spotlight comes with a nagging worry: What if I really don’t deserve it? Or what if I get it, and can’t hold on to it?
We praise performers for their onscreen “vulnerability,” but that’s one thing most performers don’t have to fake. To be a good actor, singer or even a TV talk show host requires missing a layer of skin. You have to feel things more deeply; you have to respond to people more immediately. The inhibitions most of us have — those internalized safeguards that tell us to stop, take a breath and think first — are exactly the things actors often have to learn to ignore. To be any good, they constantly have to be in the moment. They have to be open. They have to be sensitive. In fact, they need to be oversensitive.
Except they’re also committing themselves to one of the least sensitive businesses on Earth.
People looking for acceptance in the arts are met, right from the start, with rejection — and often in the harshest terms. You’re too fat, you’re too short, you’re too skinny. Who would believe you as a brilliant scientist? As a great lover? Women hear it more often than men, of course, and more bluntly. But almost everyone hears it occasionally, and it all comes down to “We don’t want you.”
Imagine turning to acting because you’ve already heard that for years — from classmates, from crushes, maybe even from your own parents. Suddenly you’re hearing it all over again from agents, casting directors, filmmakers. Is it any surprise that actors start to self-medicate? That the ones who become successful can then become cranky, press-shy, reclusive?
I don’t blame them, and I say that not in spite of being a journalist, but because of it. I’ve seen way too many awful interviews not to understand how dehumanizing the process can be.
Of course, it’s not always easy for the interviewers either. (I’ll save my press-junket war stories, and battle scars, for another column.) But often reporters only have to be focused and relatively charming for a single sit-down. The star involved has to bring that level of focus (and more) to perhaps a dozen during the day.
Worse, the interviewers can be outright rude, as more outlets — desperate to go viral — insist on a deliberately invasive or even insulting approach. Hill’s old interview with Rolling Stone, for example, came during a promotion for his apocalyptic farce with Seth Rogen, James Franco and Danny McBride, “This Is the End.” Obviously determined to write a “fun” piece, the writer queried Hill on his masturbation habits, and asked “What kind of farter are you?”
“I’m not answering that dumb question!” Hill protested. “I’m not that kind of person! Being in a funny movie doesn’t make me have to answer dumb questions. It has nothing to do with who I am.” After the story was published, the actor was criticized for being a buzzkill. “Jonah Hill Takes Himself Way Too Seriously” chided the Huffington Post.
But really, do you blame him for that? Or for finally deciding, nearly 10 years later, “I don’t think I want to do any more of these”?
Because the treatment — and the opportunity for rejection — has only gotten worse, across the board. It was bad enough when an actor only had to worry about paparazzi snatching a photo of them looking like a slob, or interviewers pressing for a controversial quote. Now there is an entire army of amateur gossips out there, gleefully tweeting how fat, or washed-up, or distressingly woke (or un-woke) their former favorites have become. The criticism is constant.
And what kind of toll does that take on someone who was probably a little insecure to begin with? Sure, some actors just seem to vault into movie stardom, and have lived behind walls of privilege and ego ever since, their fame set to cruise control. But in decades of doing this I’ve met very few actors who were completely satisfied with the job they just finished, or utterly confident they’d ever get another one. They’re full of self-doubt and self-criticism. And then you add TMZ ambush interviews, and the anonymous rage of the Twitterati?
This is not a blanket apology for bad behavior. Heche drove under the influence, destroyed one woman’s house and easily could have killed innocent people. Miller stands accused of a range of offenses including burglary, assault and sexually grooming minors. Being in pain yourself doesn’t give you the license to hurt others. And being famous is no excuse for anything.
But sometimes it’s the beginning of an explanation.
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