It’s banal to say that we live in a celebrity-obsessed society. Even those of us who have no interest in the latest high-jinks of the rich and famous can’t help but absorb a fair amount of it, if only by osmosis (for example, I know that Kim Kardashian got married). And needless to say, a lot of it is frivolous nonsense. Life is too short.
But once in a while you hear of someone doing something with their fame and influence that is both laudable and original. For example:
Allison Janney is involved with an organization called Justice for Vets , which seeks to intervene to stop the downward trajectory that many veterans of America’s wars find themselves on as they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with all that they have to cope with. The organization provides legal advocacy for veterans when they get into trouble with the law, and helps get them assigned to rehabilitation programs rather than prisons.
It’s an incredibly noble effort, in my humble opinion. We all have a debt to those we as a society put in harm’s way. But it takes the kind of compassion that we could stand to have more of as a people, frankly, to recognize that in many cases, the dive into drugs and alcohol that some of these veterans take is something that we as a society contributed to, and that therefore it would be the right thing to do to seek to intervene to stop that nosedive at the outset.
It’s a great cause, but I found it particularly interesting that Janney, as an actor, was involved in this. A serious actor (like Janney) explores how people find themselves in situations that they never would have imagined or expected for themselves, and in which they don’t recognize themselves. Dramatic and comedic stories explore departures from the normal, deviations, even downward spirals. And a serious actor is painstaking about tracing the steps and developments that lead to these surprising and revelatory predicaments. We speak in class about “the path” through a role, which refers to the triggers, prompts, or stimuli that a character encounters at each step that provide the reason for the subsequent step. In other words, actors become experts on How I Ended Up Here. The natural consequence of understanding how someone got where they got is empathy, in a word. Anyone can have empathy when it is obviously deserved, but actors, through their work on a role, are often asked to empathize with people who are not obviously deserving of empathy. I begin each class cycle by having students read A Streetcar Named Desire, and then we work on developing a framework for playing Blanche’s first scene in the play. The students are inevitably challenged by the proposition that we have to view ourselves-as-Blanche non-judgmentally, even though the writer has given us so much to judge. They find it hard. But if they become real actors, they get good at it.
But somehow, it seemed to me like a natural fit for someone like Janney to take up a cause like this one, that intervenes on behalf of people who have often broken the law and are on the way to jail. I wondered if it was her empathic faculty, which she has developed over years in her career, that enabled her to see the importance and the necessity of this work. That’s not to say that someone who wasn’t an actor couldn’t see it, but I could absolutely see how an actor would.
So thanks to you. Ms Janney, for your generosity of spirit, and for showing your community the great uses to which celebrity can be put. May you inspire many more.