One challenge in playing a variety of characters is the taking on of different beliefs, and by beliefs, I am not referring to just religious ones. Any beliefs. Beliefs about the world, love, right and wrong, how to treat others, and so on. Trying to find a way to co exist with ideas and beliefs that often ran contrary to my own opened my eyes to where beliefs come from and their value to a person.
An individual’s beliefs are a large part of what defines that person. They give us our motivations for the things we do, say and think. They can be developed through experience, education and social interactions. They can be affected by significant events in a persons life, even completely turned around. Understanding a character’s beliefs, and the reasons they may have those beliefs, goes a long way in my process of developing a character.
I have to find a way to appreciate or relate to my character. In the early days, it was a matter of pretending, which these days I would call obvious acting. Pretending to play a character I can’t connect with often resulted in a “stiff” performance. My character was flat and rather boring. When I played a character I enjoyed, well that was a different story, and this I largely put down to more natural reactions rather than feigned and choreographed movements.
So I learned that I needed to enjoy any character I played. I had to put aside my differences somehow and find something that gave me reason to like the character. I tried many different approaches with varying degrees of success. My process developed organically taking bits from here and there. Ultimately, I decided I need to understand the human need to believe. This took me down an interesting path of psychology, philosophy, pseudo-religion and even science fiction. Some of the best advice I personally found was in the texts of Zen Budism, and Greek philosophy, and there is a lot to go through.
In addition to what I have previously mentioned regarding beliefs, this conceptual structure of morals, codes, ethics and purpose, is also a mechanism for dealing with uncertainty and the unknown. In saying this, I do mean to diminish the importance of any one’s beliefs, nor to say that certain beliefs are right or wrong. A person’s beliefs, right or wrong, are the core motivation behind most, if not all, of their actions. From an acting point of view, this wraps everything up in a nice little parcel. Understand the source of a character’s beliefs and you get an understanding of the character’s motivations.
There have been two characters in particular that have presented a significant challenge to me as a person. One was an all round nasty guy dedicated to the destruction of anything that was good. The other was a mean and dirty mob boss. In developing these two characters, I asked myself one very important question, and it is a question I now ask myself for any and every character I play;
What would it take for me to do or say what this person does?
By this, I mean going right back in to a character’s life story; childhood, family life, significant events, relationships, successes, failures, gains, losses, etc. What I found when I asked this question of myself is that given the right history, I could have been these characters. It was entirely possible for me to think, feel and believe the same things. Once I could perceive that possibility, I could relate and understand my characters so much that I could react as them. I was no longer acting, or obvious acting, I was reacting.
The offshoot to all this is that I changed my beliefs. Understanding the processes of belief as it applied to developing my characters lead to an appreciation for the variety of beliefs that exist in the modern world, and to respect the reasons why a person may believe what they believe, and that they have the right to make that choice to believe. Most importantly, I have found that I can no longer judge another person by their beliefs. Even if I question the structure of a certain belief, I can appreciate the need to have a belief.
You might say, I now believe in a person’s right to have beliefs. Put it another way, I believe in a person’s right to be different.
Question: If available, do you ever talk to the creator of the character – the writer – to discuss how they see the motivations of that character and/or what back story they envisaged? Would this help or hinder your process?
If the writer is available then certainly. Often they aren’t and you need to do your research to try and work it out yourself.
Thought – what difficulties do you think actors taking on multiple roles in a production encounter? Especially those with quick or on-stage changes?
Sounds like the source of a new blog entry. Stay tuned.