From The Joker To Pennywise: Does Playing Sadistic Clowns Risk The Mental Health Of The Actors?


In two days’ time, we will see Bill Skarsgard play Pennywise in ‘It’. The trailers and reviews indicate that the actor has done a superb job and that is remarkable.

However, portraying the character of this or any other psychopath who is thirsty for blood and macabre, is never an easy task. Such roles require dedication as the actor has to delve into the mental lunacy of such an individual who can at times be truly demonic (as seen in this case).

Did it ever occur to you that such roles can actually leave an impact on the actors playing them? Can they also end up being lunatics like the characters they played on screen?

Going by what some mental health experts say, that is definitely a risk.

Be On Your Guard When You Play A Killer Clown

Several established psychologists and actors were questioned about the possibility of the harm caused by playing evil characters. While the entire finding was interesting, there was one answer from Dr. Dough Jowdy which was the most remarkable. Dr.Jowdy said that the extent to which an actor can get affected is directly proportionate to what state of mind the actor has while undertaking such roles:

“I would want to know the ‘potency’ of the role and the quality of the person’s life including their health and well-being […] If the ‘dose’ is quite potent […] (boarding on having to be quite compulsive, obsessive and perfectionistic, boarding on or full-blown workaholism), and the person is just in a bad space in life, the result could be harmful […] So it would be crucial that the person in that role has […] ‘protective factors’ in place, i.e., good support system, feeling loved and safe in the world, good dietary habits & sleep hygiene, and perhaps some degree of spirituality so this role as an evil clown does not own them and define them.”

In fact, a lot of fans believe that Heath Ledger suffered this when he portrayed the Joker in the 2008 movie The Dark Knight. While, Heath did a fantastic job by completing getting into the mind of the Clown which made him deliver a performance which won him an Oscar, he probably scarred his psyche as he confessed during an interview with New York Times in 2007.

“Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”

However, Ledger’s sister has consistently and strongly refuted any thoughts that the role of Joker was in any way related to Heath’s death. She says,”[H]e was having fun. He wasn’t depressed about the Joker!”

Jowdy states that there is no doubt that an actor’s similarity to the character that he plays on screen has a major impression on his mental health as well. If you keep behaving like a psychopath for a long time then there is always a chance that the character and the real life persona get blended:

“Another psychological variable would be how ‘ego syntonic or dystonic’ the role might be […] In simpler terms, how consistent is this role of the evil clown with how the person sees him/herself […]? We all have an ‘evil side’ […] Depending on these psychodynamics of the actor/actress, this role could ignite regression, destabilization and/or disassociation […] Thus, given some of these considerations, a person playing this role would benefit from being in psychotherapy to not only promote stabilization/health, but that role providing the opportunity for tremendous personal growth.”

Well, that thought certainly makes us fear about the well-being of those people who dress up as clowns everyday on the streets for their living. Let’s just hope that none of them ends up morphing into the creepy persona of clowns in real life.

Although this finding or the comments don’t necessarily mean that the performers who play roles of evil characters are all going to be at risk. The same finding had Dr. Cheryl Arutt suggest that such roles can even help actors at times. These roles can help them vent out their inner frustration and dark feelings without committing any real world dark act or causing harm to anybody in real.

Psychological Effects Aren’t The Only Risk That Are Associated With Playing Pure Evil

We know that whether it is the hero or the villain in a movie or TV series, they are just actors doing a paid job. However, there are a lot of fans who don’t see it from that perspective. They perceive the actor to be what he/she plays on screen.

Such notions from fans and viewers can also impact an actor’s psyche. Dar. Naomi Hynd explained the impact of public perception upon an actors’ self-perception:

“How readily do the other actors become affected by the clown when the actor is in role. Once the film is released how do others respond? For example, when Rebecca de Mornay starred in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, public perception of her as a person changed.

People believed she was the character and both avoided her and attempted to keep children away from her. How the actor perceives the character is also significant. Does the actor feel that playing an evil character somehow make them the same psychologically?”

In fact, we have seen many actors who have stated how people think of them as the same person that they played on screen. During an interview with Rolling Stone, actress Lena Headey of Game of Thrones had said that at times she has been insulted by strangers who hate the ruthless Cersei Lannister from the popular HBO show.

We also saw how Josh McDermitt from The Walking Dead had to quit social media because of the numerous death threats that he received due to the betrayal of the group by his on screen character.

We are glad that the character of Pennywise hasn’t apparently had any major impact on Bill Skarsgard, at least judging by the interviews he has given recently.

However, it is also clear that you must always be careful not to let your character take over your real life persona in case you are lining up to play the clown prince of crime or any psychopath. ‘It’ releases on September 14, 2007’.