Shanghai: Emily Beecham on the Mental Health Challenges of Acting

Emily Beecham-Getty-H 2016
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

"Be a happy person even if the person you are playing is not," says the Cannes winner and 'Into the Badlands' star, who was joined at the Shanghai festival by Chinese star Yong Mei to discuss the art of acting.

Cannes best actress award winner Emily Beecham (Little Joe, Into the Badlands) at the Shanghai International Film Festival urged fellow actors to look after their mental health and to be prepared for the difficulties that can come with playing "difficult characters."

"Be a happy person even if the person you are playing is not," the British actress said. "Be aware that the mind is a powerful thing, so use it in the right way."

Beecham was joined on stage by Chinese actress Yong Mei – winner of this year’s Berlin’s Silver Bear for her turn in the Wang Xiaoshuai-directed drama So Long, My Son – for the final masterclass at this year’s Shanghai festival. Entitled "Actress on Actress," it shed light on the craft that has brought both actresses fame, and on its effects.

"Some of the best actors I have worked with do suffer from anxiety and emotional [problems]," said Beecham. "I think it goes hand in hand with being a sensitive person. A lot of great actors are very sensitive and vulnerable. It can affect you. So it is good that people are talking about this."

Beecham said laughter had helped in her own career, which has included her award-winning turn as the scientist messing with life forces in director Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, as well as a long-running part as the Widow in the martial arts-themed TV series Into The Badlands.

"You have to have a sense of humor about it as well," she said. "You’re not a doctor, not saving people’s lives. It’s just acting, so don’t take it too seriously. Have empathy with the character you are playing, but leave it at the end of the day."

The 35-year-old revealed that when starting out, she had heard other actors talk about "leaving the role at home." But "I’d never quite understood it until I started getting in to it," she said. "The hours are very long, so you can do really strange hours and then you have to just switch off and go to sleep. That can be a lot of pressure, especially if you’ve done a scene where you’ve been chased by a monster, or you’ve seen a death. So look after yourself, and look after your mental health as well."

The pair discussed in general terms how they prepared for roles, and the differences they have found between acting for the large and the small screen. Beecham said that input was often welcomed in the former but frowned upon in the latter.

"My last two films I’ve really liked the scripts and didn’t want to change them," she said. "But I did do a TV series. It needed ratings, to keep the ratings up. It was entertainment; it wasn’t very deep. There were lots of things I wanted to change about that, but I had no control. It was not welcomed, my opinion. So that’s just a different kind of job, really. There are just different jobs, [but] amazing, independent film is just a privilege to be in." She didn't share which TV series she was referring to.

Beecham also said she hadn’t found much use for her classical theater training since moving on to movies. "I don’t believe you really need it," she said. "Especially with film. There are techniques you can use, but I have found life experience to be a much better teacher. Learning about yourself as a human being is a much better way of learning. Understanding human beings. Life."

The 49-year-old Yong revealed she had landed her first role – in the Chinese series The Man Who Herds the Clouds (1997) – with no previous acting experience. "I trained myself," she said. "I was my own teacher, and I learned from exchanges with the director and other actors. You try your best to accumulate life experience in order to become a better actor."