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Using Clothing to Suit Action to the Word

Each month, Back Stage will publish a guest Craft column by an acting coach with particular insight into the performer's work and process. For this month, we present Howard Fine.

Is there an actor who hasn't asked at one time or another, "What should I wear to the audition to convince the casting director that I am this character?" But that's the wrong question to ask. Instead you should ask, "What should I wear to convince myself that I am this character?" My friend and mentor Uta Hagen used to say she couldn't even begin working on a role until she was wearing the right clothes. This is not to be confused with working externally. Rather, clothes help actors get in contact with different aspects of themselves.

Here's an example: I am one of the few people who has ever seen Diana Ross without hair and makeup and lived to tell about it. We were working on a film, Out of Darkness, in which she plays a paranoid schizophrenic who spends part of her life living on the street. But her glamorous hair, makeup, and clothing prevented her from getting in touch with the degradation, fear, and desperation called for. So I asked her to come to all of our work sessions without her hair and makeup done and in raggedy clothing. The change was profound: Immediately she could go to places that wouldn't have been possible wearing her designer outfits.

What we wear changes our self-perception: If you're a man wearing a suit or a woman in eveningwear, you won't feel like sitting on the floor eating chips and dip and watching the game. But if you're in sweats and sneakers, sitting on the floor might feel natural. I know people (myself included) who cannot make business calls until they're showered and dressed; they can't contact the professional part of themselves otherwise.

And, by the way, actors wear "costumes"; human beings wear "clothes." One reason that historical pieces are often performed so badly is that the actors are posing in period garb—playing at period manners rather than understanding that clothing, no matter the era, conditions physical behavior. If you're wearing big puffy sleeves, you'll be careful when pouring tea. A corset will change your posture. And if your trousers are freshly pressed, you'll be careful crossing your legs, as permanent press is a relatively recent invention.

When working on any role—including preparing an audition—wear the clothes that help you synchronize with your character. Does this mean that if you're auditioning to play Cinderella, you should wear a ball gown? Of course not; the casting director will have you carted away. But wearing a dress would be advisable. It's the same if you're auditioning to play an attorney: A sports jacket will certainly help you. The clothes will change your posture, your physicality, and your demeanor, meaning some of the character work will already be done for you. If you can make yourself believe, then they will believe.

Here's another example: I coached Lindsay Lohan on her role in the film Freaky Friday, in which she had to play two completely different points of view. In part of the script she played a typical teenager; then, after magical intervention, she had to embody the personality and physicality of her character's mother, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Getting a teenager (which Lohan was at the time) to identify with the viewpoint of a parent was no easy task. To tackle this problem, we divided the coaching sessions into two parts. When we worked on the younger role, wearing jeans and T-shirts worked well for her. When we worked on the mother, she switched to a dress and a very adult purse.

Over the years, many casting directors have become suspicious of actors "acting." They prefer to hire people they think already "are" the character. Once I had a student go to two auditions in a single day—one for the role of a Mafia don and the other for a stay-at-home dad. He ended up booking both roles, and the feedback from both casting directors was that he "was" these characters. What did he wear? For the Mafia don, all black and some gold jewelry. For the stay-at-home dad, a sweater and jeans.

My longtime student Michael Chiklis was known as funny and cuddly before landing his role on The Shield. In fact, the show's producers didn't want to audition him: They felt he lacked enough edge. So he came to see me and we worked on his audition. Prior to seeing me, he shaved his head, making him feel tougher. Michael also loves to wear funny T-shirts with cute sayings on them, but on the day of his audition, he knew not to wear one. He chose rugged jeans, work shoes, and a solid black T-shirt. Of course, we had done the internal work needed to contact the darkest part of his personality, but the clothing helped, and he went into the audition and scared the daylights out of everyone.

When Michael and I worked together to ready him for the film Fantastic Four, using clothing to enhance self-concept also came into play. In the film he plays the Thing—the only member of the group permanently disfigured by mutation. In order for him to walk in the Thing's shoes, I suggested he use makeup that would slightly deform him and then walk around outside. Michael was able to see how differently people reacted to him, giving him a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be the Thing.

As an actor, your job is to make the words come from you. So another question to ask is: What part of yourself do you need to contact to play a particular role? Here, too, clothing plays a part. Consider how carefully you choose an outfit when you have an important event to attend: You think about who will be there and how you wish to be perceived. You might even practice introducing yourself. We agonize over what to wear, thinking it has to do only with how we look, but it's really about how the clothes make you feel: Does this outfit make me feel cool? Do I feel sexy in this? Do I feel powerful? It's much the same when you're working on a role.

When I was working with Brad Pitt on Interview With the Vampire, he was very concerned with getting the physicality of Louis right. Until this point, he had played only very regular guys, and he wanted to break out of that mold. I explained to him that he'd never do it wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. We needed to rehearse in some approximation of the clothing he'd be wearing in the film. Charmer that he is, he persuaded the film's wardrobe people to give him some appropriate things to work in. But even if you don't have access to a costume department, you'll be surprised at what you have around the house that can help you. If not, perhaps a trip to the nearest thrift shop is warranted.

Once you've made selections, tune in to how the clothes impact you. Do you feel like the character? Move around. Try going out into the world in character. What's your new sense of self? How is your point of view about life altered? How is your physicality affected by what you're wearing? Pick up the script. Do the words come more easily? Are you able to connect with the part of yourself that is the character? If so, then you're ready to work.

Always use your clothing as a tool. As Hagen used to say, "I want to feel like the character right down to my underwear."

Howard Fine is an acting coach, a director, and founder of the Howard Fine Acting Studio in Hollywood, Calif.

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