But there is much to be learned from playing characters older than yourself when the chance arises. Also, once you are in fact older, there's much to value in your newfound understanding of how to play certain roles. To hear older actors' perspectives on aging and how it affects their craft, I made a few calls. This column will talk about how men face the issue. We'll have a companion column about women in February.
Lear at 60
Austin Pendleton played King Lear nine years ago, when he was 60, and he says now he'd love to revisit it. "Sixty is too emotionally young to play Lear," he observes. Can nine years really make such a difference? "Oh, yes," he says emphatically. "There came a point just this year when I started thinking about mortality. I could bring that to Lear." He adds, "The great paradox of Lear is that if you're old enough to understand it, you don't have the stamina to play it anymore."
At the time he played the part, Pendleton was staying temporarily with his then-88-year-old mother in her retirement community, so he had an opportunity to observe lots of elders. Each morning, he'd eat breakfast surrounded by senior citizens, seeing such sights as a man throwing his tray across the room. That rage at being older resonated for Pendleton in creating his Lear. So did his mother's apparent desire to keep her mind sharp, as she played a demanding card game for hours at a time.
When I first wrote about playing old age for Back Stage, in 1997, I summarized a few ways to prepare, among them the kind of observation of older people that Pendleton talks about. Now, 13 years older, I find I'm thinking about aging—and acting—from a different vantage point. After all, 60 is the new 50, etc., right? Actor-teacher Basil Hoffman points out that in Paddy Chayefsky's play "The Tenth Man," one of the characters is described as 80 but behaves as though he's 105. That might have been realistic for the times; in 1959, when the play was written, less was known about health issues.
Whether a 21st-century actor is feeling fit as a fiddle at 50 or not, there's a big advantage to being an older actor (casting issues aside). In the same way that Pendleton feels he's more ready to play Lear now than when he was 60, the actors I talked to agreed that the older they get, the better they feel about their acting abilities—which informs every role they play, no matter the age.
"Your emotions are more at your command," says Sab Shimono, who is "over 69." He uses the same acting techniques as ever, but it all comes easier now. When he was 45, Shimono appeared in the film "The Wash" playing a 65-year-old. "Now I could do it better," he says, not just because he knows what 65 feels like, but simply because he's had more life experience to apply to the role.
Hoffman recently played a character much older than himself in the film "Far Gone," approaching it the way he approaches all roles, by looking for clues in the script in order to make appropriate physical and emotional choices. Thus he endowed one hand with a tremor, the other with stroke-induced stiffness, which went a long way toward suggesting his character's age and condition without playing a general idea of seniority.
"My advice to an actor playing an older character is similar to my advice about playing a character who's drunk," Hoffman says. "A drunk is probably trying hard to function. And people in older age are not necessarily doddering. Maybe they walk more carefully, or they've developed cataracts that affect their vision"—all attributes that actors can choose to play. Speaking from (sigh) experience, I agree that most older people prefer to appear younger than they are and will do everything possible, within the limits of their physicality, to behave as youthfully as possible.
"One thing I've learned about age is its [physical] vulnerability," declares Warren David Keith, who now wears progressive lenses and is aware that he carefully looks down a little when going downstairs and thinks about falling when he's skiing—things that would never have occurred to him when younger. Keith has been playing characters older than himself since college, possibly due, he guesses, to his height (6 feet 2½ inches).
But at 59, and getting cast these days as characters in their 40s to their late 60s, he feels he's just beginning to grow into some of those roles, like Pickering in "Pygmalion." In college, Keith turned down the role of James Tyrone because he was so sick of playing older men, but now he'd love to be cast as the "Long Day's Journey Into Night" patriarch. In his 40s, when he was too young, he played the older actor, Robert, in David Mamet's "A Life in the Theatre"; he wishes he could have another go at that. "Classical theater is full of roles for my age," he says contentedly. (Of course, the same is not necessarily true for women.)
Back when he was younger, Keith loved to make huge, physical choices. Now he'd focus less on posture in those types of roles, he says. "When you hit 60, you don't start doubling over! You want to be tall and imposing. Inside, you're not giving into [age] at all. There's something internal, some denial. You're not wanting to recognize those changes. Maybe you overcompensate for some things and that comes out emotionally…. As your hearing starts to go, you disguise that. You wear a mask of comprehension. It's the inner stuff that you only understand when you get there."
He adds, "It's rare anyone would be cast out of their age range in film or TV." Still, he says, it's useful to tackle older roles if you have the chance: "It's a great trial to put yourself through." It will help you in playing roles in which you have a different physicality, whether it's a character who's disabled in some way or a character in a uniform.
Two years ago, then-45-year-old David Sinaiko played the blind character Hamm in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame." Sinaiko says that even though he was a lot younger than Hamm, whom he imagined to be in his 70s, he was old enough to understand where the character's power lies in a way he wouldn't have comprehended, say, 25 years earlier: "It lies in his experience. If he survived 72 years, he's got that. You do sense that in older people." And as you get older yourself, Sinaiko observes, you develop a different kind of respect for the elderly. For him, just watching his parents and in-laws age has informed his acting—seeing the way their inner rhythms change, even the more deliberate way they process thoughts.
When you're relatively young, as Sinaiko was, the challenge of playing much older might be exciting. But when you are older yourself, how high chronologically are you willing to go? Pendleton has been resisting roles like the ancient servant Firs in "The Cherry Orchard," worried that once he makes that leap, the industry will refuse to ever again think of him as younger than that. Shimono, though, having recently worked on a new Robin Williams–John Travolta film playing a man his own age, says, "I'm ready for the big one!" Whether or not that's Lear, he can't say, but at this point he'd rather play older than younger. He thinks it's a blessing to get older roles, no matter what your age.