I have to admit that I was going to use the word “reenactors” rather than “impersonators” in my title, but reenactor doesn’t mean quite the same thing. A reenactor is a person who reenacts historical events. An impersonator is someone who mimics or assumes the mannerisms and appearance of another.
The history field has a lot of reenactors, some of whom also do impersonations. While I’m fine with general reenactments – i.e. a bunch of men dressed up in period military garb to reenact a Civil War battle – I’m not so big on impersonations. I never have been, but it’s only recently that I’ve figured out why.
Chalk it up to the Uncanny Valley. Wired magazine devoted an entire section of its December 2011 issue to the Uncanny Valley, a term coined by robotics researcher Masahiro Mori to describe that creepy feeling we get when something, typically an inanimate object, is almost human. When I see impersonators, I feel as though I’ve slipped into the Uncanny Valley because I don’t know how accurate the portrayal is, especially of lesser known historical figures. If the impersonation is of a dead person who wasn’t filmed, how does the impersonator know the person’s mannerisms or voice? My researcher’s mind wants to know.
A TED Talk by actress Thandie Newton also gave me insight into my negativity toward impersonations. Thandie explained that she grew up without a strong sense of self, which was not easy in her early years but became a benefit to her acting. In contrast, I have always had a strong sense of self, which means I’m not much of an actor. It also explains why impersonators don’t do it for me. I don’t ever want to see someone try to impersonate me. Gives me the creeps just thinking about it.
It’s also why I can’t suspend disbelief when I’ve seen the same actor too many times. All I can think is, “That’s Samuel L. Jackson,” or “That’s Reese Witherspoon.” Most actors have a strong sense of self that shines right through any performance they do. The one exception that comes to mind is Johnny Depp, who has a way of cloaking his own personality with that of his characters.