6 Lessons On-Screen Mothers Have Taught us About Acting

6 Lessons On-Screen Mothers Have Taught us About Acting

Angelina Jolie, Susan Sarandon, Mo’Nique, Essie Davis, Jodie Foster, and Meryl Streep — all mothers — teach us all a little something about acting.

Mothers: we salute you.

You’ve cooked us countless meals. You’ve put up with our laundry-strewn bedroom floors. You’ve been a shoulder to cry on when we got snubbed by that crush we were infatuated with in high school. But, ultimately, you’ve helped nurture and encourage the next generation of filmmaking talent and for that you deserve unending praise.

And so, in tribute to mothers everywhere, today we’re paying homage to six cinematic mothers who have taught us all a little something about acting over the years.

Presenting…

1. Angelina Jolie – The Changeling

What We Learned: Motherhood isn’t a character trait

With stunning cinematography and a tight script reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, The Changeling sees Jolie’s character distraught to find her nine year-old son missing. But on being reunited, things go from bad to worse; when she adamantly declares that the boy isn’t actually her son, authorities conspire to brand her psychotic.

From start to finish, the audience is locked into an emotional rollercoaster and herein lies the key to Angelina’s impressive performance: motherhood isn’t just a line on her character spec sheet. Even though it’s central to her story arc, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of her character – under the umbrella of motherhood, she runs the gamut of emotion. At times she’s broken and in despair; at others she’s fierce and strong. Depending on the situation the plot finds her in, she’s nurturing, sexy, divisive, hopeful, frustrated, joyful and desperate…

… in short, she acts as a real person would in real situations. The fact that she has a child is purely circumstantial.

Read more: The importance of subtext

2. Susan Sarandon – Stepmom

What we learned: It’s okay to play to type

While keeping Jolie’s lesson in mind for how to play a multi-dimensional mom character, there’s also no shame in playing that character often if it’s something you are terrific at.

Susan Sarandon is proof of this, and despite having played a mother figure in numerous movies, no two of her performances are alike as she ekes out and embellishes the role in different ways as the script demands.

Stepmom is a classic example – just make sure you have a handkerchief at the ready.

Read more: How to find your type as an actor

3. Mo’Nique – Precious

(Caution: NSFW Language)

What we learned: It’s not all sunshine and roses

 When you think of on-screen moms, usually the first image that springs to mind is one of a domestic housewife living in marital bliss.

But of course, art imitates life, warts and all. That means some performances call for a frighteningly abusive relationship between parent and child, and nobody captured the darkness with more authenticity than Mo’Nique and her on-screen daughter Gabourey Sibide in Precious.

Some characters are more monstrous than others, and parents are no exception. As actors, it’s important to give it our all in order to bring that character to life no matter whether it calls for domestic happiness or terrifying dysfunction.

4. Essie Davis – The Babadook

What We Learned: A duty of care

So terrifying and demented was Essie Davis’ performance as a slowly-unraveling mother (and the entire movie in general) that many viewers were left wondering how the crew didn’t mentally scar 6 year-old actor Noah Wiseman for real.

Director Jennifer Kent, however, took great pains to make sure that Wiseman’s welfare was at the forefront of production. The child’s mother was on set at all times in what was described as a ”very protective, loving environment” and Wiseman himself wasn’t present during more traumatic scenes with an adult extra taking his place: “During the reverse shots where Amelia was abusing Sam verbally, we had Essie [Davis] yell at an adult stand-in on his knees. I didn’t want to destroy a childhood to make this film – that wouldn’t be fair.”

Ultimately, no matter whether we’re directing a film, in acting school or performing opposite a very young actor, we all have a duty of care to understand that great cinema doesn’t need to come at the expense of a child’s well-being.

Read more: 5 performances by child actors we can all learn from

5. Jodie Foster – Panic Room

What We Learned: Not all on-screen bonds are purely fictional

David Fincher’s 2002 thriller worked on many levels, but it was arguably the close bond between the mother and daughter characters which propelled the drama and kept the film emotionally grounded.

And the reason it worked so well is that the bond was real – Jodie was deeply nurturing of her 10 year-old costar Kristen Stewart, who in turn looked up to the acting veteran (Foster was also responsible for having the script changed to make her on-screen daughter a tougher character.)

To this day the pair remain close, with Foster calling Stewart “my other daughter” and Stewart having honored Foster while receiving her Walk of Fame star.

And on a similar (if a lot darker) vein…

6. Meryl Streep – Mamma Mia!

What We Learned: We draw from the strong women around us

The ultimate Mother’s Day movie, and one which sees Meryl Streep performing at her finest (though really, when is she not?).

While her filmography is as varied as it is extensive, Streep is no stranger to performing as an on-screen mother and her career is loosely typified as being one that exudes feminine strength, of which Mamma Mia! is a good example.

And perhaps a lot of her acting prowess is rooted in her close bond with her real-life maternal figures – Streep drew extensively from both her mom and grandmother’s experiences to as a career mother and war survivor respectively for her celebrated roles in Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

And the inspiration may even run deeper than that. Of her highly encouraging mother, Streep says: “She was a mentor because she said to me, ‘Meryl, you’re capable… If you’re lazy, you’re not going to get it done. But if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.’”

Amen to that.

Happy Mother’s Day to all those that continue to inspire us, as well as those who are sadly no longer with us.

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