The Actor’s Guide to Creating a Character
We use what we have been given. I think that’s the nature of art. When you capture what’s real to you and marry it to the character – what you really do is what the character’s doing – it doesn’t matter what period you’re in, whether you’re on stage or in front of a camera. It doesn’t matter whether the character is like you or not. You use technique to demystify the process of playing another person, break down the steps so you can execute them and build them back up.
It’s like walking past a skyscraper. We admire the building that’s so tall and magnificent because we are the audience. The architect is the artist. He or she knows that building quite differently, the location and purpose of every beam, of every bolt and screw.
A good character actor must have a sophisticated command of his or her own physicality. I see this omission more often than not in so-called period plays. The curtain comes up and the actors walk onstage using twenty-first century posture and body language. Yet they expect us to believe that we’re in the late seventeenth century London of a Restoration comedy. Or how many times have I seen an actor playing Caliban with no ability to manifest his deformities, let alone appreciate how they might shape the essence of his character.
Good character actors must scurry in the brush and he’ll say, “Aha. That’s a small animal burrowing down for the night. He’ll hear a spooky, creaking nose and say, “Huh. That must be the wind picking up. And that hoot I just heard? Must be some kind of owl. A normal person will exit the woods in the same condition he entered them, whereas an actor would come out in hysterics.
Now that we’re talking about imagination, probably the most important thing a character actor possesses is the sense of freedom he finds when playing other people. Good character actors can’t play straight roles, they become too self-conscious. It’s as if they can’t find themselves interesting enough or confident enough, that they have to don some kind of mask in order to present themselves to an audience. Sandy (Meisner) was like that. He freely admitted he could never play a role without hiding behind some character element.
It reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The character actor is being himself, but in a way that feels comfortable, within the behaviors of a different personality.
Marlon Brando. He was unquestionably talented, but his talent has often been misunderstood. Yes, he became an icon playing Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Terry Malloy on “On the Waterfront,” but those were two very different characters. Watch him do Emiliano Zapata in “Viva Zapata.” Compare that to the man you see playing Don Corleone in “The Godfather” or Weldon Penderton in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” Brando was a chameleon. In every film he every did, he was utterly different from the film he did before. And yet he was on hundred percent authentic. You believed what he did. You had too, because he believed it. I think it’s fitting that he’s still revered as one of the world’s greatest actors.
Making choices is the essence of character work. Perhaps the essence of all great art. Hugher levels of creative expressions can be rendered only when the artist makes conscious choices.
When painters say, “I’m going to paint a sunset,” what they’re really saying is that they will ultimately paint their version of that sunset. To pursue their vision, they choose which colors they will use, the angle and perspective from which they will approach their work, the degree of light they want to portray and so on.
Actors who nurture a vision of themselves as true theater artists will want to push their talents further. They’ll know that they won’t be able to bring the greatest roles ever written to life using first-year work alone. Stella Adler once said: “The ideas of the great playwrights are almost always larger than the experience of even the best actors.” The greatest writers our culture has ever produced did not and do not write plays about you being yourself. They write roles that define the human condition in specific and marvelous ways – and they ask actors to fill them.
Without an understanding of how to play characters, you can never tackle Stanley Kowalski or Blanche DuBois. You won’t have the foggiest notion of how to approach Uncle Vanya, Arkadina, Hedda Gabler or Willy Loman. And while you’re at it, say goodbye to Shakespeare’s wonderful gallery Falstaff, Hamlet, Viola, Rosalind, Beatrice, and Benedick. Great heroes like Henry V or great villains like Richard III, Iago and Lady Macbeth. Some of these roles are centuries old, but they continue to resonate across epochs and national boundaries. I would argue that some of them have become intertwined with the very fabric of human culture – and they’re all character roles. 2014 •
Excerpts from The Actor’s Guide to Creating a Character by William Esper and Damon DiMarco. Published by Anchor Books/Random House. Reprinted with the permission of William Esper.
WILLIAM ESPER has been the head of his own studio in New York City since 1965, as well as director of the Professional Actor Training Programs at Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University since their inception in 1977. He is a graduate of Western Reserve University as well as the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre, where he was trained as a teacher and actor by Sanford Meisner, and with whom he worked closely as a teacher and director for seventeen years. Mr. Esper was on the staff of the Neighborhood Playhouse for twelve years and Associate Director of the Playhouse’s Acting Department from 1973 to 1976. He has been a Guest Artist Teacher at Canada’s Banff Festival of the Arts, Vancouver’s Workshops in the Performing Arts, as well as the National Theatre School of Canada, Chicago’s St. Nicholas Theatre, and Munich’s Schauspiel München Skool. In 1975-76 he was Director of the Circle Repertory Theatre Company’s workshop in New York. He has directed and acted, both Off-Broadway, regionally, and is a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. Mr. Esper appears in Ronald Rand’s book, Acting Teachers of America. He is a past member of the National Board of the National Association of Schools of Theatre and a former Vice-President and Board Member of the University Resident Theatre Association. Professional actors with whom Mr. Esper has worked include: Kim Basinger, Jennifer Beals, Kristen Davis, Kim Delaney, Calista Flockhart, Jeff Goldblum, Glenn Headley, Patricia Heaton, William Hurt, Christine Lahti, John Malkovich, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, Paul Sorvino, Mary Steenburgen, Patricia Wetting, Dule Hill, Timothy Olyphant, Roger Bart, Tonya Pinkins, Aaron Eckhart, and Tracee Ellis Ross. www.esperstudio.com