If you’ve ever gotten to meet a truly great actor just after they have performed a role on stage, you might have been shocked by just how different they are face to face.
Of course, we all know that the character on the stage or in the film isn’t the same as the person playing him or her. However, to see and hear that actor up close, to witness their transformation in that context can still be a bit unexpected.
So how do they do it? As actors we all have those friends and colleagues who seem to effortlessly slip into character just before a performance or an audition–what’s their secret? Here are a few procedures that can help ease your way into getting into character more smoothly and quickly.
1. Inside Out
The truth is the real secret to great acting is hard work. As much as we lionize and admire masterful actors like Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep for their seemingly effortless gift for playing characters, the truth is that all the greats are incredibly hard workers. Sure, there is such a thing as inborn talent. But without hard work that talent would wither and die. So the first step to playing a character is to know who you are. Research, research, research. You should know the piece backward and forward, the era, the time of year, time of day, etc. You should also know where you are coming from. As Michael Shurtleff, author of the seminal actor’s handbook “Audition” says, “Every scene you will ever act begins in the middle, and it is up to you, the actor, to provide what comes before.” And this applies not just to the literal moments leading up to the scene you’re about to play–you also have to know your character as you know yourself. What made them who they are today? What kind of childhood did they have? Imagine some experiences that may have shaped them as you yourself have been shaped. The more you can take the time to do this kind of background work and internalize this sort of research, the easier it will be to slip into the skin of your character when the moment comes.
2. Outside In
So that takes care of the internal part of the character. Now for the external. You may hear some actors refer to themselves as “inside-out” actors, or “outside-in” actors. This usually refers to whether they approach the creation of the character from the internal, mental and emotional base, or if they approach it from the externalities, like a limp or other physical mannerisms, or a costume or wig or something like that. It’s important to building a genuine character to use both internals and externals, but once you’ve locked in a solid way of physically being with the character, it becomes much easier to slip into it. Just to look at one example: is your character shy? Or bold? Think about how that will affect the set of his or her shoulders, the way they walk, the way make and hold eye contact, etc. As you’re learning the lines, get up and move around. How do the words you’re saying make you feel, in a physical sense? Every real actual human being in the world is made up of layer upon layer of psychological, emotional, and mental baggage that informs how we move and speak–in order to play a genuine character you need to build up a simulacrum of that. It sounds silly, but it’s amazing how easy it is to “put on” a character once you’ve established a physical shell for him or her to reside in.
3. Where Are You Going
That gets us to the present, how the character became who and what they are, and what forces shaped them, both mentally and physically. Now it’s time to focus on what is to come for the character. What do you want as the character? What is your objective in the scene and in the overall piece? This is obviously Acting 101-level stuff that we all know and will have worked on by now. But it’s vital that you take a little extra care here, in order to get yourself in a state where you are truly inhabiting the character. Too many of us go into an audition thinking about what we wore (Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it too much? Too little?) worrying about forgetting lines, thinking about what the casting director might be looking for, (Am I too fat/thin/old/young?). Or perhaps we’re simply dreaming about what we’re going to do with all that filthy lucre once we land the gig. In other words, our minds are in million pieces and in a million places that have nothing to do the character we’re supposed to be playing. So as backwards as it may sound, just before stepping into the audition room or into the scene, stop thinking about the lines for a moment and instead really focus on what you want as the character. What are you trying to make happen? As humans we’re all driven by our desires, both hidden and apparent. In order to play a genuine character, you must let those desires come to the fore.
As discussed, so much of what we see as great, natural ease with acting is really the result of hard work. That holds true for getting into character as well. Acting requires a tremendous amount of concentration. When you’re acting, you’re pulling off an insane balancing act: saying words that you know by heart but that must appear to be spontaneous, and portraying a person that is you, but not really you–in other words you must “…behave truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” as Sanford Meisner said. In order to do that you need to focus yourself. If you’re in a busy audition waiting room, try to find a quiet corner when your time is coming up. Take some deep breaths and focus all your energy on the previous background work you’ve done. Sure, it’s possible to go directly from a silly conversation with another actor about last weekend’s party into playing a character, but you’re likely to have better results if you take the time to properly focus your energies.
5. From Your Heart and Soul
So much of what comes out in our words and behaviors originates in nothingness. That is, a thought is just the electrochemical firing of communication between neurons in our brains, a tiny, infinitesimal bit of energy. You can’t weigh a thought; you can’t measure it physically. Yet those thoughts can manifest in very real externals: nervous sweat, red-faced anger, tears of sorrow. So the first step to playing a genuine character is to believe in yourself as the actor who is right to play him or her. Confidence–like nervousness, anger, or sadness–radiates outwards and manifests in our physicality. If you believe in yourself as an actor, your belief in your character will reflect that. Let go of doubt, and take all the hard work you’ve done to get where you are, and let it shine. The result will be a genuine, deep, and rich character!