Production still from 'Beloved' directed by Peter Sestina

Acting in a rape scene when you’ve been sexually abused

Filed Under

Actor’s missions are holy: to tell the truth, to be seen and heard, and to display immense amounts of bravery.

You’re reading a script and pause when you come across those terrifying words: “Two men violently grab (your character), one striking and holding her down as the other loosens his belt.” Your face gets hot, your heartbeat is in your throat — thick, wet tears betray you — you are full on triggered. And, yet, you have to act this. You have to make this real.

With all the potential ways to be triggered as a sexual abuse survivor – being ignited by a script is one of the most useful. It is also one of the most frightening — we know we have to process this publicly.

Trauma lives in our bodies, in our tissue, muscles, joints. When it stagnates it can be deadly over time. But moving through it is not just cathartic; it can be transformational. And while scary as hell, if you find yourself acting a similar life trauma, you are fortunate enough to have an opportunity and vessel to transmute the past pain into something greater than yourself.

If science shows us what we think about, feel, and imagine plays upon the nervous system the same way as when it actually happens — what of rape scenes?

Are we putting ourselves through one of the most invasive and dehumanizing experiences in life, on purpose? Take after take? Why would we want to do that to ourselves? How can we do that safely and consciously?

I had the distinct pleasure of acting in a Netflix series. I played a brave girl who fights for her life in almost every scene. She is also nearly graphically raped by two men. She kills one of them.

In my personal life, I was almost forcefully raped by a man twice my age. As he twisted my neck by pulling my hair, he put his fingers inside me. Something within me shifted and a beast came out. Despite being young, I was able to fight him off with one sharp motion and a leveling look. The look said “you will have to kill me.”

Surprisingly, I didn’t consciously prepare for acting the rape scene by recalling this past body offense; I didn’t think to, I didn’t need to. The circumstances in the script were enough. The set, costumes, props, and other actors were enough. Using a direct link to my past might have been emotionally dangerous for me when needing to regain control on set. Instead of the memory, I used the trauma in my body in the scene.

This body trauma lived in the pit of my stomach. I focused on the feeling until the circumstances in the script took over. Be aware of the signs of PTSD, and be okay with the fact that you are putting your body through trauma. There is no way around that. That’s one reason actors are often paid well in productions. Our internal cost is high, and it is often paid in sweat, tears, heartache, and sometimes in trauma.

“You’re just an actor, you’re playing pretend.” That’s true. My mind knows that, but tell that to my puffy red eyes that cried all afternoon. The tears were real to them. Tell that to my exhausted diaphram, my jelly legs.

In order for the performance to seem real, it has to feel real to my body, and my body needs time to process that. The only thing as important as the preparation for the role is the post care when coming out of it.

I slept 14 hours a night for three days after this month long production wrapped. My body needed healing time, but so did my mind and spirit. As professionals, we can plan and give ourselves time, instead of pushing through and pretending to be fine. Professional actors recognize the cost and take what we need so we can do it- and so we can do it repeatedly.

 

101817

Posted: 10-26-17

Leave a Reply