Let’s face it, balancing work and life, especially in the arts, is no simple task. What if, however, that imbalance is exactly what an actor needs to create vibrant, charismatic, three-dimensional characters? Today, I will explain the importance of an actor bringing his or her own life experiences, emotions, and overall “mess” to each character they play. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Curtain up!
It’s 5:43am. I’ve only been sleeping for four hours. I awaken to hear my 5-month-old daughter stirring in her nearby bassinet. The stirs turn to coos. The coos into cries. She needs something. Food, maybe? Pacifier? Maybe. Diaper change? Most likely. I can do that. Changed. It’s now 5:54. Rocking her back to sleep.
The profound words of the legendary William Shakespeare going through my mind. A self-tape audition for an adaptation of one his famous works is due this afternoon. How will I have enough energy to focus on that? Still rocking -- 6:17am -- Baby’s eyes are wide open. Come on baby, please go back to sleep! She smiles at me instead. Cutest baby ever. How can I be upset with her? 6:31. She’s still awake. Am I? Barely. I look over at mommy -- sound asleep. She’s already worked her share of middle of the night feeds. Mama needs a break. 6:46. I can feel another diaper change coming. As well as my anxiety about my audition. 7:00am…
Time to begin the day.
Now as much as I love Shakespeare’s work, I’m no aficionado. Which is why I’m developing so much early morning anxiety about tackling this character for today’s audition. Although if there’s one thing I do know about William Shakespeare, it’s that even after all these centuries, he continues to teach us actors that every human emotion is always available to us.
Perhaps he forgot to teach us the way they changed dirty diapers in the early morning twilight during the Elizabethan age, nevertheless, what the classic playwright did consistently offer was a stream of dynamic characters who experienced love, loss, joy, tragedy, anger, anxiety, betrayal, and most, if not all, other human emotions.
Acting asks us to use these basic human emotions to create fascinating characters that appear three-dimensional to the viewer. Not just words on a page. So why is it that actors find this so hard to do during character creation?
Even for much simpler characters who don’t use Old English words like “thou,” “hath,” and “dost.” Why do we continue to see so many performances in film and television that seem dead, forced, or too rehearsed?
What happened to actors living truthfully as if they are their characters? Are our busy lives keeping us from experiencing our emotions during the day? Or are we so closed off to our own selves that we no longer know how to use, in our work, something that is so widely available to us?
If you’ve ever studied with an acting teacher, and I certainly have which is why I feel qualified to share the following information with you, then you’ve heard the phrase, “use it.”
“I have an audition today, but I don’t feel well.”
“But it’s for an Olympic athlete who wins a gold medal. She’s not sick.
“Great. Use it.”
Student stands there confused.
Why? Because the student doesn’t understand that the teacher isn’t asking her to appear sick in the audition. The teacher is asking her, the actor, to experience something familiar.
The definition of the word experience is, knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone.
Now, has the student ever won an Olympic gold medal? Likely not. Has the student ever been in an Olympic competition? Doubtful. Has the student ever been in an athletic competition of any kind? Maybe. For the sake of argument, let’s just say yes. So, if the student has been in an athletic competition, then she probably knows what the experience is like after it’s over. Tired, winded, maybe in pain...So using her own lethargy from her personal reality of being under the weather might just work perfect for this, right? I’d like to think so.
Let’s take this a bit deeper. Say the actor feels tip top. No issues with health, just another sunny Southern California day. She’s working her character before the audition. Same Olympic medalist character example we used earlier. Aside from the struggle of finding her own voice through the words on the page, the actor is poised and ready to perform. Except she has no idea how to truly embody what this character is experiencing. In other words, she isn’t truthfully acting “as if” she is the Olympian. She is just reciting the words from the page. Now, she may still get the job. That’s not the point. Will she be making the character fully three-dimensional? Probably not. So what should she do, you ask? Well, remember the dictionary definition of the word, experience, we stated so eloquently before? No? Here it is again:
Experience is knowledge or practical wisdom gained from what one has observed, encountered, or undergone.
Let’s think back on our past experiences in life. How can we relate those to an Olympic athlete set to win her first gold medal? Remember when I asked earlier if the actor had ever been in an athletic competition? Well, what if she hasn’t? How about a competition of any kind? Most certainly she has. She’s an actor. An actor competes every day. So why not use the audition setting as her backdrop to create the experience of competition?
There’s preparation (breaking down the script), there’s practice (rehearsal process), and there’s the event (the audition). If she wins, which the character does, there’s payoff (the job). So, forget about the damn Olympic competition the character is involved in, and instead, remember what it feels like to do what an actor does more often in their career than anything else… AUDITION! Well that and ponder over if there’s something else they should be doing with their life. I digress.
Are you still with me? Good. Let’s try another example. Say you booked the part of a lone, blind man, in a post-apocalyptic era, who has to fight his way across the country -- on foot -- to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind. *SPOILER ALERT* The Book of Eli. Let’s also say, one, you’re not blind. Two, you’re not living in a post-apocalyptic era, and three, you probably have a car that you would just simply drive across the country rather than walk. How in the hell are you supposed to play this character while making the circumstances real? Well, you can’t. Because it’s not real. Ever hear the late, great, Sanford Meisner quote describing the art of acting? No? Yes? Well here it is, “Acting is living (or behaving) truthfully under (given) imaginary circumstances.” I’d certainly say these circumstances are very much imaginary, wouldn’t you? So how do we behave truthfully in them?
