How Can I Make a Character My Own?

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Photo Source: Illustration: Jordan Sondler; Taurel: Courtesy Douglas Taurel

Q: What’s the best way to bring your own take to a character that’s already written? Should you stick to the script or try to make it your own? —Harry P., Florida

This is a great question, one every actor will approach a little differently. Here’s my take on how to approach building a character.

1. Honor the given circumstances. Start with what you know. If a playwright has included details about a character’s job, age, or how an experience has influenced the way he or she interacts with their environment, I incorporate that information into my personalization of the role. Remember, those specifics were put into the script for a reason. I can’t play the Elephant Man as agile and graceful, but I can choose how his impairments affect the way he sees the world. So long as I am honoring the given circumstances, I can also create my own backstory and decide how they shape my relationships and overall objective.

2. Find freedom within structure. Think of building a character like composing a jazz number. A pianist doesn’t just get onstage and start riffing. A skilled musician can only improvise if they’ve first mastered the written composition. The marriage of your personalization and the play’s definitive truths (setting, age, etc.) makes the work not only your own but more specific. Ask yourself, “What excites me about the character? How do I identify with him or her?”

3. Tell the story on the page. Back in grad school I performed in my favorite play, “A Doll’s House.” I took into account that Torvald was a newly promoted bank manager, had three children, and lived in an upscale sector of society. Those given circumstances informed the way I walked, talked, and how I might treat someone who didn’t share my status. I then mastered the text and took ownership of the language, making the part my own. I had gradually pieced together a three-dimensional character.

But I also lost sight of the fact that my job was to tell the story on the page, to be of service to something bigger than myself. I was standing out for the sake of standing out, which affected the quality of my listening and ability to make it about the other person onstage. Eventually, I discovered I could still make bold choices, but they needed to be of value to the overall story.

Nick Maccarone is an actor, author, and speaker. He has appeared on “Scandal,” “Law and Order: SVU,” “Elementary,” and “Unforgettable.” Since releasing his book “To The Prospective Artist: Lessons From An Unknown Actor,” Nick has been invited to speak at universities, conferences, and workshops all across the country. His message revolves around “The 6 Principles” that empower artists and actors to live a life and not just a career. In the future, Nick plans on growing his “To The Prospective Artist” brand to revolutionize how artists live their lives.

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Nick Maccarone
Nick Maccarone is an actor, teacher, and filmmaker. His message revolves around “The 6 Principles” that empower artists and actors to live a life and not just a career.
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