What a Character!
What is my job as an actor?
It is to live the life of a character truthfully and honestly.
If I’m to live the life of a character truthfully and honestly how do I get rid of me?
In the 600+ years since Hamlet was written it has never been played the same way twice. Why? Because every actor who has portrayed the Great Dane has brought his or her own uniqueness to the role. Yes, I said his or her. Hamlet has also been interpreted by several women throughout history most notably, Sarah Bernhardt and Judith Anderson.
Your job as an actor is to immerse yourself with the character.
“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarities in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.” Meryl Streep
When first attacking a role the actor looks for all the similarities between himself and the character. He makes a connection that joins him to the character. An umbilical cord of sorts. He then seeks out all the dissimilarities. The actor then makes a list of what needs to be worked on, to be embodied. The actors job is to make the character a real, breathing, human being. Another Shakespearian character, Richard the Third, has a physical deformity. The actor playing Richard needs to manifest the physicality of his deformity. That actor needs to embody the pain of living every day of his life with such a deformity. Eventually connecting himself emotionally and psychologically to that pain. Richards unseen scars. The ramifications of which are spoken in the first lines of Richard the III.
These opening lines, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” lay the groundwork of a man who in his own words is, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before his time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”
How does the actor get to understand what he needs in order to make his portrayal of Richard truthful?
Two masters of character work are unquestionably Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep. Each has recently embodied two individuals who existed in two different time periods and two very different worlds – Abraham Lincoln, and Julia Child. No other actor could have performed these two historical paragons as did these two consummate actors. Why? Because they aren’t Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis. Both combined their individualities with what they learned about these two persons in order to produce what was so brilliantly portrayed on the screen. Other actors, in their portrayal of Lincoln and Child, would naturally bring their instruments and their uniqueness to these roles. Thus creating their own special Lincoln and Child.
Acting is homework.
Research! Research! Research!
The answer to success in any field is the appreciation and application of comprehensive homework. Even if your aspirations aren’t to be the next Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis, even if you only desire to play a cop on a TV series, you need to do homework.
I was lucky as a young actor in that I fell in love with the process which is homework. I understand that not every one will feel the same. The serious actor must discipline himself to do the work.
Meryl Streep once said, “I never give the character less respect than I give my own life.”
Who am I?
You will find in my book, “Beyond the Moon,” and in the great Uta Hagen’s book, “A Challenge for the Actor,” that the first step in working on any character is the question, Who am I? It is important to note that the question isn’t – Who is the character? From the moment you begin working on a role you must personally identify with the character. Meryl Streep began working on Julia Child by saying – My name is Julia Child. If you were beginning work on George Bernard Shaw’s, St. Joan, you would state your name, Joan of Lorraine. You would read and re-read the script many times writing down every piece of information that will help you in your development of this complexed individual. You will research on the computer, in library’s and museums, the historical Joan. You will broaden your knowledge of the historical times in which she lived. What was it like to live on a farm in France during those days? What was it to be a women, indeed, a young girl in those days? Your research should be extensive.
“I have always been intrigued by these lives I have never experience.” Daniel Day Lewis
Great acting, even good acting, is not about memorizing lines and pretending to be someone else. It is a commitment to the intentions of the playwrights and screenwriters to be truthful to what they have created. And that means the historical and personal truths when you are playing a St. Joan, Abraham Lincoln, or Julia Child. Indeed, even to a Batman or Spiderman if you had been fortunate enough to be offered these roles in the current franchises. You must do your research. Can you imagine the hullabaloo at Comic-Con if any actor wasn’t truthful to the legends of those two super heros, or to Superman, Ironman and the rest.
When a play or history doesn’t offer us any specific insights into the character’s personal history the actor has his imagination to fill in the blanks. Too many young actors look at this information, e.g., where and when the character was born, what were the characters mother and father’s first names, where they went to school, etc.’ as useless information. Just know there is no useless information when it comes to developing a character.
Examine your own life. What facts in your past define much of who you are today. Look at people you know and how they are the products of their history. The successful person who grew up with supportive parents and went to the best schools. The drug addict who came from a broken home, or the successful person who escaped from a troubled background in the ghetto to find his dreams.
The life of a character doesn’t begin with the first line of the play. It begins the day your character was born. The character has likes and dislikes, things they can do and things they can’t, and things they wish they could. They have dreams and fears that may not be an active part of the play or screenplay. Characters are as three dimensional as you and it is your job as an actor to make that truth a reality.
All the aforementioned homework is combined with that special component that only you can bring to a role, your uniqueness. That special part of yourself that connects you and character on a personal level. The building of a character is a fascinating process. We as actors have the ability – no, more than that, the privilege to live the life of another human being.
It has been my intention with this article to share with the young actor the joy of creativity. There is a major part of every creative artist to satisfy an unseen need that only another artist can understand. Treasure that part of yourself and respect what it has the ability to accomplish. Don’t cheat yourself or your talent. Be proud of what you can and will accomplish.
“Take your heart to work and ask the most and best from everybody else, too.” Meryl Streep
I ask the best from you.
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