If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that I do not subscribe to the school of Character and that in my book Truth in Action, I rail against the notion of character and characterisation as something for actors. During the Intensive One Year Acting Course at Acting Coach Scotland, we rarely even cover the topic of character.
I know that to some this is blasphemy, or “stealing the soul of art” as someone once accused me of.
Most character work starts with arbitrary decisions based on your gut instincts about the scene. Maybe you have great instincts, maybe you don’t. A person isn’t the facts you know about them. We know a person from the things they do and say. We describe them as honest, shifty, lazy, dangerous.
How do we know this? Because of the things they do and say.
The ‘make up some shit’ about this imaginary person school of characterisation just avoids the script for a little longer. It’s nice. People are utterly wedded to it. But it doesn’t really help.
You cannot become the character by thinking about it. You cannot walk in their shoes by coming up with arbitrary made up facts. You must understand them and then perform their actions - or something like them.
But hear me out. I will explain in detail:
A great English idiom is to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” To understand someone, you have to put yourself in their situation. To understand someone, you need to understand what compels them.
You are on set in two days, you have a script in your hand. You don’t have a year to become the character. What do you do? What do you need to know? The character’s history? Their feelings? Their social status? Their darkest fantasies? No.
You need to know what they want from the other character(s) in the scene. You need to know this because everything else comes from it. Without knowing what compels the character, you don’t know why they say those lines, or they behave the way they do.
Characters aren’t people. They are like them. But they aren’t people. They look and sound like people, that’s because actors do a fantastic job of bringing them to life. But unlike people, characters are highly structured things. They have no free will. They must do and say what is required of them. And scenes always involve a character that wants something. They are compelled towards something or away from something. They chase or their avoid. Because that’s how dramatic conflict is created and the characters only exist for the purpose of the story.
To step into a character’s shoes, you must understand what they want from others. This will make the lines mean something specific.
Perform Their Actions
I should be clear that perform their actions does not mean waving your hands about and opening and closing downs. We mean their psychological actions. If you discover that your character wants their partner to support them to stop taking their important life-saving medication, then you really understand the scene. Everything that’s important relates to this. Everything else isn’t essential to the scene. May be interesting, but isn’t important.
But now you’ll have to find a way to embody that knowledge. If you want to step into the character’s shoes, you’ll need to find a way to turn that understanding into action.
We can all imagine what it’s like to get a love one’s support with something difficult. Leaving college, walking away from a job, away from an abusive relationship, giving up a child for adoption.
To really step into the character’s shoes, you must understand what they want, and also what it’s like to do something like that. Like it, because you do not know what it’s like to be a Nazi stormtrooper forcing a French woman to fuck him to save her husband’s life. You can’t possible. You probably don’t know what it’s like to force your mentally ill sister to have an abortion because she won’t cope with the baby.
But you can understand, and then perform actions that are similar.
You can understand wanting to help your sister because she won’t cope. You can relate to something about getting your loved one to make a very difficult decision. We can all find an association to that.
Take those into the scene, and the character will emerge. And once the scene starts, treat it all like it's real, just submerge yourself into the imaginary and enjoy it.
NO CHARACTER = NO BIG DEAL
It doesn’t make you less prepared. It doesn’t make you less of an artist. It doesn’t make you less professional, or less committed. Sure, there are people that don’t do character work that are lazy useless shits. But there are actors that DO character work that are lazy useless shits.
If you want to walk in the character’s shoes, start from understanding, move to their actions, and sprinkle whatever the hell else you like on top. All that stuff will make a lot more sense and work better, your choices will be strong and you’ll enjoy it all a lot more, if it’s based on those two basic, but very essential things.
To You, The Best
Mark Westbrook is the Studio Director of Acting Coach Scotland and currently producing To The Sea, directed by R Paul Wilson.