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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?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Pete
    5 years ago

    If this movie portrays yet another ‘pill-seeker’, maybe we should induce a migraine in the director! Almost every movie that I have ever seen with a character dealing with serious pain ends with the “good guy/girl” overcoming it and living happily ever after. Who wants to see a movie about us? Maybe a documentary… I sure wouldn’t like a camera’s view of my life- I know it sucks, and I also know that I lie to myself to keep me from pulling that trigger. Maybe a film about our long-suffering spouses/significant others?
    Our culture demands an optimistic outcome; selling chronic pain as we spiral downward won’t fill the box offices.
    As an example, today has been a “flare” day, with high level, non-stop pain going on 16 hours. I have accomplished NOTHING other than surviving (hiding behind drawn curtains, head packed in ice, nauseated, exhausted); sounds cinematically exciting, no?

  • Luna
    5 years ago

    “I have accomplished NOTHING other than surviving.”
    Pete – surviving IS A BIG ACCOMPLISHMENT.

  • Star71
    5 years ago

    I hadn’t heard about this movie…
    Aniston isn’t one of my favorite actress’ to begin with, but if she’s portraying one of us with chronic pain, I’d love to see her portrayal.
    I know from being in pain for so many years it’s taken a toll on my body and I don’t dress or do my make-up as nice as I use too.
    It takes too much effort, esp. if a migraine comes on and I’m hunched over a toilet puking my brains out and the make-up is ruined, why bother???
    I know that sounds like a horrible way out, but when you’re a daily migraine sufferer, that’s just the way it is…
    And my clothes are for comfort, they’re loose (mostly from weight loss due to Topamax) but b/c I can’t stand anything restrictive due to the constant throbbing coursing through my body.
    SO I’m hoping she’s going to do our kind some justice and shed some light to our ‘silent suffering’…

  • Nancy Stein
    5 years ago

    She’s portraying a person with chronic pain as a pill popping, prescription faking, drug abusing junkie. Wow, that will help the general public’s opinion of us! Thanks!

  • cancan
    5 years ago

    Did you see this movie, Nancy? If, indeed, it is as you describe…then it won’t help us MIGRAINEURS. But I will take a chance and see it anyway…just to see if it helps people to understand any kind of pain that isn’t being helped by doctors or family support. CRONIC pain for a lifetime is a pathetic life….especially when you get old….is it worth the fight any longer????

  • Beth
    5 years ago

    After reading this article, I’m hoping that it will help others understand about chronic pain, but I’m not holding my breath. I’ve had pain for a while…I’ve got arthritis besides migraine. It’s hard sometimes to even get up!! Even my husband doesn’t understand why I sometimes act the way I do…and he’s in the medical field…EMT plus works in an ER.

  • Jerick
    5 years ago

    After reading your post yesterday, I did some research on the new film. And, what I found in the media coverage was disturbing to me:

    “Wallowing in self-pity and painkillers, the depressed and bitter Claire…”

    “She’s not wearing makeup because that’s true to the character: this is a woman who doesn’t take care of herself.” (from the director!)

    When discussing her partner’s take on the film, Jennifer and her interviewer joked that Justin “threw her out of the house” for the five weeks, because he “didn’t want to look at me.” (to be fair, Jennifer does give some encouraging interviews about the internal beauty of the role/character)

    And the multiple headlines you note in your piece about Jennifer’s “undoing”

    It appears that instead of a compassionate account of unimaginable suffering, the film is attacking those with chronic pain (“wallowing”, “bitter”) and focusing on their physical unattractiveness.

    Without seeing the film, it’s obviously impossible to form a complete picture, but this early media coverage has me disheartened. Hopefully, I will be proved wrong.

  • Maureen
    5 years ago

    When I am in pain,if I am out or at home with company, I try the old “fake it til you make it” method, which sometimes works. If it isn’t working, my next line of defense is to admit that I am not well, and to ask forgiveness if I seem cranky/mean/unsociable/stupid/uninterested/etc. If/when I realize that I just can’t “make it,” then I retreat… to my bed, or the bathroom, or the lobby, or my car, or …I have been known to sleep in the darkened nursery or fellowship hall during church (and I am the pastor’s wife)
    I really don’t want anyone (close family members excluded) to know that I am not well. I think there are several reasons.
    1. I want to be normal.
    2. I want to do well at whatever it is I am doing.
    3. I don’t want to discuss it.
    4. I don’t want to deal with lame attempts by others to help/heal/fix it.
    What my level 7 pain looks like today – stayed home from church, slept all morning, listening to sermon online but it took three attempts to enter my password, pjs all day. I do things like unload the dishwasher in an attempt to gauge a lower pain level, and then retreat back to the couch facing away from the window (because it is too bright), and hope for a better result later.

  • Rhonda
    5 years ago

    Maureen – a big Amen:-) I’m a bi-vocational Associate Pastor, and I was unable to make it to service today either. I hide and/or minimize the chronic pain, but then feel conflicted about living authentically alongside my community.

  • SunupShutterbug
    5 years ago

    For myself I can say that chronic pain has aged me physically. Before I got chronic migraine people used to tell me how young I looked now I look much older than I am

  • Jules2dl
    5 years ago

    The first thing one of my dearest friends said to me was “why do you spend so much time trying to be invisible?”
    I was so taken aback that I just blurted out the truth “because I get migraines.” She got that, and we’ve been close friends ever since.
    I normally get very quiet and “invisible” when I have a bad migraine in public. I would hope that Ms Aniston does not play the brave martyr, nor the sunny faced, dying inside trooper. I hope she plays it hard and gritty. I hope she plays it real. I hope its narrated in the first person so we can hear what she thinks when some mindless coworker says some mindless remark about how much her paper cut hurts, or did you try drinking this juice made of pineapple, kale, and lemon? Sure fire cure!

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