An Actor’s Personal History Matters

If you haven’t seen Jonathan Tolins’ hit off-Broadway play Buyer and Cellar at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles run don’t walk (or, should I say, Google the show? Get tickets as fast as you can before the comedy concludes its LA run on Sunday, August 17th. You absolutely don’t want to miss Michael Urie’s laugh-out-loud, one-man show or his impeccable comedic timing. This spoof on Barbra Streisand’s famed shopping mall in her cellar (that part is the truth, not fiction) is wonderful. With Urie as “salesman” (the salesman part is fiction, at least we think so!) the play could easily have been a predictable story about excess, but thankfully it’s not.  Michael Urie’s portrayal of Streisand is as sensitive as it is funny. How did he make that happen?

In a Q&A after the performance I saw on August 10, one audience member asked Urie how he developed his hilarious take on Barbra Streisand. Of course, he did his research. He read interviews. And, of course, he watched everything he could find: Prince of Tides, The Mirror Has Two FacesMeet The Fockers, and Little Fockers, for example. He looked for every clue and every nuance to make his performance of Barbra as convincing as it could get. But, when it came right down to it, what did he realize? Something from his personal history was the driving force to “being Barbra” during his performances of Buyer and Cellar.

Personal History & “Being Barbra” in Buyer & Cellar

When Urie was 14, he didn’t get all the Barbra hype. Why did people love Barbra so much?  What was it about her?  Then, he watched her 1994 comeback show. She was alive. Loved singing to her audience. Barbra wasn’t subdued as she later, at times, became. His mother sat next to him and pointed out every subtlety he needed to know to become a Barbra Streisand fan.

It wasn’t just Michael Urie’s research for Buyer and Cellar that made him finally connect with Babs. Nor was it his intellectual understanding of the star whose legendary career has inspired generations of entertainers. Those things might have rendered his interpretation caricature.

No, it was the memory he carried inside of an emotional experience from his childhood. That memory allowed him to feel his way into his character. And, then, to make his rendition of Barbra not just funny – but kind and real. It was the memory of shared time with his mom.

That didn’t surprise me as a psychoanalyst. I see every day how personal history informs everything we do and every relationship we have. Even if we don’t know it while it’s happening. Hence, we can see how personal history helped Urie in his preparation for the role of Barbra in Buyer and Cellar. His experience as a teenager informed him in an unconscious way. Because he liked and appreciated Barbra, this experience led to the creation of a likable (although funny) character in Buyer and Cellar

How Personal History Helps (Or Hinders) An Actor

How else does personal history help or even hinder? In a positive way, an actor might be in touch with difficult feelings and early life experiences. Knowing and drawing on the impact of these experiences can help create a character with great depth, grounded in a reality that rings true to viewers. In real-life relationships, these same realizations provide empathy for the feelings of others.

On the other hand for actors, unprocessed early experiences, especially traumatic or oppressive ones, can take over. If this happens, it can cause an over-identification with a role that is all too similar to their own unconscious struggles. Take Natalie Portman in Black Swan, as an extreme instance. Losing oneself in a role is quite different from creating a realistic character. Getting lost means an actor can’t enter into the role for a time, yet know where that character ends.

For all of us, it is important to recognize the sometimes-intricate ways early history plays itself out in current situations. If we can, we see what belongs to us and what does not. And, then, our personal experience becomes quite useful, not only in acting but also in successful relationships. And in how we live our lives.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.