Tool # 2 CHARACTERIZATION, BUILDING A CHARACTER
Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” film.From Art of Directing Actors book, by Ernest Goodman.
“The best actors are children and dogs because they’re not acting at all.” ~ Helen Mirren
CHARACTERIZATION is the actor and director’s process of creating a distinct character.
Writer, producer, studio executive, and professor Lew Hunter said this about character: “…audiences remember characters even more than stories…Make your characters memorable.”
Indeed, audiences remember characters more than any other element in a performance. Distinguished and extraordinary characters make your art piece (film or play) unique and attractive to the audience. In other words: the characters make your film.
Characters and their relationships to each other comprise a big world that can be created by meaningful collaboration between the director and actors. A director finds the essence, Zen, alchemy, or code of a film or theater play by building characters. The process of building characters also helps to reveal the relationships of the characters, not only to each other, but also to the story. A director ascertains how she can best translate the scripted story into a film or a theater performance in order to achieve the most satisfying experience for the audience. Your characters are the code—the DNA—of the script that brings the film or play into existence.
Within this chapter, we’ll look at how to create unique and memorable characters. Characters are born on the page, created by the screenwriter, novelist or playwright, but they mature and come to life under the skillful guidance of the director in close collaboration with the actors who portray them.
According to Stanislavski, the actor’s art of living truthfully on the stage is a complex process that begins with character development. It begins by DEVELOPING the CHARACTER in the GIVEN CIRCUMSTANCES and EVENTS, and most importantly, with the physical actions generated by the given circumstances and events. Only after the character’s personality has been created can the actor in his role be logical, and consistently perceive, think and act as a real person; then he may be close to the natural feelings of any individual person. This is The Art of Living.
Creating, developing or building a CHARACTER is the first important step in preparing an actor for her role; the director and actor should start this process as soon as possible—even before rehearsals. CHARACTERIZATION is one of the best tools in the actor’s arsenal. It is where they should always start. Many books have been written about this method alone.
Any kind of art has its own special means of expression. Musicians transfer their creative energy through the sound of their instruments and singers express themselves through their voice. Actors express their creative energy through movements of their body and voice.
A great character is always a balanced combination of unique, individual traits and the common traits of the people in a character’s profession or social class. For instance, when an actor creates the character of a police officer, he should look for some unique characteristics of that person, what distinguishes him among other police officers, but at the same time, the character must have many features in common with other police officers. That is why actors must thoroughly research their characters. Furthermore, the actor has to know all the nuances of the given circumstances, the facts, and the biography of his character. Ordinarily, developing believable characters requires many months—often six or more.
There are different approaches to CREATING CHARACTER, including starting with either the external or internal elements. For most roles it is best to start by researching the character and the surrounding circumstances in museums, libraries or the Internet.
Actors can develop a character in two ways:
(1) From Inner to Outer. There are strong connections between our inner life and our outer expressions. One way an actor can begin developing his character is by starting with the character’s inner life, building internal elements such as his style of thinking, his state of mind, and his mood.
(2) From Outer to Inner. Here’s an example of how an actor might create a character by starting with the outer elements. The actor wears a police uniform, gets a specific haircut, sits in a police car, and spends a lot of time working with the police to learn how they move, act, and live their everyday lives. He might then start building his character by developing a style of walking akin to what he observes while studying the policemen. The costumes and the environment are the external elements of building characters. If this is done well, the external elements will gradually start to influence the internal world of the character. Wearing the uniform also triggers changes in the inner world of the actor. The actor will begin to feel as if it belongs to him. Inner changes are so important; they help to create a natural, life-like character. One successful approach is to start from general elements and work towards the specifics: from the common elements of the profession to the individual elements of an employee in that profession.
(1) Let’s look at Heath Ledger’s character preparation for The Dark Knight, a 2008 British-American superhero film directed, produced, and co-written by Christopher Nolan.
Heath Ledger locked himself in a hotel room in order to prepare for the role. He lived alone there for a month, formulating the character’s features—his voice, posture, and personality—and kept a diary, in which he recorded the Joker’s thoughts and feelings. For this one-month period of time, he did not communicate with anybody in order to create the Joker’s character in this film. This is how he immersed himself in the role.
(2) For his role in The Wrestler, a 2008 American sports drama film directed by Darren Aronofsky, actor Mickey Rourke spent 6 months doing intensive preparation, including physical training and actual wrestling lessons from a professional coach. Rourke himself was once a professional boxer, who was young and glorious and made the big bucks. He eventually left the sport due to injuries. Rourke alienated a lot of people, and he fell from grace and stardom, but he kept working because he was an actor and it was the only thing he did. For his role of Randy the Ram, Rourke created a great character because he took the time to develop it.
(3) For The Notebook, film director Nick Cassavetes wanted someone unknown and “not handsome” to portray Noah; he cast Ryan Gosling in the role. According to the production notes, Ryan Gosling was initially surprised by his new role: “I read [the script] and I thought, He’s crazy. I couldn’t be more wrong for this movie.” But the actor decided to make all efforts to develop the character. Gosling said, “it gave me an opportunity to play a character over a period of time— from 1940 to 1946—that was quite profound and formative.” To prepare for the part, Gosling temporarily moved to Charleston, South Carolina prior to filming. He hung out there for two months and made furniture.
(4) I like how Frances McDormand played her role in the film Fargo. She successfully created the character of a small-town police chief named Marge Gunderson. This actress transformed herself into a plain and very pregnant woman.
