Actors, they are just like stem cells!

What we can learn about stem cells from The Hollywood Reporter roundtable

Environment and experience differentiates us

My first rotation in grad school was with Hanna Mikkola, a stunning, intense scientist from Finland who studies blood stem cells at UCLA. Blood stem cells are pluripotent, which means that they have options in their cellular fate. They have the potential to develop into any of the different types of blood cells in your body: red, white, or platelet.

Whenever she presented her research, Hanna would say something along these lines — ‘Just as I would ask a person I have just met where they grew up and what their life was like, I want to understand the environments these cells interact with as they develop, so that I can try to recreate it in a dish.’

I love this analogy. As human beings it is easily relatable. We understand that where and how we grew up had a big impact on our personal development. The same is true for cells.

That said, I am not sure that most people appreciate how much of an influence environment and experience have on us, even as adults. We like to believe in an unshakable core self. Like it or not, when placed in a different environment, our personality and behavior shift to fit our new surroundings.

Perhaps no one gets to experience this phenomenon more frequently than actors, whose job is to take on new roles.

Environment breeds character

“I believe that there are a lot of personalities within someone.” Billy Bob Thornton

I have become a bit obsessed with The Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussions. Creative people talking about their craft and their struggles, what could be better! In the 2017 Drama Actor Roundtable, there was an excellent discussion about how environment informs character.

“I agree with you that inside of us, we all contain the possibility of being each other, within us, under a different set of conditions. You know, if the given circumstances change, I’m more like you, you’re more like me. We are all kind of slaves to the circumstances that breed us. Situation breeds character.” Riz Ahmed
Cued up at 42 min. See 42:00–48:43 for discussion about how environment informs character.

This is true at the level of the whole human, and also at the level of the individual cells that make up our body.

In the adult body, most of our cells perform a specific role and would not be good at taking on a new one. They are differentiated, meaning that they have gotten into a gene expression rut, and only express the genes relevant to their current role within their environmental niche.

A stem cell, in contrast, is still genetically open to different job options. It hasn’t figured out its role yet and is capable of being instructed to take on any number of jobs.

What does the instructing is the environment in which a cell finds itself. For example, there is a population of blood stem cells living happily in your bone marrow. In this environment, they are instructed to self-renew, or divide to replenish the stem cell population as needed, but not to differentiate.

There, in your marrow, blood stem cells lie in wait to be called to action. When the signal comes, they migrate out of the bone marrow and into the blood vessels. In this new environment they are instructed to differentiate and take on a needed role.

Actors are open to influence

When we are immature, we are especially open to the influence of environment and experience. As we age, we harden in our ways. Again, the same is true on a cellular level.

It takes a lot to revert a differentiated cell into a stem cell, but it is possible. In fact, it can be done by removing cells from their environment in the body and placing them into an artificial environment that contains the key transcription factors known to keep cells in a pluripotent state.

In that environment, the transcription factors instruct cells to return to an open genetic state. Only then can the cells be introduced to a new environment and expected to take on a new role.

An actor is practiced at reverting to this open state, taking in environmental cues, and committing to a new role.

Several of the actors in the Drama Actor Roundtable had shot scenes in prisons, and they discussed how being in that environment eased their transformation into a new role.

“I’ve shot in a lot of prisons. And that’s an environment that really can put you in there. I mean, you get it right away, and you start to see how people operate and everything.” Billy Bob Thornton
“I shot a film last year in a working maximum security prison out in Indiana, largely with inmates in the cast… talk about atmosphere kind of informing behavior.” Jeffrey Wright

Riz Ahmed described the openness required for environment to exert its strongest influence, saying “It is almost like the process of acting is a process of getting out of your own way. It’s like, the thing is happening. If you surrender yourself to the circumstances, not only on the page but on the set.”

Experience seeps into the marrow of your bones

Environment is not the only thing that influences our sense of self, of course. One additional factor is experience.

In the 2017 Drama Actress Roundtable, Nicole Kidman describes filming the last episode of “Big Little Lies,” a series in which her character is in an abusive relationship with her husband. After the shoot, she couldn’t get into her hotel, so she picked up a rock and threw it through the glass door.

Cued up at 19:35. Relevant discussion from 19:35 to 23:20.

This is not typical behavior for her, Kidman explained, saying “I just felt completely humiliated, and devastated, and angry inside… I was obviously holding all that rage at what had been done.”

Jessica Lange replied with this most wise and compelling response.

“That is always the amazing thing about being an actor, is that your body doesn’t understand that it’s make believe. So that everything is internalized in that way — that rage, that sorrow, grief, whatever. It seeps into the marrow of your bones and every molecule is actually believing that this is happening and no matter what the mind is telling it, everything is internalized.”

This is such a powerful example of how experience can shape us. These are actors. They know that their experiences are contrived, but it doesn’t matter. Experience still makes an imprint.

Cells also receive instruction from experience. If a cell experiences a trauma, such as being without oxygen for too long, that trauma makes an imprint that is “remembered” by the cell. The experience is internalized — gene expression and epigenetic changes prepare the cell to withstand a similar trauma in the future. In this way, even differentiated cells that all have the same role become different based on their individual experiences.

It makes sense, then, that it doesn’t really matter what your mind is telling you. Experience makes itself felt down to the cellular and molecular level.

You, too, can change

Since I am a life advice junkie, I will point out two life lessons to be taken from this story.

Our environment shapes us more than we like to think. Stuck in a rut? Change your environment to change yourself. I recommend reading “Willpower Doesn’t Work,” by Medium superstar Benjamin Hardy.

Experience is felt in our body from H to T and all the way down to the level of our molecules. Want to change your behavior or mood? Engage in experiences that you value and avoid those that you don’t. Go through the motions until the experience seeps into your marrow.


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