If you're playing Hamlet, you run little risk of ever crossing paths with the real guy—or with people who know him who can tell you if you got into his melancholy Danish head and represented him fairly. If, however, you're playing a real person—or a character based on that person—who is well-known to current audiences, the ground rules change. Whatever the case, actors playing real people can find it quite rewarding. At this year's Academy Awards, Cate Blanchett (as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator) and Jamie Foxx (as Ray Charles in Ray) took home Oscars for playing real people. This is nothing new: In 1930, George Arliss picked up a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as the former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in the aptly titled Disraeli, and sharp renderings of true-life characters have been critical favorites ever since.
In most cases, the craft of acting is geared toward creating characters from the ground up. Actors get a script, explore the part, play with different choices, and develop a role. But when playing someone the audience is familiar with, there are added pressures in creating a performance that not only tells the story and fulfills the requirements of the script but also measures up to the audience's expectations.
Real to Reel
"I may have a corner on this market," says actor Daniel Roebuck about playing real people. He was most recently seen as the ill-fated Arzt on Lost, but his dozens of film and television credits also include roles as a number of real-life show business personalities, most notably Jay Leno in the 1996 HBO film The Late Shift. He also played legendary television producer Garry Marshall in The Unauthorized Story of Mork & Mindy and another TV producer, Ted Bergman, in The Unauthorized Story of Three's Company. The actor started playing real people at an earlier age than most. "When I was a kid, I used to do impressions—James Cagney, Jack Benny—people totally inappropriate for a 10-year-old kid," he says. He remembers a key moment when he saw James Whitmore in Give 'em Hell, Harry!, the one-man film in which Whitmore played Harry S Truman. Roebuck credits the performance with inspiring him in his pursuit of acting.
All of this would come in handy later when Roebuck was up for the role of Leno. Of being cast in the role, he says, "I think they went first to the impersonators; then they went to the comedians. They were finding that someone was really funny but couldn't handle the drama or vice versa, and so they figured going for the actor is the way to go." Once he landed the role, he had to integrate acting, mimicry, and notable—could it be the chin?—prosthetics. The makeup certainly helped, he says. "When I was a kid I wanted to be a Hollywood makeup man, so me sitting in a chair for three hours turning into Jay was nothing but heaven."
The makeup made Roebuck's work that much easier. "Other people may find it a hindrance; I find it a blessing," he says, noting that it allowed him freedom to play in character, which helped him focus. "Once you've got the gift of the makeup, you look in a mirror and you play around. It's always important to be able to ad-lib in character."
After the work is done and out there for all to see, however, there's the pressure of wondering what the person portrayed thought of the portrayal. "I've seen Jay," says Roebuck. "He was a great gentleman to me after that movie. He went on record as saying he wouldn't get in the way of an actor getting a job."
When Roebuck tried out for the role of Marshall, he went into the auditions with a take-no-prisoners mindset. "I spent so much time watching his work, and you can see him in those shows. I was such a fan of his," the actor says. "With Leno, I'd thought, 'I think I could do that, yeah, I'll try,' but with Garry Marshall, I said to myself going in, 'I will play Garry Marshall. I will have that role.' You have to convince them."
Roebuck notes the difference between playing well-known people such as Leno and Marshall and playing someone such as Bergman, a behind-the-scenes figure out of the public eye. For Bergman, the actor was being hired to bring more of himself to the role than strict impersonation. He notes, "It was like they were saying, 'We didn't hire you to be Ted Bergman; we hired you to be yourself as Ted Bergman."
Playing Hollywood figures comes with its own pitfalls, and so does playing a public figure seen on the nightly news. Actor John Michael Higgins has experience with both: He played David Letterman to Roebuck's Leno in The Late Shift and is currently playing Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld onstage in Stuff Happens, by David Hare, in its American premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. His approach to playing well-known people is to stay firmly grounded in the acting essentials. "On the projects that I've done where I've played famous people, they hire me because I'm an actor," says Higgins. "I'm there to make the scenes work, to tell a story. Impersonations and look-alikes is a different profession than the one I'm in."