Amazingly, each time Frances McDormand appears on stage or in a film, she seems to be an entirely different person. Whether she is acting in the Russian plays of Anton Chekhov or in contemporary comedies, McDormand reshapes herself according to the needs of the story and the character.
McDormand describes herself as actor who uses her craft to create an imaginative stage life. Essentially, this book is about creating imaginary world for your actors to believe in and to live in truthfully.
(5) You have probably seen the movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg. Notably, Abraham Lincoln’s character description consists of hundreds of pages. Moreover, during preparations, Daniel Day Lewis, the actor who played the role of the 16th President of the United States, demanded the cast, crew and even director Steven Spielberg to refer to him as “Mr. President” on the set this film. This helped Lewis stay in a character.
Producer Kathleen Kennedy described Day-Lewis’s acting immersion into the role as follows: “he is very much deeply invested and immersed throughout the day when he’s in character, but he’s very accessible at the end of the day, once he can step outside of it and not feel that. I mean, he’s given huge scenes with massive amounts of dialogue and he needs to stay in character. It’s a very, very performance-driven movie.”
This is a great example of how an actor can develop a very powerful and believable character in collaboration with the director.
Now that we’ve discussed some great examples of how to develop characters, let’s take a look at some mistakes to avoid when using this tool.
So many actors mistakenly portray only clichés of their characters and can’t create a realistic person on stage.
An ACTOR’S STAMP is a term used in the theater world. It is a weak character built by using only few external characteristics of a certain type of person. Here are some examples of an Actor’s Stamp:
Examples of an Actor’s Stamp:
– People who serve in a military have a strong voice and specific haircut. They walk neatly and answer loudly.
– Lawyers wear expensive suits and have briefcases.
– Homeless people have shabby clothes and dirty faces.
You may consider such descriptions to be truthful at times. However, all of them are based on stereotypes. A cliché does not work in the acting world. Military servicemen can have a weak appearance. Lawyers can show up to their workplace wearing shorts and t-shirts. Homeless people may have clean clothes. Stereotypes create a poor character that’s full of clichés. A personality that’s full of clichés looks unnatural, fake, and flat; it takes out any creativity from your work. Of course, the character must have something in common with anybody else in the character’s profession or social class, but not too much. The most important thing is for the character to have some individuality. It is the director’s job to find out what is going on inside the character—his intentions and his fears. Actors should stay away from clichés. For example, if an actor is creating the character of a police officer he may try to be stern and loud. But do you think that every police officer is firm and strict, and walks like Robocop? No, of course not. That is cliché-based directing.
In real life, police officers are different; often they don’t look firm and strict. Do not follow clichés and stereotypes. Actual police officers will behave differently from one another. That is why experiencing and observing is necessary in order to be a good director. Actors and directors should know all about the different facets of human behavior and psychology.
In order to be a good director, you should be a good psychologist and observer. Develop your ear for dialogue. Watch how people behave in different situations. Observe the way people talk and act under various circumstances. Only experience and sharp observation will help you become an outstanding director or actor. Actors and directors must develop the habit of being attentive and making observations. It is part of our job. Poor observation leads to poor characterization. Poor characterization leads to a poor performance. A poor performance leads to a poor film or theater play.
Among many other actors, Frances McDormand, Bill Irwin, Neil Marcus, Anna Deavere Smith are good collectors of human life experiences and human behavior samples. They are supreme observers of the large and small moments in their own lives and the lives of the people around them. This is why they devote themselves to their roles and are able to create unique, incredible and impressive characters.
A CHARACTER CHECKLIST
First of all, everything must be on paper. There’s an old Hollywood rule that underscores this point of view: “if it isn’t on the page, it isn’t on the stage.” It is rumored that the great director, Alfred Hitchcock, didn’t enjoy the actual physical filming of his films. He said that his movies were already finished during the preparations, and the production of the film was just an exercise he had to undergo. Alfred Hitchcock understood, as all great directors do, that thorough, detailed and critical preparation is absolutely essential to the success of a film. Great filmmakers know that the key to making great films is preparation. In keeping with this rule, it’s important to create written descriptions of your characters.
It is also rumored that Alfred Hitchcock once said, “movies are like real life with all of the boring parts removed.” We don’t know for sure whether Hitchcock really said this, but there is unquestionable truth to that statement.
Boring facts from your character’s past should go into the checklists where you should put tens or even hundreds of pages of information about the events from the biographies of your heroes.
Eliminate the boring parts from the film and move them to your characters’ descriptions. I created a character checklist as an example. You can create your own from scratch or use this one as a starting point.
A CHARACTER CHECKLIST
1. Gender and age.
2. Education of character.
3. In what type of environment was the character raised?
4. The character’s personality.
6. Character traits.
7. How does s/he plan to achieve or get what s/he wants?
8. Character’s biggest fears, and how s/he plans to overcome her/his fears.
Another Opinion About Creating Characters
On the other hand, some prominent directors do not consider character development to be a director’s tool. Andrei Tarkovsky used to say, “I do not believe in skin changers.” He believed that the actor can be himself and that the characters built by an actor over a short period of time are not natural and will look inherently fake. Tarkovsky worked in his own style and created several masterpieces in which all of the actors acted very truthfully. Tarkovsky’s films include Andrei Rublev, Solaris, The Mirror, and Stalker. He directed the first five of his seven feature films in the Soviet Union. His last two films were produced in Italy and Sweden, respectively. They are characterized by spiritual and metaphysical themes, long takes, lack of conventional dramatic structure, and distinctive use of cinematography.