What's the difference between acting and lying?

Written by: Miri
February 2, 2022

I wrote a post recently observing the fact that many of our most prominent public and political figures have backgrounds in acting. If you look carefully, a disproportionately large number of politicians and news talking heads have either trained in, or practiced, the theatrical arts. I extrapolated from this that many of our "public figures" are not 'real' - they are actors playing parts, and that's why they can so easily make preposterous pronouncements on the world stage that so obviously aren't true.

Well, someone might say, as someone did, so what? So politicians lie. That doesn't make them actors.

No, that on its own doesn't. But acting and lying - whilst they have some similarities - are distinct and separate things.

We all lie on occasion (apart from your author here, obviously), but when we do, we are attempting to misrepresent a certain aspect of our personality or history, rather than attempting to present ourselves as an entirely different person. If your spouse returns home late from the pub and you ask them, "how many did you have?", and they reply, "just the one!", this is obviously a lie - but they're not "acting". They're not inhabiting an entirely different personality, with a different backstory, mannerisms and tastes, to their own (well, maybe if they got onto the Tequila..). They're still being them, they're just distorting certain details about something they did.

This is not the same as acting. When someone acts, it is as if they are putting on a character-enveloping costume, almost as if the real person underneath becomes a ventriloquist, giving new and separate life to a creation that is controlled by them, but is not them. And augmenting the psychological costumery of acting are physical costumes, too - distortions of the appearance, such as "make up". The phrase "make up" means to invent, to pretend, as in "I make up a story". Actors of all stripes, male and female alike, tend to wear a lot of make up, far more than an ordinary person would wear. Partly this is to make their features more defined on camera, but it's also all part of the disguise that enables them to persuasively present themselves as someone they're not. If you ever see famous actresses without their make-up, they typically look completely unrecognisable, and this is often intentional. The actor on the public stage is not the same person as the private individual, and the "taking off of the mask" at the end of the day - the removing of the stage make-up - symbolises this.

When a person is just telling a lie, they don't do all this. They don't distort their appearance and completely reinvent themselves, because when you lie, you are still being you. When you act, you're not.

So, when Boris Johnson gets up on the world stage and tells the world that "Covid is a very serious and deadly threat to us all", he's not 'lying', because it's not "him" saying it. It's the character he's playing. Boris Johnson is a stage character, played by a man named Alex. "Boris" is his stage name. All of Mr. Johnson's family and friends refer to him by his real first name, Alexander, because to call him "Boris" would be as bizarre as John Cleese's friends calling him "Basil".

Sometimes public figures play characters with the same name as their own, such as, in Hollywood blockbuster, World War Z, Piers Morgan plays a squealing talking head warning of an imminent zombie apocalypse, and the name of the character he plays is 'Piers Morgan'. This makes it clear, then, that just because an actor goes by their own name in a production, doesn't mean they are not, nonetheless, acting - reading from a script, pretending to be someone they're not, and portraying a fictitious reality.

This is very distinct from lying. Piers Morgan wasn't "lying" when he read a script on camera warning the world of imminent zombie attack, he was acting - inhabiting a character, repeating scripted lines, and playing a part. When he finished filming at the end of the day, he didn't go home to his wife and say, "oh my God, darling, the zombies are going to kill us all!", because issuing that warning was just part of his acting day-job, not a reflection of reality or the person he actually is.

That's the difference, and it really does matter - namely because, acting is a lot easier than lying is. If you're lying, you feel guilty. You're worried you will be caught out. It's difficult to reconcile lies with reality, and it gets harder as time goes on.

Not so with acting.

It is for this reason that several very well-known sales operations in London primarily recruit through Stage magazine, and also why many sales outfits encourage their operatives to adopt different names as part of their "sales persona".

This is because sales can be rather unscrupulous, and, as most people have consciences, they can be decidedly uncomfortable with some of the sales-closing 'techniques' (lies) they're asked to adopt. It becomes a whole lot easier if it's not really "them" doing it - if they're just playing the part of a sales operative, someone with a different name, reading from a script - all things that actors, of course, are professionally trained to do.

It is of note that several public figures have used the "I was just acting" defence in court, when confronted with the "lies" they have told on the world stage. Alex Jones, for example, the US "conspiracy theorist", stated in court as part of a custody case that he is a performance artist, and the character 'Alex Jones' he plays on his show is a fictitious creation which bears no resemblance to his real-world personality. [This gets particularly interesting when you dive down the Alex Jones / Bill Hicks rabbit hole, which has more to it than you might think... Oh yes, I have a conspiracy for every occasion...]

It comes down to this: when you go to the movies, you know everything being presented before you on the screen is pretend, not real, a make-believe story being portrayed by actors. You know this because it's made explicit before you buy the ticket.

But what if you weren't told? What if there was a 24/7 movie on your home tele-screen labelled "the news"?

If you were never explicitly told this was fake - a make-believe story being portrayed by actors - then would you be able to tell? Are you sure?

All the world's a stage... And, in various ways, they tell us this all the time. After all, just remember what "the news" told you the name of the first man to receive the vaccine was...

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7 comments on “What's the difference between acting and lying?”

  1. Bravo Miri (chucks bouquet). The "Boris as stage name" segment above is bang on. He can never quite resist that little smirk, no doubt thinking "this is so easy, yawn". His hangdog expression when doing one of his "sorry, not sorry" turns is outré. I can imagine the newspaper subeditor reading tomorrow's headlines and Johnson suggesting "... how about embattled Boris..?" to help complete the illusion.

    But next Monday, after his briefing from Carrie, the bastard comes bouncing right back like Tigger.

  2. The Trueman Show opened my eyes to the world being a stage. Some actors are better, more natural, than others. Looking back on the daily Covid briefings it is quite obvious, particularly with Chris Whitty. He had the uncanny ability of not blinking once during his performances. Whether due to emmense concentration not to fluff his lines or to try to pervey the severest warning of the coming apocalypse, I can't know. Maybe both?

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