Let’s go back to the beginning, back to my new dad early morning ritual. I’m going to do some substitution for you. It’s 5:43am (tired), I’m standing in the dark (blind), holding my crying infant daughter (sacred book), in a post-apocalyptic era (the smell of dirty diapers). This experience alone is enough to start me on my character creation journey across the desolate heartland. In that moment, I’m having a memorable experience happening under REAL circumstances. Therefore, I can use that memory, and the sensations I experienced during it, to create the psychological illusion of living in the same way the lone blind man is during his journey. I have a memory of the sight, the sound, the smell, and thank God, no memory of the taste. I do, however, have enough stored in my sensory bank to create this experience again. This time, under imaginary circumstances. See what I just did there?
The point is, if you’re blessed enough to have all five of your senses, then you have the ability to use them to effect memory, thus, create a real emotional experience. From there, the experience you created will give you a visceral connection to what your character is going through. Who would have thought dirty diapers could be related to a post-apocalyptic world? Oh, but they can, they can indeed. In fact, I can smell those diapers right now. Shit. She needs another change. No pun intended. Be right back…
Now please don’t confuse this technique with what you may have heard about this type of psychological acting, or “method acting,” which is something we’ll touch on later. I’m not saying an actor needs to go all Daniel Day Lewis every time he gets an audition notice in his inbox. Just because you’re playing a homeless man doesn’t mean you have to go live under a bridge for two weeks. Unless you just want to? Then I applaud your creative efforts, my friend. *Note: I have NO factual evidence of Daniel Day Lewis ever living under a bridge for any reason. Something tells me though, if there’s one actor who would be committed enough do it, it would probably be him*
Even if you did go live under that bridge, you are still an actor playing a character. So despite the fact that you will be showing up to work every day smelling like the 405 freeway, you will still need to use your senses to affect the memory of yourself living under that bridge to live truthfully as if you are your character. So, in order to do this, what you have to think about is what living under that bridge must mean to your character. Is it your character’s home, or just a temporary situation? Is he proud of it? Embarrassed? Did something outside of himself cause him to get there, or was it his own personal choices? If so, what were those choices?
Now think about how your own life relates to how your character got there. Take yourself down that rabbit hole. Maybe your character was in a bad relationship that caused him to start using drugs, which led him to addiction. Addiction led to subtraction of all the things he once knew and loved, thus, sending him to live under a bridge. How can we as actors relate to that?
If you’re an actor, in Los Angeles or New York, or pretty much anywhere on the planet, I’d say there’s a 99.9% chance you have been in a bad relationship. It probably put you in a dark place. Maybe it didn’t cause you to start using drugs, but it probably caused you pain. What did you think about during those moments of heartbreak? How did you escape that pain? These are the experiences we must think about when creating a character, and then use them, along with our five senses, to make our character three-dimensional.
Just because we haven’t been in the character’s shoes before, doesn’t mean we haven’t experienced some of the same emotions, or feelings, the character is experiencing. SO USE THEM!
The techniques I’ve described to you in this article are nothing new. Back in the late 1800s, the great and innovative Russian actor / director, Konstantin Stanislavski, created what he coined, “The System.”
Years later in America, Lee Strasberg famously expanded on Stanislavski’s system to create what he called, “The Method.” I personally was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study both the Stanislavski System as well as The Strasberg Method from two exceptional teachers, who I credit for teaching me such invaluable knowledge.
Suspicion tells me if we go back to when Shakespeare was wowing audiences at the Globe Theatre with his groundbreaking stage plays, his business partner, Richard Burbage, probably used a similar technique to create anger and madness while masterfully portraying King Lear. I wonder what they called their technique back then?
If we can relax enough to go deep within ourselves, dig through our past experiences, utilize our senses, and bring our personal lives to our work, even the messy parts, we can easily find the truthful emotions we need to make us seem “as if” we are our characters. Because after all, the characters can’t speak for themselves. They are simply words on a page. It is us actors whom they require to bring them to life. Fully three-dimensional.
Once we learn to do this successfully, then perhaps maybe, just maybe, we will have the opportunity to discover the emotional experience of winning a gold statue, err…I mean… gold medal.
With over 40 film, television, and theatre credits, and a lengthy list of appearances in major national commercial campaigns, the NAACP Theatre Award Nominee is rapidly ascending as one of the top up and coming actors to watch in this decade.
Currently he can be seen as a lead in the hilarious comedy series, Hicksters, as well as in a supporting role in the upcoming highly anticipated horror feature Panacea. He resides in Los Angeles, California, with his fiancé, daughter, and stepson, and is quickly establishing his production company, 9TENN Productions, with exciting plans for the future.
Let's hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Got an idea for a post? Or have you collaborated with Stage 32 members to create a project? We'd love to hear about it. Email Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org and let's get your post published!
Please help support your fellow Stage 32ers by sharing this on social. Check out the social media buttons at the top to share on Instagram @stage32online Twitter @stage32 Facebook @stage32 and LinkedIn @stage-32
|Film Composers – Your Attention Please! (Part 1)|
|Coffee & Content: The 4 L's of No Budget Filmmaking & Lawyer Breaks Down Courtroom Scenes from Movies & TV|