That is not to say he rejects any notions of mimicry. He explains, "On the other hand, if the person is well-known, I have to make references to the famous person that people will recognize. If I'm playing Long John Silver, I'm going to get the peg leg out. It doesn't mean I'll do him exactly the way he was. In this case, it might be a rhythm in the speech, vowel sounds, various tics and mannerisms."
In playing Letterman, Higgins knew there were elements of the character audiences would need to see to buy it, but telling the story and finding what was driving Letterman as a person were the actor's primary tasks. "I think my Letterman was successful, not because of the impersonation—which was not so good, really—but if you get the engine of the character, the audience will believe the rest," says Higgins. "They might have 10 minutes of trouble with it, but if I'm telling the story, if I've got the motivations in line, they'll get past it, and they're going to believe it."
In playing Rumsfeld onstage, Higgins says of the primary differences between performing for live audiences and for the camera: "[In filming], the camera is right up to your nose the whole time; it really goes after the smallest detail. Onstage I can control the performance with my body and my own rhythm. In film, you're very lucky if you're permitted to control the physical and rhythmic elements of your performance. I like the control that I have onstage, because then I get to make decisions and succeed or fail based on my own ideas."
With stage work, actors also don't have to worry about being immediately compared to their real-life counterparts. "Onstage for several hours we invite the audience into a very odd world that we make up, and it's in the theatre for that time, and then it disappears forever," says Higgins. "On film it locks; it's frozen in time." People sitting at home watching him play Letterman can flip channels to compare his work to the real thing, but in the theatre it's all about the play happening right before their eyes.
When approaching a character such as Rumsfeld, a figure respected and reviled, Higgins says, "My own personal feelings about Rumsfeld are immaterial. I guess you have actors who would argue with that. I'm not any more bothered playing Rumsfeld than I am playing Richard III.
"Everything that he does is correct to me," says Higgins of Rumsfeld. "It's exactly who he is. In my living room I can make judgments, but onstage I can't. I'm just a storyteller; let the audience do the analysis. The best thing I can do preparing for these roles is to close my eyes and fully imagine what this guy wants and needs and what drives him. If I get all those things lined up, people will believe it. In that sense, it's no different from any other character."
The wide array of literary, historic, and otherwise real people also holds a wealth of roles for women, as L.A. actor Shirley Anderson has demonstrated. She's played people ranging from Laura Bush (in Laura's Bush, by Jane Martin, at the Sacred Fools Theater Company in fall 2004) to Dorothy Parker (in Gatsby in Hollywood, by Josh Rebell, at the MET Theatre in 2001).
Like Roebuck, Anderson's fascination with stepping into the shoes of famous people began early. "I've been impersonating famous people since I was 3," she says, rattling off a surprising list that ranges from Mae West to Björn Borg and Frank Sinatra. She'd sit on a stool at the dinner table and, in character, conduct impromptu Q&A sessions with her family. Her affinity for getting into the heads of real people continued as she grew up. "In high school, I had a Lizzie Borden [the infamous ax murderer] fascination. I wrote this monologue from her point of view, from her state of mind. I ended up performing it at my mother's womens club…. They didn't say anything to me afterward," she recalls, laughing.
For Anderson, information and backstory are keys to playing real-life characters. "I just love research," she says. "I'm just a research whore. I love books and surfing the Web for information, learning whatever I can about whatever I'm working on." Anderson is happy to be plying her craft in these modern times, research-wise. "The Internet is such a valuable tool," she says. "But if I didn't have that, I'd go to an encyclopedia and go from there. In the case of Laura Bush, I just went online to study everything about her."
