What is the most profound and fundamental question that can be asked of anyone and anything? I would put my money on “Why?” This question is most probably both the simplest, and yet most complex question ever asked. It is both a request to know more, and a demand to delve deeper.
I am sure we all know of the stereotypical child who repeatedly asks “Why?”, never quite satisfied with the answer they get, or maybe they are just being a smart-arse. Adults, I find, tend to avoid asking this question of themselves, and do their best to dodge being asked by someone else. There is something frightening about finding the core truth to something it would seem.
Yet, I find that this is the very realm I need to dive in to when I am trying to create a character. In previous posts about Character, I have skimmed over a process around development. Here I get to the heart of the process, the engine if you please. In order to be these characters, I need to expose their deepest motivations. The secrets that they will deny even unto themselves.
Actors are often depicted as asking questions such as “What’s my motivation?” “What’s my goal?” “Where’s my emotional though line?”. They may even have a back-story developed for their character which could give them a perception of things experienced. These are all useful tools and some actors make great use of them. I have tried them too, and I do use them. I find however, that on their own that cannot provide a lot of depth to a character, meaning that the actors has to work harder to create that sense of depth. I have found that I still don’t connect with my characters using just these approaches. There was no Why.
I personally believe in the idea that the only thing I have any control over, are my choices. The choices I make create the paths I follow through life. These choices are the end of a process, not a process in themselves. They come from opportunity or crisis, which places me in a position where either a choice can or has to be made. Again, these scenarios are the beginning of the process that lead to a choice but they don’t make the choice.
The choice and the senario are linked by a reason, a “Why?” No matter what the scenario, there is always a choice to be made, even in a life-or-death scenario. The reasons for that choice are the heart and sole of the person. This is where truth lives, and this is the place where character is born.
Now, let’s be a little realistic here. We make choices every second of every day. There is no way I can recreate such a character if I focus on all the choices they have made. The thing here is that while we make hundred of little chocies everyday, these are quickly lost to memory as insignificant. The truth of character however resides in all reasons, so the truth that reside in the little choices made everyday is the same as the truth that resides in key choices, choices that change lives and ideals.
So as an actor, I only need to focus on those moments that we call “Character Defining” and find the reasons Why.
This may seem like a lot of work, and it is. The benefit is that when you can understand Why your character is the way they are, you no longer need to act. You now can react. Reactions are what make a person. How you handle a situation be it good or bad reveals key things about your true nature.
Now I have had the opportunity to work with some very talented people, and I have learnt a lot from them. I have also worked with people learning the trade. I have directed and coached actors, learning even more as I did so, and though all this, I know very well that there was a time when I was a walking piece of ply-wood. I used some of the techniques I mentioned before like a blunt instrument, always looking forward trying to push my character through the story.
What I have learnt, and only in the past few years, is that with the right preparation, the character’s reasons, their Why’s, will actually do the pushing for you. You don’t need to drag your performance from point to point, you can instead feel your way through as you are propelled forward on self-powered momentum.
Be warned however. Going through a process such as this also has the potential to expose your own truths. So if you are adverse to admitting your own poor choices and embaressments then don’t try this in public.
But seriously, when was the last time you asked youself why?
And why is that?