Some of the most epic films in history have been period pieces. Yet, nailing characters set in a different time can be one of the most challenging components of performance that actors face. Having to perform in new surroundings and with different costumes can be distracting and impact actors psychologically–often more profoundly than initially anticipated. The journey to portraying a character from another time can be highly successful when actors take a few methods into consideration.
Allow Yourself Time to Acclimate to a New Environment
Famous actors have gone to great lengths to acclimate themselves to their character’s environment and get into the headspace needed to deliver award-winning performances. Actor Adrien Brody moved to Europe with only two bags to prepare for one of his most epic roles as Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which was set in the 1939 World War II era.
Staying true to one’s own acting style and the character requires actors to immerse themselves in the time and place that the character lived. Not everyone can afford to put their lives on hold to prepare for a role, as some a-list celebrities have done. Less invasive tasks such as researching the time, immersing yourself in shorter experiences such as museums or fairs, and reading any correlating work about the period or character you are playing will give actors insight into the deep subtleties of period acting.
Wardrobe Might be a Bigger Deal Than you Think
Actors should prepare themselves to function in the required wardrobe needed for the part, and making sure to give yourself plenty of time to adjust is critical. In the 2018 film “The Favourite,” actor Emma Stone reported that her organs shifted because of the corset she wore for the film. She worked through the discomfort by smelling menthol in between takes. Although costume discomfort isn’t often this traumatic, investigating your costume and having a few tips and tricks up your sleeve to navigate discomfort can help to ease the potential distraction of a period costume.
If possible, practice in costume as much as you can in order to get used to it. It’s also essential to think about your outfit from your character’s perspective. After all, these pieces were common at that time, and other factors may have influenced the character’s relationship with their wardrobe. If you’re auditioning for a period piece, there’s no need to hunt for a costume. Actors should wear plain, unadorned clothes that are more classic and less trendy, and add a few touches and props to help achieve a somewhat accurate reflection of the period. Simple additions such as hairstyle modifications or cloth patterns that reflect the era.
Speaking of the Time
Accents and dialects from the age your character lives in is yet another essential part of nailing period roles. At the same time, actors must be careful to not cross over into character acting unless it’s appropriate for the role and intentional. The delivery of lines should still be original even when using another accent or words unique to the time. Studying the accent, language, dialects, and tones related to the era and then finding a natural way to deliver lines while adopting these concepts is the essence of period acting at its finest.
The key to delivering a convincing accent starts with deep listening and observation. In the analysis phase, listening to native speakers is recommended. Actors can research various videos, radio shows, podcasts, and beyond to hear a long flow of dialogue that reveals the many nuances that accents have. Adopting what you’ve listened to requires practice and technique. Using a mirror to experiment with mouth and tongue placement will help actors fine-tune pronunciation of the more difficult tones.
Period acting is often a new challenge that evolves many actor’s skills and broadens their portfolio. The key isn’t to focus on transforming into another person but immersing yourself in a different experience. Once actors have researched the time and place of the period they will be in, finding commonalities with the character you are playing will help actors identify with the characters they are portraying.
Exploring a new place and time in history is exciting, and the masses have come to embrace actors that portray beloved characters set in a different time. Preparing for period pieces can take time, but the result is that audiences have the unique opportunity to connect with history in a new way through performances that shape the human experience.
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