In Laura's Bush, the play's wildly irreverent tone and action meant that Anderson had to portray the first lady not exactly as we see her on the television—chances are slim that the real Laura Bush would get involved with a pair of Midwest lesbians bent on bringing down the current administration—but with enough of what the public sees to make the character seem as genuine as possible in such an extreme situation. "[The real Laura Bush] really resists being out in the public eye and doesn't seem to enjoy it, and there doesn't seem to be much comedy in that, so I had to find my own Bush," says Anderson. "You can and should still do research, but you might find you need to take more liberty to draw from your own experiences."
Although her experience playing Bush was a blending of reality and the absurd, her experiences as Dorothy Parker are a bit more grounded in reality. "[Gatsby in Hollywood playwright] Josh Rebell really tried to be very true to the people he was writing about, so I did as well," she says. Parker has long been a favorite of hers, and the actor worked for years honing her one-woman show Big Blonde, which she adapted from the thinly veiled autobiographical fiction of Parker. When playing artists such as Parker, Anderson sees much value in examining their art. She says, "Parker revealed herself in her writing, so it helps to look at their work, their actions, the work they left behind."
Of course performing a character is not the same as delivering an essay. "I see nonfiction being staged sometimes," says the actor. "And I feel like the writer or director seems too reverent about it. There comes a point where you have to let go of all that stuff to make it theatrical. I think sometimes people forget about the audience and are too concerned with trying to create the 'truth,' and who's to say what that is?"
Simply Playing It
Connor Duffy was faced with a similar assignment during the 2004 election season, playing the title role in Dubya 2004, by Joe Jordan, also at Sacred Fools. The production marked Duffy's first experience playing a real person, and it also presented a challenge for the young actor. He is 30-plus years younger than President George W. Bush, and, like the first lady Anderson played in Laura's Bush, Duffy's Dubya existed in Jordan's comically satiric theatrical universe, in which the Bush family manipulates world events to achieve the goals of a dark deity.
Duffy approached the role by tapping into the array of media images. "I'm a very kind of visual person," he says. "So I just tried to find as much footage of [President Bush] and watch him and really pay attention to speech patterns and physical traits. I wanted to create my own character within this façade of the figure that people know." Despite the wild nature of the play, he recognized the need to maintain a reality, even if it was within an unrealistic world. "If it's an absurdist piece, I try to be as real and truthful as possible," he says. "I let the surroundings and the piece and the script deal with the absurdity. If the writing is competent, there will be a map, so you know where the character goes, and you know how the character feels about the environment and everything that's happening."
Like Higgins, Duffy maintained a separation between his personal feelings and the character he played. "The one funny thing I kept getting from people was, people kept asking me how I felt playing such an 'evil' person, and if it was hard to play someone so evil," he recalls. "They kept using this word, and, from where I was coming from, that had never entered my mind. I almost took offense when people would say that. It was a separate thing as far as I was concerned. I just tried to play the character I created and not worry about putting any of my beliefs about the man I was playing on that character, or trying to create a message playing the character. I was simply playing the character."
Duffy didn't spend too much time worrying about physically resembling Bush. "The one thing I did was gray my hair a bit," he says. "I really wanted to do it as naturally as possible. I felt like prosthetics or makeup would have made him seem a bit unreal, and I wanted him to be as real a character as possible."
The next time he plays a real person, chances are it won't be quite the cultural pressure cooker. As the run of the play progressed, Duffy found that daily character references were but a flick of the remote control away. "It was great for me, because he was always on," he says of the election coverage. "I would just watch CNN and study him every day. But as the performances went on, it got harder and harder, [because] he was always on. And then we had closing night on election night. Having to play this figure on that particular evening was a bit difficult." After playing Bush for a long rehearsal process and run, would one's vote be affected by playing the role? "No," he says. "My mind had already been made up."
Approaches to playing a real person can be as varied as the people themselves. All of the above talents can testify: When an actor is tasked with creating a version of someone in the public eye, what motivates the character on the page can be very different from what motivates him or her on the public stage. Adds Roebuck, "It's a tightrope between the Saturday Night Live version of someone and the reality version. It's hard to play a real person. You can end up with a target on your back, but I kind of enjoy the challenge." BSW