Tom Cruise rescued a family from a burning boat. Ryan Gosling stopped a woman from being run over in New York City. Benedict Cumberbatch rescued a man who was being mugged. And Kate Winslet carried a woman out of a burning building.
Coincidence? Well, filmmaker Albert Nerenberg of Elevator Films wondered just that when he began his research for his latest film, You Are What You Act, which is screening tonight at The Screening Room here in Kingston.
Now he knows it’s definitely not a coincidence that A-list celebrities have a penchant for taking on the role of the hero in real life. And the list of celebrities that have been involved in heroic efforts doesn’t end there. There are many instances where Tom Cruise has been heroic in his real life, and the same thing goes for Harrison Ford. Tom Hardy, Emily Blunt, Clint Eastwood… even John Malkovich: They’ve all been involved in saving another person’s life in one way or another.
And the one thing they all have in common? They all act. And for Nerenberg, that simple fact led him on a journey of discovering the connections between the brain, the body, psychology, neuroscience, and self-projection, all documented in You Are What You Act.
“I have a background in acting and I’ve always thought that, for me, learning acting was a really empowering experience… I was kind of an introverted, shy teenager, couldn’t talk to people, and suddenly acting gave me a way to do that,” said Nerenberg.
“So I had always been interested in sort of the science of the way acting changes people, and I knew there was a science called embodied cognition, which is like an emerging neuro-based science that shows the way the body feeds back to the brain changes how we feel and think.”
For example, take laughter clubs, which have popped up across North America as a means for people to come together and literally change the way they feel by collectively laughing together. Nerenberg, himself a laughologist, actually set up such a club right here in Kingston – the Kingston Laughter League – which exists to this day, despite having morphed into an improv troop.
From embodied cognition, Nerenberg moved on to looking at language metaphors, like how we will often describe people as ‘warm.’ The word ‘warm’ refers to temperature, but when it’s used to describe a person, it is because we, as humans, relate the word to a feeling we have of being comfortable, warm, and embraced.
“And so this brings us back to the star phenomena, where I basically started to think ‘Well, is this applying to the stars? That the stars are becoming their roles? And why hasn’t anybody else looked at this?’” Nerenberg said, who self-describes his film-making style as focusing on “things that hide in plain sight.”
“So basically, I realized this was the same thing: that the fact that we are what we act is so obvious that we don’t notice it. And that there is now a science that explains it.”
Nerenberg, who lives in Kingston part-time, allowed the film to delve deep into the some of the strange-yet-simple ways what people do affects how they feel, as well as how they are received. The film looks at ‘love hacking,’ a theory developed by Robert Epstein which, after studying successful arranged marriages, found that couples that practiced some of the acts associated with being in love – gazing into one another’s eyes, allowing oneself to be vulnerable to another, outwards expressions of emotions – actually improved the quality of their relationships.
“Now, this weirdly enough, brings us right back to the stars. In the film, we show that a lot of stars are literally acting out the love hacks, because the same things that hack love are the things that make movies work – smouldering looks, being rescued – all these things are acts that create love,” Nerenberg explained.
“And then of course, [Epstein’s] theory is this explains why movie stars don’t stay together, because they go from movie to movie, hacking the love behaviour themselves, and of course this both causes them to fall in love with people, and then also break the bonds of the people they’re already in love with.”
You Are What You Act, parts of which were filmed in Kingston, explores all of these subjects and more, as it examines how personal behaviour effects one’s own existence. If there is a science out there that says the way you act changes your destiny, how can we change our destiny in better ways, the film asks. And for Nerenberg, the amazing part is how, through studying these subjects and creating this film, his life has changed for the better.
“Well, some of it I knew before, but now I use it all the time,” he said, noting that he often uses ‘power posturing’ when he’s public speaking, and will admit so while he is doing it.
“I feel like [working on this film] helped me do a whole lot of things better. And yes, I would say it’s increased the amount of love in my life,” he continued.
“Part of the film says that when you learn the hack for love, the point of it is not to go around and fall in love with everybody, it’s that you can both deepen the love you already have, and/or maybe meet someone to fall in love with. So it’s helped me deepen the love in my life.”
And that’s exactly what Nerenberg hopes the film can do for others.
“It’s a film that explains how you can be more confident, how you can be braver,” he expressed.
“And, yes, I hope the film helps people deepen the love they have and find the love they need.”
You Are What You Act screens tonight, Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, at The Screening Room, beginning at 7 p.m. Nerenberg will address the audience before the screening begins and take viewers through an interactive exercise that allows them to experience some of the things the film explains. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience, but if you can’t make it out to the screening, you can watch for You Are What You Act airing on the Documentary Channel in January.