I'm Not That Guy

Actors sometimes play an idea of a character instead of a specific, idiosyncratic, actual person. So I was intrigued when, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, the brilliant French actor Isabelle Huppert said, "I always felt that the notion of a character was something diminishing for me. It draws an arbitrary contour to a person, which by definition does not exist…. I'm always interested in being myself. What you want on stage or screen—you don't care about the character. You want life, a real person. That's why I always create that fusion between me as a person and the character." Well put, non?

Los Angeles actor-teacher Jeanie Hackett, of the Antaeus Company, concurs. She uses the metaphor of a sieve: You suspend one or two aspects of yourself—those aspects that don't match the character. For example, maybe your character hates children, but you love them, so you substitute something that you yourself loathe. But you mix the rest of your attributes fully with the character, finding ways to highlight the parallels.

Note that most of the character's attributes are to be found within you; there are only a few that won't correspond. That's because you are presumably fully in touch with your own complex inner self, the parts of you, as Hackett says, that are capable of being neurotic or contained, flighty or down-to-earth, depending upon the circumstances you find yourself in. "If you deny the fact that you're bigoted or mean, if you're not in touch with the fact that you can be as mean as this character, then you can't play her," she points out. Also, "If you don't think much of yourself, how are you going to play a really confident character? If you haven't nurtured the ball-buster side of yourself, how are you going to walk into an audition and ooze confidence? Or if you haven't claimed your own brand of sexuality, if you keep it under wraps, how are you going to play Blanche when she's alone with the delivery boy?"

"I totally agree with what Isabelle Huppert is saying!" exclaims New York actor and playwright Daniel Talbott. For him, it's about opening up and allowing the play and the role to possess him organically, in a shamanistic way. He and I agree upon several definitive film performances: Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight," Lesley Manville in Mike Leigh's "Another Year" (Haven't seen it? You must!), Huppert in "The Piano Teacher." "You obviously never become somebody else," Talbott says, "but you can find a balance," by tuning into the many "channels" of yourself. "Great acting happens in the midspace, where atoms smash up against each other."

Talbott starts with listening, responding, and looking at the character's basic actions—what he says he's going to do, what he actually does—as well as what others say about him. "You get those actions so deep in your body, they come out effortlessly, like a dancer," he says. "You let everything affect you." It's like going into a new relationship with no preconceived notions or judgments, he explains, and letting that relationship take you over, using everything around you as a stimulus: the other actors, props, smells, everything available. "Believing in the people around you, in the given circumstances, and playing the actions—that opens you," he says. "When you don't believe, and sit back and judge, that's when a mechanical character happens—when you're playing an idea, not an action."

What Huppert said is absolutely true, agrees San Francisco actor Margo Hall. "The word 'character' sometimes inspires caricature. You have to give your characters 100 percent, and if you diminish that in any way by stereotyping or being condescending," you're not being authentic, she says.

Hall tells her students to follow someone around and then bring that "character" back to class. "And I constantly say, 'No, you're not being that person.' They get frustrated. I ask, 'What is that person thinking? What's going on in their mind? What's in their backpack? Get inside that person's skin!' You can't do it any other way."

Aspects Within Us

Like Hackett, Hall emphasizes that we contain within us almost all aspects of our characters. "When my students have to play racists," she says, "and they say, 'I don't know anything about this,' I say, 'Yes, you do.' We don't want to talk about it, but it's inside us somewhere—maybe something our parents said or something we saw on TV. If you allow yourself to be that person, it's scary, but it's there."

I once saw Hall play a junkie utterly convincingly in Naomi Iizuka's "Hamlet: Blood in the Brain." "I could do that character in my sleep. It just flowed out," says Hall, an herbal tea drinker who has never done drugs. "I can always play junkies. I grew up in Detroit and knew a lot of hard-core people." She always makes a point of observing others. A friend joked that she's nosy, but it's not that. She's fascinated, and respectful.

But Hall also remembers having a difficult time playing a character who let others exploit her. "To make myself feel invisible and very vulnerable and afraid was really tough for me," she says. Since then, though, she's had some difficult personal experiences that would help her were she ever to reprise that role.

Talbott also recalls a difficult role: Malvolio in "Twelfth Night," in a scene-study class at Juilliard. Teacher Daniel Fish wouldn't let him settle for cheap characterizations. "This is a broken man, and I want you to fall in love with him," he told Talbott. From Fish, Talbott learned how to never separate himself from the character.

New York actor-teacher Stephen Dym has a slightly different take on creating a character, taught to him by his mentor, the master teacher Bobby Lewis. Lewis discussed "character elements." Out of your textual understanding of your character's given circumstances and intentions—and of your character's time and place in society—you look for props, costumes, habitual gestures that will lead you to authentic behavior. In his book "Advice to the Players," Lewis recommended looking for "any behavioral characteristics that might be revealing of their particular psychology…. What I don't mean is elements of character such as 'noble,' 'proud,' 'shy,' etc. What sort of activity might arise from being shy? Would one be unable to look people directly in the eye?"

In other words, Dym says, it's not about pasting on a prop and it's not about the costume making the character; you're looking for something that illuminates the character, fills you with inner life, and inspires genuine, organic actions. Sometimes it can be something simple. Working on Oswald in Ibsen's "Ghosts," Dym felt separate from the character. But when someone suggested he hold his wine glass by its stem, that delicate gesture provided a key. "I don't know what it looked like from the outside, and I don't want to know," Dym says. But it worked, connecting him with the character in a nonsuperficial way.

The master teachers of the 20th century disagreed about whether actors should bring the character to themselves or extend themselves to meet the character. My own mentor, Jean Shelton, used to say, "There is no 'character' per se. It's you—you in a funny hat maybe, but you." Hackett says that actors she coaches for auditions often moan, "I'm never going to get that part"; they think they're too different from the character. Hackett tells them, "What about if we bring the character to you, instead of you trying to meet what you think is the result of the character?" Her advice includes looking for contradictions within the character. "When you find something that's not in their character description in the breakdown, then you get a three-dimensional person," she says. After all, we're all full of contradictions, and so are the great dramatic characters. But it all comes from you first, says Hackett, from you "owning yourself totally."

Sometimes it's painful to go to certain internal places, Hall acknowledges. But, she says, "Understand that this person has to exist in you, because that's your job. You have no other choice."