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The Working Actor

Character Traits

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Character Traits
Dear Michael:
I am a 30-year-old actor who's often told he looks 25. I started in this business some nine years ago because of a fascination with musical theater. Over the years, having matured and become more open-minded, I've expanded my interests and training to other areas, and I'm now hoping to have a career that encompasses anything from Shakespeare to "All My Children" to "Dolly." I must admit, I'm realizing that my chances of succeeding in musical theater are slim, because I don't have the look that seems to so inevitably go with it. I am what you'd call a character man. I'm not overweight, but I'm not a square-jawed hunk either. I take care of how I look and what I eat, but still don't look like I've come out of Vogue.

You might ask, "Why do you feel that way? There are character types in musicals." Certainly, but it seems that in this looks-obsessed culture, even the character types are more likely to be cast from the hunks pool. At the time "Fiddler on the Roof" originated, Motel the tailor would be cast as a sweet nerd, but today it's more likely he'd be a hipster with too much hair spray. I'm ready to argue with any casting director who'd contradict this. Sadly, it seems the people who cast musicals are often concerned with creating an empty spectacle where storytelling is a byproduct, so I fear that someone like me comes across as too full.

A coach told me, "You're too smart for your own good." So shall I train myself to conceal that intelligence and perhaps spend more time at the gym? Perhaps that's even more important than keeping the voice in good shape? Work on a six-pack but not worry that a hard tummy compromises the air flow needed for healthy voice production? (My voice teacher, a man I admire for his teaching of body awareness as a way to develop a healthy voice, has said to me, "You need to make a choice: You want a six-pack or a free voice? They will never truly go well together.")

You might say, "Character actors develop later, hence start working later." So I've decided to begin to explore the film arena, where there seems to be more room for personality. I've taken a class in soap acting, have started auditioning for student films, and am currently working on a couple. If you think I should pursue a different route, please let me know.
—Too Much Character
New York City


Dear TMC:
As a fellow character actor, I have to tell you, if you're thinking we fare better in films and soaps than in musical theater, your ship is off course and heading right for the glaciers. I don't doubt that you've witnessed what you've described: attractive leading men playing character roles. I've seen it myself. But to interpret these instances as a trend and therefore conclude that the character man is washed up in musical theater is highly unscientific.

If you really want to test your theory, I strongly suggest you move outside of your own experience and do some research. Recent Broadway seasons have featured plenty of character men. I'm not just talking about stars like Alfred Molina, David Hyde Pierce, Nathan Lane, and Joel Grey. I'm also talking about guys in "Billy Elliot," "Jersey Boys," "In the Heights," "Young Frankenstein," and "Phantom." I'm talking about brilliant character actor Kevin Chamberlin, who has already had rather a healthy musical theater career and in March will open on Broadway in "The Addams Family." I'm talking about guys you may not know by name, like my colleagues Kevin Ligon and Fred Applegate, with whom I toured in "The Producers," both of whom make their living in musical theater.

Is Broadway the wrong test for your theory? Okay. Look into regional theaters. See who they've cast lately. I did "Guys and Dolls" this past summer at Sacramento Music Circus, and it was wall-to-wall character men. I'm not trying to say it's a breeze making a living in theater as a character man; that's never true for anyone. But I am saying that with a bit of research, you may find that your theory about an anti–character man trend is off base.

However, there is truth to the theory that character men tend to start working later. My career took off in my mid-30s. Some get going in their 40s. You look 25; you may have to be patient. And if you want to try another medium, film and television might be worthwhile forays. But for heaven's sake, soaps? Character men are practically nonexistent on soaps! And even on prime-time shows and in film, you'll still sometimes see actors who are way too pretty for their roles. What's more, screen work can be harder to break into than stage work. So certainly, diversify, but factor these things into your decisions. And there's something else….

When our careers are stalling, it's sometimes a sign that we need to "check" ourselves, as the kids say. I want to gently suggest that you might benefit from looking within rather than blaming the business. When you tell me you're hearing that "You're too smart for your own good" and you think you come across as "too full," I read those as red flags. No one complains about too much excellence. So it may mean instead that you're overthinking, too intense, or not having enough fun. People pick up on these things.

Or it may mean that you're coming across as having a superior, know-it-all manner, or that you're offering unwelcome input. I speak from experience. I used to be that "smart" actor with lots of suggestions, and here was the big revelation: Even if your ideas are brilliant, no one wants to work with a person who's constantly interposing. And that means it's unhealthy for your career. It's not a matter of concealing your intelligence; it's a matter of not being obnoxious. Cultivate an old-fashioned quality: graciousness. Make others feel good, and don't show off.

And as I've said, no one is claiming that musicals are always well-cast. Believe me, I hate the stunt casting of celebs as much as the next guy. But all that is out of our control. What is in our control is the way we approach things, and that's always a good thing to work on.

Incidentally, I hope you'll be pleased to learn that the role of Motel the tailor in the national tour of "Fiddler on the Roof" is currently being played by Erik Liberman—a young character man. Score one for our side.


Any questions or comments for The Working Actor?  Please email Jackie and Michael at theworkingactor@gmail.com.  

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