Saturday, March 19, 2011

Finding Your Character

Watching Christian Bale in "The Fighter" last night and was mesmerized at his disappearance into the character. It reminded me of what it takes to make that happen and how important it is to our craft. You can basically play yourself over and over again like Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson, and Clint Eastwood and if you are interesting, it will work. It's also incredibly hard to just BE you on camera and make it real. No knock against any actor who has made that their forte. But, the ability to disappear like Johnny Depp, Ben Foster, Gary Oldman, Clifton Collins Jr., Cate Blanchett and Charlize Theron is something to be marveled at.

So how do you do it? Well first of all you have to find your character. If the character you are portraying is a real life person, you can have a wealth of knowledge at your finger tips in books, video and even, if you're truly luck, the ability to interact with your subject. Bale had all of these references for his performance.

Second, you have the script. There are things revealed through the author. What do people say about the character? Perception is usually based on some sort of truth. A character may describe your character as a nice guy, though he is truly diabolical. You have to play the character so that he could be perceived as a nice guy. Also, what does the character say about himself. Referencing a villain, they are often the heroes of their own story. There is a reason for their bad behavior. Find it. Dialogue can also reveal accent and other background qualities.

The author will also reveal things about your character in the action of the script, the progression of the story and even the setting. It's very important to read the whole script, and if you have it in PDF or a similar format, you can use the find function for a couple of once throughs. You may miss important info outside of your dialogue if you just skim your parts.

How do you reveal your character in a scene or story? Let's start with the basics of speech, motion and appearance. Where is your character from? What is his education level? Life influences? All will determine accent. Accents are particularly tricky and I'll talk about them a bit later. Whatever you choose, make it real. Do the research and don't just half ass it.

Appearance is not just in the hands of the wardrobe and make-up folks. On smaller budget productions it's important to help define your character. I've shown up to several productions with my hair and facial hair totally available for modification and no one did anything with it either because there was no time, no one qualified, or nothing in the budget for those sorts of things. Particularly in smaller budget, be your own man on these things.

One thing that I think is often overlooked by actors new to the craft and I can see a lack of it in my performances is a change in posture and movement. Your walk, the way you move your hands, the way you sit...all will change based on your background and station. You should definitely define these things for your character.

The funny thing is that once you find these things...voice, appearance and action/posture, the acting becomes easy. You fall into the character. They don't have to be huge changes to where you are normally, but subtle nuances will help you nail the character.

Look at Ledger's Joker and Depp's Captain Sparrow for examples and basically anything done by the folks I mentioned earlier. This isn't even method acting. You don't have to become your character 24/7. You just have to find all the dimensions of who they are.

On a final note, your relation to other characters you interact with in the story is VITAL! It's not all about you. A lot of acting is REacting. Any character you interact with, you should have an opinion of, even if it's just a sentence. Also, part of any story is development. These relationships MUST change throughout the script to make the story interesting. Look for the pivot point where your dynamics change with others.

The moment in "The Fighter" where Dickey confronts Charlene on the porch is a masterfully done moment where dynamics change.

There is so much to write on this subject. Will tackle more later.

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