Fiction and reality collided this week when Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, the actress best known for playing a character of the same name on the HBO series The Wire, was one of 60 people arrested in a Baltimore drug bust. The news didn’t come as a total surprise: Pearson’s character on The Wire was based in part on her own life, as Pearson had served time in prison for second-degree murder after killing another girl in a fight when Pearson was 14. But this was just the latest example of acting turning out to be less than an act.
Charlie Sheen’s recent spat with his bosses at CBS has seemed especially surreal because of his role on Two and a Half Men as a hard-living ne’er-do-well also named Charlie. Like Pearson, Sheen’s role was based in part on his own public image, which makes his case one of life imitating art that was meant to imitate life in the first place. Same with David Duchovny, whose sex addiction in real life mirrored that of his character in Californication—although again, Duchovny’s battles with addiction predated the show.
For some actors, art enables a certain kind of life. Robert Downey Jr.’s turn as Julian in the 1987 film Less Than Zero led to a string of drug-related arrests and prison time in the 1990s. Downey has cited that role as a turning point in his relationship with drugs: “I was playing this junkie-faggot guy and, for me, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character.”
Indeed, some roles can exacerbate personal problems. Director Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet divorced after making 2008’s Revolutionary Road, about a disintegrating marriage. The film may have played a role in their split: “Thank you for directing this film, babe,” Winslet said in her best actress acceptance speech at the Golden Globes in 2009. “And thank you for killing us every single day and really enjoying us actually being in such horrific pain.” Marlon Brando’s personal life may have influenced his roles, and vice versa. After going into decadent seclusion on the island of Tahiti in the 1960s, he played recluse Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now in 1979, as well as a crazy scientist who rejects civilization in The Island of Dr. Moreau in 1996.
With other actors, it’s hard to tell where the persona ends and the person begins. The 1993 film Demolition Man, which takes place in a dystopian American future, makes passing reference to the presidency of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2003, Schwarzenegger would become governor of California. During his time in office, he would make frequent reference to his action movie days, including calling his opponents “girly men.” Yet he acknowledged that sometimes life outshines art: “I’ve been around Hollywood for many years,” Schwarzenegger said when presenting a firefighter with a medal for bravery in 2010. “They couldn’t come up with stories like this.”
The list of parallels goes on. Macaulay Culkin, who famously wished in Home Alone that his family would “disappear,” got caught in the middle of a legal battle between his parents over who would control his more than $17 million in assets. Sandra Bullock, after playing a woman who adopts a black son in The Blind Side, adopted a black son. The orca star of Free Willy, Keiko, made international news in the late 1990s when attempts to return him to the wild—just like in the movie!— failed. Kate Winslet again predicted her own career moves in an episode of Extras, in which she plays herself playing a nun who shelters Jews during the Holocaust. “If you do a film about the Holocaust,” she says, “you’re guaranteed an Oscar.” Four years later, Winslet won an Academy Award for her role in the Holocaust film The Reader.
But the production responsible for the greatest number of life/art crossovers is probably The Sopranos. Tony Sirico, who played Paul “Walnuts” Gaultieri, was himself a mobster in the Colombo family in the 1960s and ‘70s and served time at Sing Sing. He signed on to TheSopranos on the condition that his character never turn “rat.” Robert Iler, who played Tony Soprano’s troubled teenage son, was arrested in 2001 for armed robbery and marijuana possession and sentenced to three years of probation. In 2009, former Sopranos actor Lillo Brancato Jr. was sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary in an incident that left a police officer dead. In February 2011, Tony Darrow, who plays mob boss Larry Barese, pled guilty in Brooklyn federal court to extortion.
If you cast a mobster to play a mobster, you shouldn’t be surprised when he turns out to be a mobster. Same with drug dealers, addicts, and all-around emotional wrecks. But the blurring of lines between art and life may also have something to do with celebrity itself. When you’re famous for playing a role, there’s a temptation to keep playing it—even in real life. This can lead to a confusion of identity that some psychologists call “dispersion of the self.” “Is it Daniel Craig they know,” asks professor of psychology Glenn Wilson, “or his James Bond persona?” Don’t be surprised if Craig starts playing high-stakes poker, bedding beautiful Russian women, and ordering his martinis shaken, not stirred.