Updated: Feb 1
It's not uncommon for an actor to have to portray a character completely different from their own personality or world view. From playing villains and murderers, to historical figures with a certain perspective set in time; actors face the struggle of being themselves while portraying someone else! Read below to see how some actors have tackled the challenge.
“It rubs the lotion on it’s skin or else it gets the hose again.”
If that unintentional little rhyme makes your skin crawl, it’s probably because you either remember, or have stored away in the dark vaults of your subconscious, Ted Levine’s performance as Jame Gumb in Silence of the Lambs. Levine plays the terrifying serial killer Buffalo Bill who dehumanizes his victims into essentially livestock he can use to make himself a “woman suit.” Those who know Levine for his almost typecast role as a police commander (The Alienist and The Bridge) may wonder how he could play the loathful role of Gumb in such a convincing way. But this is what great actors do.
In an interview with Moviemaker Magazine, Philip Seymour Hoffman responded to the question of what roles he’d played were closest to who he was with:
"Everything I play is close to me in its own way. But I think, character-wise, the role where I just kind of showed up to work and didn’t do much, is 'Magnolia.' It’s more just kind of me than anything. 'Magnolia' and 'Love Liza,' really. They’re both parts where I didn’t do anything behaviorally or characteristically; I just kind of left myself alone.”
This suggests two things: first, that great actors tap a part of themselves in every character they play; and, second, that even the most seemingly unfamiliar characters to an actor are built around the genuine core of the actor.
But if you’re playing a detestable character like Cameron Britton did as Ed Kemper in Mind Hunter, how can you possibly say the character is built around your core self? First, it’s important to understand that actors are trained to “put on” certain elements of a character. By thinking through a character’s background--where they’re from, how they were raised, their likes and dislikes, etc.--actors can make choices concerning the character suit they will wear. They can choose ways of walking, patterns of speech, accents, gestures, and more that are appropriate to the background of the character. But when it comes to true expression, an actor has to tap the emotional content within themselves to make portrayal believable.
That doesn’t mean that you have to be a serial killer at heart to play one. But as on-set Hollywood acting coach Joseph Pearlman argues,
“Don't we all have an inner monster—something we'd never admit in public? I think we all possess the capacity to relate to everything and everyone. We just find ourselves choosing not to relate.”
In order, then, to tap honest emotional expression of a character, an actor must explore the impulses within themselves that connect to even the characters least like them. Tapping this emotional core transforms the outer shell the skilled actor can don into a powerful and fully realized entity on stage and screen.
Some method actors take this process to the extreme, as infamous stories tell us, by becoming the characters they play for the period in which they act the part. Christian Bale, for example, lost 60 pounds for his insomniac role in The Machinist. Daniel Day-Lewis immersed himself a bit too far for his role in Gangs of New York when he not only trained as a butcher and picked random street fights (to be like his character), but also wore a period wool jacket that was too thin and contracted pneumonia. Perhaps the worst example was Sylvester Stallone’s attempt to be his character in Rocky IV, when he encouraged Dolph Lundgren to actually try to knock him out. After three takes, Stallone ended up in intensive care for eight days.
The point here is that investing yourself in a character doesn’t mean total immersion, which can be emotionally draining and even psychologically damaging. As Pearlman tells the actors he trains,
“The work should focus on tuning your heartbeat to the heartbeat of the character. One’s own personality and humanity must never be discarded unless you desire to strip the character of its soul.”
Investing yourself in a character is about discovering the experiences and qualities that connect you with the character, no matter how small. These emotional links allow you to tap real content within yourself and to build a character you can fully enjoy, but one you can step into and out of when it's time to be you.
Based on your interest in this article, we think you should check out these programs ATC has build for students just like you:
Janet Foster, CSA, has been a casting director for over thirty years working on Broadway, off-Broadway and most recently for the American Conservatory Theatre. She has helped hundreds of actors launch their careers.
In this 4 week Masterclass, students will learn the importance of nailing a written piece and the importance of creating your own work. Each week student will workshop a new monologue or scene with Matilda while also learning about her incredible journey in the industry as actor, director, writer and producer.