Acting out pain

Acting out Pain

There’s a lot of talk these days about Jennifer Aniston’s new role in her latest movie, “Cake,” in which she plays a woman dealing with chronic pain. I’m completely intrigued by this role. What does somebody with chronic pain look like? How does their body move? Do their facial expressions change? How do they dress? What do they sound like? How do they behave?

Aniston’s movie hasn’t been released yet, but early media coverage highlights some of the challenges she faced in portraying a person living in pain. In interviews, Aniston talks about how she made her voice more “gravelly” and how the physical task of acting in pain wore her down. The headlines of these articles, however, focus almost entirely on her physical appearance. “How Jennifer Aniston Let Herself ‘Fall Apart Physically’ for New Movie.” “Jennifer Aniston Loses the Makeup for Gritty ‘Cake.’” “Jennifer Aniston Describes Letting Herself Go for Her Least Glamorous Role.”

Least Glamorous? Ouch.

But how else was she supposed to show what pain does to bodies? Pain is invisible, yet years of living in pain do change how we look and, possibly, how we behave. Pain can keep people from exercising. Pain medications can cause weight gain or loss. Restrictive diets can also change bodies. Pain can be exhausting, both from lack of sleep and from the physical endurance that it requires. It can make us cranky; it can make us poor; it can run us ragged.

My guess, though, is that Aniston’s biggest challenge will be to make herself “likable.” As we all know, pain is highly stigmatized. There isn’t a lot of sympathy for people who have pain all the time. Cake’s director, Daniel Barnz, must have thought about this because, when asked why he cast Aniston, he explained: “Because the role is hard, you want someone you’d forgive immediately.”

My guess is that people in chronic pain will relate to some of these challenges. How do you “act” when you’re in pain? Do you make extra efforts to seem “sympathetic”? And how do you hope Aniston portrays this character?

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