Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Major Difference"

Think about it. It’s pretty amazing. (And not a little disturbing as well.)

You want to be an actor. But what exactly does that mean? What being an actor means is that you have this job. And what that job involves is this:

You show up someplace, you go into your Dressing Room, and you take off your clothes. If it’s an historical production, the underwear goes too. Otherwise, doffing the outside clothing is enough.

So that’s the first thing; you take off you clothes. Then what you do is you put on the character’s clothes, and for as long as you’re portraying that character, those are your clothes.

Okay, the transformation is just getting started. The wardrobe is only the beginning.

You move on to “Hair and Make-Up”, where they rearrange your hair and your face to approximate, as closely as time, their talent and money will allow, the visual “look” of the character. You check yourself out in the mirror, and you do not see you anymore. Who you see is the character, which can be a little disconcerting.

“Look at that! I have a mustache!”

And you have it for the duration of the job.

“Even when you go home?”

“No, just when you’re there. Unless you actually grow your own mustache, in which case it’s always.”

“You mean, for life?”

“Maybe, if you like it.”

You have committed the character’s lines to memory. And, if you’re a certain kind of actor, you’ve thought seriously about the motivations and feelings underlying those lines. You may alter your voice delivering those lines – a different accent, a different type of projection – shy or bombastic, if you’re King George the Sixth, with a stammer. You may also adopt a different speaking rhythm – “Machine gun”, deliberate, like you grew up in the South…

None of it – not the lines, not the motivation, not the delivery – None of it is you. It’s entirely the character.

“I feel uncomfortable saying that line.”

Nobody cares. Because it’s not your line, it’s the character’s. The character is extremely comfortable saying that line. And, if you want to keep acting, you will be too.

Props? A sword? A musket? A hook, if you’re playing a pirate, maybe a gold tooth, and a parrot? If they’re “character appropriate”, on they go.

You make your way onto the stage, or the soundstage, trying on the “character’s walk” as you go. You’re a new person now, definitely not yourself. “Yourself” doesn’t walk with a limp.

They tell you where to stand. They direct you where and when to move. They instruct you to wait “a beat” before saying your line. They want you to look directly at the person you’re speaking to. Or not to.

“The person you’re speaking to.” That’s right. And also, not exactly accurate. Unless you’re delivering a soliloquy, you are addressing someone else. But not another person, however. Another character.

That’s acting. Two or more characters, talking to each other.

“I’m Doctor Zhivago.”

“I’m your mistress.”


“No. I’m an actress playing your mistress.”

“What a coincidence. I’m an actor playing Doctor Zhivago.”

Of course, that isn’t what happens. Actors never “break character.”

“Even at lunch?”

Maybe at lunch. But definitely not while they’re acting. While they’re acting, they never look up at each other, with their false noses and their prosthetic teeth, and go, “This is ridiculous!” and start giggling. If it happens, they yell, “Cut!”, and they do it again.

“And this time, no giggling!”

Perhaps this doesn’t sound bizarre to you, two people who, in truth, are not the characters pretending for all they’re worth that they are. But when it comes to acting, as they say in High Noon, “That’s the whole thing.”

The thing I’ve discovered about myself is that, even though I once aspired to be an actor, I actually had little aptitude for the work. Why not? Because, when you get down to it, I am severely lacking in the ability to pretend.

Which an actor, one hundred percent, requires.

I can imagine really well. But imagining is different from pretending. Pretending involves not a small measure of deception. You have to persuade people that you’re somebody else.

Imagining, on the other hand, says, “I’m not trying to pull the wool over your eyes, like if I were pretending to be somebody I’m not. I am simply engaging in an imagintory flight of fancy, and I am acknowledging ahead of time that that’s what I’m doing.”

In an earlier blog posting, I imagined I was a giraffe, terrified by the freedom of the jungle, because “Freedom’s just another word for running for your life.” I imagined that situation, and I brought you along for the ride. But I never for a moment tried to delude you into believing that I was actually a giraffe. Why? Because I know myself, and I am aware that I could never get away with it.

“I’m a giraffe.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Where are your spots, then?”

“They fell off.”

“You’re not very tall.”

“I’m a short giraffe.”

“And two of your legs are missing.”

“A lion ate them – All right! I’m not a giraffe! And I apologize profusely for the deception. You are nice people, and you deserve better than to be lied to. And I will never do it again. I promise. Don’t hurt me.”

Writers versus actors: If you can immerse yourself fully in a character, if you possess the “look ‘em straight in the eye” audacity to pretend you are somebody you are unequivocally and certifiably not – a condition viewed as severe “mental illness” in an other arena – then you can be an actor.

If you can imagine, but you can’t pretend?

Then you belong right here.

“What if I just played myself?”

Stop it!


JED said...

Do you find it helpful, though, that you took acting lessons? Does it help in your writing that you have been an actor? Does it help in your writing that you might understand actors more than a writer who has never tried to act - or - do you wish you had more of a separation of the act of writing from what the actors might be feeling about your writing? Does it distract you to worry about how the actors might react to what you have written?

Thank you,
Jim Dodd

PALGOLAK said...

I think Bill Murray just plays himself.

Mac said...

Very thought-provoking.
I worked with a 'transformative' actor, and, I know it's a cliche but when he wasn't acting, he really had no personality. In his case it really was that thing of "becoming" someone else was nothing for him, because there was no "someone" there in the first place. He was an amazing actor, and a nutjob, which brings us back to the closing paragraph of your (very interesting) article.