DEVELOPING AND UNDERSTANDING CHARACTER
Slightly over a week ago I got a chance to spend some time on the other side of an audition floor and despite being involved in TV and Film productions before, I realized that I have never really watched actors auditioning from such a perspective. Being in that position allowed me to observe several unique and, I believe, important insights into actor behaviors and alas, some actor misconceptions. But I digress, the audition came after a very interesting class by Neil Schell about ‘character’ and how actors can understand the concept and use this understanding to interpret their roles. And that is what this blog post is about:
THE MEANING OF CHARACTER
Though meanings of words vary from use to use depending on circumstance, intention and context. It is likely your understanding of ‘character’ in relation to its use within film, is closely related to one or all of the following meanings:
- The Mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual
- The quality of being individual, typically in an interesting or unusual way
- Strength and originality in a person’s nature
- A person in a novel, play, or movie
- A part played by an actor
The word’s ancient precursor is the Latin term kharakter which referred to ‘a stamping tool’ similar to the unique seals used in early times to identify and distinguish families and institutions. Ostensibly, character is supposed to distinguish one person from another and in this particular instance, one actor from the other.
Johnny Depp and some of the most famous characters he has brought to our cinema screens. From left. Johnny Depp himself, Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, The Mad Hatter, Todd Sweeney, and Captain Jack Sparrow.
Anybody see a pattern?
In the arts, a ‘character’ can be referred to as ‘the representation of a person in a narrative work of art such as a novel, play, or film’. This is why the phrase ‘in character’ is used to refer to an effective impersonation by an actor. Most local actors’ understanding of character is restricted to the meaning of the word in relation to its use in literature and rarely do they think of it in relation to themselves and who they are outside of the theater, or the set. However, actors would add much more value to their careers by applying a more wholesome understanding of the concept of character. This is because their own personal identity is just as important, if not more important, than their understanding of the character they are required to portray in a narrative. If a character in a script had a template requirement for his/her portrayal then any actor would be able to play that role provided they met the physical requirements. It is of absolute importance that an actor learn his own individual character and every aspect of it in order for them to be able to apply this individuality to the roles they audition for. Simply put; the only difference between you and every other actor who has the same experience and levels of proficiency as your own, is who you are. If you can not bring who you are to every role you play, there is hardly any reason for any director to consider you for a role.
You would think this is easy and should not be a problem at all. In fact you would think this is supposed to be a default reaction. But it isn’t easy, especially if you consider that it entails drawing from one’s own emotions and experiences instead of creating imaginary ones. For example, a scene in which your character feels the pain of losing a loved one would probably be played by recalling such an experience from your own life. If you have actually lost a loved one before, then the scene will remind you starkly of your own real pain and that is not an experience many people are willing to go through for the sake of a role. The world’s best actors are all individuals who have developed a unique way of applying their personal character traits and experiences to the narrative characters they portray and this is exactly what every actor must endeavor to achieve. As Neil Schell puts it, ”If you disregard your uniqueness and creativity and try to show a character, you will be forcing something onto your audience that lacks the depth of your uniqueness... It is therefore vital that you know what your uniqueness is and your strength so you can market what you have. You will be easier to cast and directors and producers will know what you bring to roles.”
Aristotle perhaps explained it best in his ‘Poetics’ where he describes character not as denoting a fictional person from a narrative work, but as ‘the quality of the person acting in the story and reacting to its situations. He says, “…the actors do not act in order to represent the characters, but they include the characters for the sake of their actions”. Subsequently, what every director looks for (or at least ought to look for) in an audition, and in every actor s/he meets, is not the ‘character’ from a story, but the ‘character’ in the actor that would best compliment one from the story; the one whose interpretation of the role will be unique, interesting, and most importantly, desirable for a particular production.
I’ll offer you by far the easiest way to begin your journey to understanding your character as an actor and to making this understanding work for your career. The thing to do is to specialize. If you are just starting to build your career, learning what kind of roles you play best and making yourself better at them is the best way to begin landing more jobs. The idea that you’re capable of succeeding at any and all roles you may be required to play is romantic but a bit over-ambitious. Even worse, it makes it difficult to market you as an actor. If you perform best as a nerd/thug/prostitute then don’t fight it. Be the best nerd/thug/prostitute there is and in time, everyone will be ready(perhaps even eager) to see you try other kinds of roles. Think of Ainea Ojiambo locally; Now there is one person who almost always plays an evil devious character. But the key word is always, which means he always gets the part. That’s because everyone knows he’s good at it. Now, like me, most people are curious to see him play a different kind of role. Preferably one where he’s the nicest and most innocent character in the story and I hope he’s eager for the challenge too.
In more developed settings like Hollywood, casting agencies in conjunction with agents and directors make sure that the only actors the director gets to see are the most suited for the role in terms of experience, physical requirements, and suitability. Suitability, as we all know, is a function of specialization. This underscores the need for Kenyan actors to identify and develop their specific strengths as actors because as the local TV and film industry grows, the current model of public auditions will become increasingly less viable and producers will opt more and more to use casting agencies as is done internationally. And casting agencies will only be able to forward your name and contacts to a director if they know what roles you are suitable for. In fact, it is of great importance that local actors seriously consider joining a casting agency. But why don’t I let you hear it from a couple of local producers (and one of them knows all about acting on the local scene):
Written By Alexander Ikawah