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The Craft

Playing Lawyers

Playing Lawyers
From Gregory Peck's low-key Atticus Finch in the iconic 1962 film "To Kill a Mockingbird" to Jim Belushi's turn as Nick on the TV show "The Defenders"—not to mention the never-ending "Law & Order" franchise, now shooting in Los Angeles as well as New York—actors have plenty of opportunity to observe the way their colleagues have portrayed lawyers over the years. But while acting skills and legal skills are not completely interchangeable, there is nevertheless plenty that actors can learn from watching real lawyers in action.

They Have Confidence

Is there any one rule that applies to creating most lawyer characters? Celeste Walker believes so. She's a Philadelphia-based actor and acting teacher who also coaches lawyers in acting techniques in a course she created called Courtroom Drama. "There's a definite personality trait among litigators," she says. It's found mostly in men, she adds, as what she sees as the old-boys' network still exists, at least where she lives.

"There's a kind of confidence. I don't like to use the word 'arrogant'—but I'm going to. They have a kind of strut…. To work in front of a jury, there has to be a self-assured willingness to put themselves out there and be showmen. They're in front of people, persuading and selling themselves for a client, so they're always on." Self-deprecation is not a trait common among trial lawyers, Walker suggests. "Attorneys, if they're good, always think they're going to win. They have to. So I think an actor playing an attorney has to have that mindset."

James Spader's insufferably smug Alan Shore on "Boston Legal," Paul Newman's Frank Galvin in "The Verdict," Calista Flockhart's accident-prone Ally McBeal, Jill Eikenberry's intensely focused Ann Kelsey on "L.A. Law," John Travolta's Jan Schlichtmann in "A Civil Action," Maximilian Schell's scenery-chewing Hans Rolfe in "Judgment at Nuremburg"—these are among the many memorable lawyer characters we've seen, with perhaps a certain self-confidence being a notable trait that all the actors emphasized (well, maybe not Flockhart).

Newman in particular, Walker says. In teaching attorneys, she shows a clip of him delivering Galvin's closing argument. "He played it so honest," she says. "There are so many ways to play that character that could ruin it. The actor could grandstand. But the choices he made—he almost doesn't do anything."

One Los Angeles teacher believes that actors can also learn—about playing attorneys specifically and about acting skills in general—from classroom exercises that use courtroom settings. Lawyer Cheryl Lubin, who sometimes teaches a courtroom-drama workshop for actors, uses improvisation within courtroom scenarios, which she says are very helpful for actors.

"Courtroom dramas offer a gold mine of scenarios that can help actors break through their own obstacles and move forward with greater confidence," she writes in her press materials. Giving actors "conflict-driven scenes and improv from real and fictional (stage, television, and film) settings to master is a unique opportunity for actors to become the most direct, authentic performers they can be." She feels that working with such material helps actors "break through obstacles and move forward with confidence."

Like lawyers, actors perform on multiple levels. No matter what their deep-down personal feelings about the client, defense attorneys, for example, are paid to convince judge and jury of the client's innocence. Inside, they may feel their client is as guilty as hell. Similarly, actors in performance must relentlessly pursue a goal, using various techniques to convince, persuade, entice—whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. Whatever confused or contradictory emotions the character is feeling inside are usually not something to be overtly revealed or shared; that's your subtext. That's what gives your character depth.

"Courtroom scenarios lend improvisation a greater degree of sharpness and urgency," Lubin explains in a phone conversation. Actors improvising within those scenes are forced to be real and authentic and in the moment, yet not so external that it feels fake. "These ideas and intentions can provide a wonderful acting exercise for any play," she says.

They're conflicted

That makes sense to me. The experience of needing to appear absolutely sincere and convincing in a high-stakes situation when you're feeling conflicted internally ought to be very useful for actors. It reminds me of an exercise I once did in an acting class: You tell your classmates one thing that's true about yourself and one thing that's false. The idea is to make sure they can't tell which is which. It's about committing to a truth for that moment.

As Lubin explains it, "You subscribe to a particular version of reality, and you better sell it. People may be lying and think it's the truth, or they may know they're lying on some level but have to present it as the truth—which is a moral conundrum for the lawyer. But for an actor, this is the beauty of it: There's no moral dilemma. You can play anyone, from Mary Poppins to Hitler, and you've got to subscribe to the emotional truth of that character and believe in whatever fictional construct you've created."

A real-life courtroom drama, she says, is a fine example of a situation with palpable subtext. Nowadays, due to the economy, there are fewer trials; issues are often settled out of court. So when there is a trial, she says, you have to assume things have gotten extreme and all civility has broken down. Yet the attorney has to be civil to the judge (contrary to what we see on TV, lawyers don't scream at judges) and to the colleague across the aisle. Powerful emotions are reined in; language is unfailingly polite.

On the other hand, West Coast actor Kathleen Antonia, a Harvard Law School graduate who practiced law for six years, says the way lawyers behave in film and on TV does not, from her experience, represent the way they behave in real life. "There's a great diversity among attorneys in how they behave and present themselves," she says. "They come in a wide variety of packages and personalities and are not always robust, confident characters." She has played a judge but never an attorney.

Nor does she see a connection between her lawyerly skills and her acting skills. "If you're a good actor in general, you know how to hold on to some internal conflict," she says. She has coached in mock trials and feels that such coaching is helpful not just for acting or for being a lawyer or a witness, but in life altogether—understanding how to persuade someone to get what you want.

In regard to the more technical aspects of playing a lawyer, Washington Post journalist Hank Stuever recently wrote, "My main criterion, when judging legal shows, is whether or not the actors can convince me that they remotely understand the content of the lines they're saying." Presumably that criterion could be applied to any profession represented onscreen, such as doctors, for which actors must at least vaguely understand the technical jargon they're spouting.

But Lubin points out that lawyers, unlike many other types of professionals, usually have strong liberal-arts backgrounds, have read literature in their years preceding law school, and, one would assume, have skill in handling the language. "That's a powerful distinction," she says.

I wondered if there were any way that an actor could go seriously wrong in depicting a lawyer. "There's a stereotypical choice that's dangerous," says Walker. "I've seen attorneys played badly, with no humanity. There's a fine line between arrogance and humanity." A trial attorney has to have audacity, she adds, an "audacity that you can't believe you'll lose, but the audience has to believe there's a chance you will." Once again, as in any role, you want to create a fully rounded human being, flaws and all.

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