The personality of the actor is nine-tenths of the performance. This is a terrifying prospect for many actors hoping to completely disappear and hide within a role. With inferior training, there is so much effort, emphasis, and time spent escaping from the immediacy and danger of facing ourselves in the moment. A common sentiment among actors is feeling like “I’m not enough” or “I’m not interesting enough” as just themselves. So we gravitate toward the safety of warm and fuzzy techniques or complicated, confusing methods that allow us to hide or create a tangled web away from ourselves and the high stakes of performing.
In a “MovieMaker Magazine” interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman early in his career he was asked, "Of all the roles you’ve played, which one is closest to you as a person?" Hoffman said, "Everything I play is close to me in its own way. But I think, character-wise, the role where I just kind of showed up to work and didn’t do much, is 'Magnolia.' It’s more just kind of me than anything. 'Magnolia' and 'Love Liza,' really. They’re both parts where I didn’t do anything behaviorally or characteristically; I just kind of left myself alone."
"MovieMaker Magazine" also asked him, "Is it easier for you to play a part
where you can more naturally relate to the character?" And Hoffman responded, "It’s not about 'relating.' I think I relate, or partly relate, to a lot of the parts I play. But for those two parts, I didn’t have to do anything technically to myself: I didn’t really change the way I dress or talk or move. I just kind of left myself alone for each of those roles."
I’d like to point out that Hoffman mentions the idea of “leaving himself alone” twice in this short excerpt—and what a brave thing for this revered actor to admit. Obviously, there still needs to be a tremendous amount of digging and work done first. In responsible training, the work should focus on tuning your heartbeat to the heartbeat of the character. One’s own personality and humanity must never be discarded unless you desire to strip the character of its soul. I’d only recommend doing that if you’re going to be playing a robot. On second thought, robots have been able to convey some truly nuanced emotions on screen, showing the most fragile humanity (think Wall-E), so I’d only recommend abandoning your own humanity and character if you’ll be playing a can-opener.
Naysayers may ask how you could possibly bring your personality to roles where you’re playing monsters, like Heath Ledger’s Joker or Mickey and Mallory Knox in “Natural Born Killers.” Or, when you have to play unsavory, abusive, stupid, or lower class characters, and you just don't see those qualities in yourself—or qualities you don't think you possess. This is an excellent point, but don't we all have an inner monster—something we'd never admit in public? I think we all possess the capacity to relate to everything and everyone. We just find ourselves choosing not to relate. The mumbling homeless man peeing into a garbage can seems so far removed from the rest of us civilized people. But what happens when you have to play that guy?
One of the hardest parts about playing a monster or playing a low-status character is admitting that this evil or derelict might exist inside you—even if it’s just a faint whiff. Playing characters who lack heroism can be a struggle for some actors because it means looking deeply inward to the part of you that would feel justified in cheating on your partner, hitting a child, or dropping a racial slur.
In the early stages of your preparation for a character, draw two boxes. In one box, write down all those elements of behavior and attitudes that are just like you. In the other box, write down those behaviors and attitudes you cannot relate to. This exercise is private—no one’s business—so really be honest with yourself! Those items in the first box are things you don’t need to act. The items in the second box are handled by simply adopting a different attitude. This can be serious fun if you let yourself go down the rabbit hole without judgment. If you love children, but your character finds kids vile and offensive, your work is to vocalize and commit to a new statement of truth. In this case it begins by viewing children through the eyes of your character—dirty, annoying, loud, obnoxious, whiny, needy, draining, and demanding. Looking at the world through this new lens can help you arrive naturally at the sentiment, “If I hear another kid cry on this plane, I’m going to scream.”
Great acting preparation is like a properly packed parachute, which prevents the skydiver from falling to his or her death. Though scared for your life, you must bravely walk into the audition room, slate, and dive into your piece. All you do is pull the ripcord and let the parachute do the work, trusting that you’ve packed it correctly. In the audition room, this translates to leaving yourself alone and letting that parachute of preparation guide you.
After all work is complete, what if your best work felt as easy and effortless as if you were simply playing yourself? Or as easy as yanking that ripcord? Sometimes great acting is just trusting that you’re interesting enough.
Joseph Pearlman is a private and on-set coach for Hollywood’s top actors, musicians, and comedians. He works with clients like Zooey Deschanel, and also coaches presenters for all the major award ceremonies including the Oscars, Grammys, and Emmys. Joseph Pearlman Coaching was voted Best Acting Studio in Los Angeles by Backstage’s 2011 and 2012 Readers’ Choice Awards. Joseph Pearlman Coaching is also located in New York. Joseph Pearlman Coaching offers private coaching and classes from beginner to working professional.