I read a script the other day that had another one of those absolutely mystifying character descriptions: Wendell - 40's, Cautious. I didn't have a clue what either of those descriptions meant. I am assuming “40's” means you are old enough to not be living with your parents anymore. This is an important line of demarcation in television scripts. There are usually only two kinds of characters on television: those with a past and those with homework. “40's” may mean you are in the first group.
Then there was that second description: "Cautious." What do you do with that? The first task was to clear away any memories of famous jittery characters created by Woody Allen, Don Knotts, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, and Lou Costello, to name a few. Then I had to start asking questions: Cautious about what? Love? Money? Rental agreements? Everything?
The answer was surprising. From his behavior in the script, our man, Wendell, was cautious about almost nothing. To be fair, he was an accountant. That might imply he was cautious about his addition. But he was reckless about his safety. He wore his heart on his sleeve for the woman he loved. He was a pretty effective con man when he had to be. In my experience, lying is never a safe haven for the cautious.
It begs the deeper question: What did the writer mean? What is "caution”? The answer is something that is at the heart of every portrayal. It is also something most actors overlook in their preparation: What is the spiritual nature of their character? I would argue that the most powerful difference between Hamlet, Archie Bunker, June Cleaver, and Larry David is not the setting, the costumes, or the social-economic group – but spiritual view that character has of the world.
Take “caution.” Caution is one of a hundred synonyms for something we are all familiar with - fear. What does your character fear? Fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. That coin is called, "What do you have faith in?” If you have faith in your fellow man, you will see the best in people. If you have faith that the animal side of man will always prevail, you will trust self-interest. Eddie Haskell on "Leave It To Beaver" is a brilliant comedic expression of both. If you have faith in your physical prowess, you will not be afraid of jumping into a fight. If you have faith in your driving ability or your stunt double's driving ability, you will be Vin Diesel. If you have faith in God, you can be Joan of Arc, who fears nothing – even death.
Richard Boleslavsky in his book, "Acting: The First Six Lessons," mentions the importance of playing “the mind of the playwright." While there are a few avowed atheists among the great writers such as Shaw and Brecht, most of dramatic literature from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, from Eugene O’Neil to Neil Simon, was written through the prism of a universe that recognized the divine.
Here is a simple exercise. Like most simple exercises, it is terribly difficult, but the results are always interesting. Draw a diagram of the world in which your character exists. Is there a God or some higher spiritual authority than man? Where on the food chain is man? Is there morality? Who creates it? Is there fate? Who creates it? Then draw the same simple diagram of the world from your character's point of view. Are they the same? If they are, your character is a metaphor for society. If they are different, your character is a rebel and is probably the focus of whatever scene he or she is in.
Whether or not you have time at rehearsal or before an audition to draw a diagram, it is worth giving a thought or two to your character's spiritual make-up. Faith can fill in some of the holes left by the writer. That can set you free. And that’s good. Acting is always more fun when you can throw caution to the wind.