Recently, when I was interviewing Royal Shakespeare Company actor Monica Dolan, she made a curious comment. "One of my directors taught me something very important," she said, "to always say 'she' when talking about the character. I find it useful. When you start doing what you would do in a situation rather than what your character would do, then you're not really being the character." When I told her I was taught just the opposite, she seemed surprised.
And I was surprised when it turned out the director she was referring to was none other than Mike Leigh. Because the actors in Mike Leigh's films always seem so natural and connected, it struck me as odd that he would advise them to separate from their characters—if only semantically.
British actor, director, and teacher Adrian Brine points out in A Shakespearean Actor Prepares, "The character reveals itself in the way it reacts to the situation. Acting is chiefly a question of reacting." The context of his comment is a discussion of how young actors sometimes get confused by Stanislavski's "magic if" exercises, wherein the actor asks, "What would I do if I were in my character's circumstances?" That question has been taken to mean that, "the actor should somehow identify with the role," writes Brine, "whereas Stanislavski wrote about the 'circumstances,' the situation."
Brine continues, "The introduction of the concept 'I' often blocks an actor. 'I would never react like Lady Macbeth,' said a student once. The director said, 'But you might know someone who would. Of course you are not like Lady Macbeth. But forget you.'"
Part of what Brine says makes sense to me: Acting, as he says, isn't about playing a general static idea of a character, it's about behaving in reaction to given circumstances and according to your objective, and we'll talk more about that below. On the other hand, I think unless you can find a part of yourself that is like Lady Macbeth, you will be playing a general idea of her.
In fact, Uta Hagen, who advocates the use of the personal pronoun when thinking about your character, writes in A Challenge for the Actor, "You can guard yourself against [playing a general clichéd image of your character] by assuming [while you're still at the early script-reading stage] that you are the character you will be working on."
For example, she says, in preparing to play Blanche, in your mind you'd think, I grew up in Belle Reve. Hagen realizes this trick won't necessarily make you believe you are the character, but it will lead you to find experiences in your own life that relate to your character's circumstances. What is your Belle Reve?
Similarly, Bobby Weinapple, a San Francisco actor, teacher, and director, encourages his students to find a part of themselves that corresponds to the character and magnify it. "We tend to focus on how people are different," he said, "but at our core I think we're more similar than anything. I've felt the impulse to kill. If I can accept that I can be pretty cruel sometimes, and I'm not afraid of that, then [for a role] I want to find that part of myself and 'visit' it. I know I'm doing it in the pretend world, and I relish it." He added, "We've all wanted to be Iago at times."
Art Manke, who directs and acts at Los Angeles' A Noise Within and was classically trained at American Conservatory Theater, is, like Hagen, "adamant" about always referring to characters in the first person. "I think it's especially helpful when working on the classics," he said. "If you're having trouble identifying with a king or queen or prince, it only helps the integration process if you think in the first person."
"I remember being corrected in acting classes [to say 'I']," said Los Angeles actor and acting coach Patrick Kerr, a Yale Drama School graduate (and, let it be known, one of my favorite actors). I asked him which he uses nowadays. Both, it seems, depending on the role: Sometimes 'I' is more appropriate, sometimes 'he.' For example, this summer, his role as the Player King in Hamlet at California Shakespeare Festival was a definite 'I': "Why would I bother making a biography for an actor like the Player King when I am one and can use my own resources?"
On the other hand, he also played Grumio in Taming of the Shrew—"not remotely 'me,' definitely 'him.' " Once he'd acknowledged Grumio's circumstances and identified with them ("He works for this guy who's pretty touchy. I've never been a servant, but I know what it means to struggle and try to do the best you can"), he found his way into the character physically: "I was standing, and I realized I was holding my body stiffly, with my fingers splayed. And that became my hallmark for his character. The mindset just followed from that."
For Kerr, as a general rule the most important thing is communicating truthfully with the other actors. The next most important thing is personalization. "Buzz [in Love! Valour! Compassion! at Berkeley Repertory Theatre] was another 'I.' He's a gay man without a boyfriend, and so am I. He's a gay man who perceives himself as unattractive and a clown, and I am all those things." The geek Noel that he plays in his recurring role on Frasier is "definitely a 'him,' " but Kerr has found ways to identify with him. Kerr advises focusing mainly on (and identifying with) what your character wants. "As actors, we're always fighting—that's the nature of playing actions," he said. "Leave your feelings alone, play the actions. The gravy is the feelings. They'll be there if you're fighting for something you believe in."
Being, Not Imitating
San Francisco teacher and director Jean Shelton, who emphasizes text analysis in her classes, elaborated further: "You never think about what you would do or about what your character would do," she said firmly. "You think about what you're saying and what you want and why you want it and why you're here saying it. Otherwise you're playing for result. The dialogue will tell you where your character is coming from, why you're saying it. If you go beyond that, you're imitating life."
Should you think of your character as "me"? "Absolutely!" said Shelton. "There's no one here but you! The character is the sum total of what you say, want, do. It's you doing all those things, maybe behaving in a way you've never behaved before." She added, "You have to have behavior, not just emotion."
"Mamet says the character does not pre-exist," pointed out Weinapple. "The character is the place where you and the text meet. I don't think there is a 'what the character would do.' The character is me and the text."
"[When] I catch myself thinking in terms of 'her' instead of 'I,' " wrote Hagen, when I begin to illustrate how she ought to feel, what she would want and do… I stop short and return to the examination of specific transferences between my life to hers."
"Maybe if you have an actor who can't personalize, you tell her to use 'I'," mused Los Angeles actor and teacher Wendy Phillips (who has starred in such primetime series as Falcon Crest, Savannah, Promised Land, and others), "and if you have an actor who's too subjective, you tell her to use 'she.' " Good point—different strokes, yada yada. Just so should an actor choose the pronoun that best enables him or her to connect, because ultimately, as Uta Hagen writes, "Making everything true to yourself remains the actor's job." BSW