Method acting is one thing, but turning into a character for real is another dynamic altogether. This is the sort of thing truly dedicated actors do, and it can lead to some real meltdowns in movies. In fact, cinema is full of actual breakdowns on film, and what might appear to be a great performance is often a case of life imitating (and taking over) art.
Actors, across the board, have been known to erupt into on-screen freakouts occasionally. But the thing is, it's not always their fault. Well, not all their fault, anyway. Various directors have been known to push actors to extremes that have actually resulted in criminal investigations. But a garden variety case of exhaustion is still different than a bonafide breakdown masquerading as make-believe. Whether it's actors on drugs or actors losing their minds for real, here are some examples of performers whose personal troubles lit up the screen in ways that aren't likely to be forgotten anytime soon.
Martin Sheen In "Apocalypse Now"
Actor Martin Sheen famously suffered what's arguably the most notorious IRL breakdown in cinematic history. The above scene from Apocalypse Now, in which Captain Benjamin Willard has a meltdown in his hotel room, was not staged. Leading man Sheen was in the middle of one of the darkest episodes of his life when the infamous sequence was shot, and the drunkenness, despair, and blood (from punching a mirror) depicted were 100% authentic.
"Francis tried to stop it [the bleeding], and he called for a doctor," Sheen recalled years later in the 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. "There was a nurse standing by, and I said 'no, let it go ... I want to have this out right here and now.'"
The cameras kept rolling, and the footage was kept in, but the ordeal wasn't over yet. Sheen (at the young age of 36) would go on to suffer a near-fatal heart attack on set, an incident that led to him being given his (premature) Last Rites by a priest who couldn't speak English. "I pretended that I couldn't remember a lot of the things I'd done that night," the actor recalled, "but actually, I remembered it all." So does film history.
Klaus Kinski In "Fitzcarraldo"
The madness of late German actor Klaus Kinski is legendary, but his most widely publicized episodes of insanity occurred on the sets of director Werner Herzog's films. Kinski's frothing, deranged outbursts during the making of Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Cobra Verde, and Fitzcarraldo were legion, and were eventually chronicled in the acclaimed 1999 documentary My Best Fiend.
As Herzog put it, "Klaus was one of the greatest actors of the century, but he was also a monster and a great pestilence." The director claimed that his crew would invariably panic when they learned that Kinski had once again been cast. "They would say, 'how could you do this do us? We can't take this man a minute longer'. I remember scenes where Klaus was attacked, and how the other actors used to take such pleasure in punching and kicking him. He was often quite badly hurt."
Fitzcarraldo, the story of a madman trying to haul a steamship over a mountain, wasn't much of a departure for the unsound Kinski. Legend has it that some of the natives/extras on set even offered to kill the actor for Herzog, and, watching the above footage, it's not hard to see why.
Edie Sedgwick In "Ciao! Manhattan"
Intelligent, beautiful, and self-destructive, Edie Sedgwick is best known for being one of Andy Warhol's most enduring stars. She lit up the screen in several of his artsiest and most ambiguous short films, but there was nothing ambiguous about her most tragic (and famous) role. Sadly, it also turned out to be her last one.
Shooting for Ciao!Manhattan (directed by David Wiseman and John Palmer, both Factory regulars) began in 1967, but there was little to no acting involved on Sedgwick's part. Though the film was intended to "fictionalize" her rise and fall, almost everything in it was based on real incidents taken from her descent into addiction and mental illness.
The movie utilizes a fair amount of black and white footage from Sedgwick's glory days, but all the campy yet disturbing color sequences (in which a shock treatment-stupefied Edie drinks, blacks out, and stumbles her way through her own narrative) were real. Sedgwick died of a drug overdose in 1971, right as the film was going into post-production. It was released the following year to middling reviews.
Bjork In "Dancer In The Dark"
Nicole Kidman and Bjork are both known for having had serious issues with director Lars von Trier, but it was the Icelandic singer who really suffered on set. According to various reports, working with the Danish auteur drove her into such an anxiety state that she "ran away from him into the woods, ate her costume, and swore she would never make another movie in her life."
Dancer in the Dark, the story of a poor, practically blind single mother who kills a policeman in self-defense (and later gets sentenced to the gallows for the act) is as distressing as cinema gets; it's no stretch to think of the role as already being taxing enough. Indeed, von Trier was quick to blame Bjork's character - and not himself - for the actress's breakdown. However, the singer (who is known for being bold and not taking any sh*t) wasn't having it, and took to her official website to hit von Trier where it hurt:
"You can take quite sexist film directors like Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick, and still they are the ones that provide the soul to their movies. In Lars von Trier's case, it is not so, and he knows it. He needs a female to provide his work with soul, and he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming, and hide the evidence."
You go, girl! Although you have to admit, the above clip (in which Bjork's character is actually led to the gallows) is surely one of the most traumatizing and affecting scenes ever filmed.