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Building a Character: Inside and Out

Think of performances that moved you; actors whose portrayals of certain characters stayed with you, haunted you, inspired you. Great performances are often said to be “multi-layered”. Nuance and subtlety are landmarks of great artists.

When we take on a role, we need to spend time with the character beyond the script. We must address the life that our characters lead, or have led, beyond the dialogue and story being told. Great actors make us wonder about such things as we watch them.

We must build our characters from the inside and the outside.

We must build our characters from the inside and the outside. The inside being their psyche, opinions, outlook on life and inner turmoil. The inside will hone our ability to decide their desire in each scene. The outside being their body language, physical appearance, posture, afflictions and mannerisms. The outside will inform how they move through each scene. Together, this combination will help us craft a character to its potential.

The Inside:

How does one convey without words what’s going on inside of them? The face and eyes are the windows to the character’s soul. Marlon Brando’s facial expressions covered the spectrum of human emotion in Last Tango In Paris. Buster Keaton’s patented Stone Face presented a divine resignation of his stock character as the world fell apart around him. Beneath his Joker make-up, Heath Ledger’s eyes told a story of psychosis in The Dark Knight. James Gandolfini’s labored nostril-exhales spoke volumes of Tony Soprano’s anger and frustration. The list goes on and on. Study the facial expressions and physical actions of fine actors and you will improve your own skills.

The Outside:

A skilled actor not only talks the talk, but walks the walk of his character. Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso in Midnight Cowboy gives us the history of a broken soul in his limp, his jittery nature and consistent coughing. John Travolta’s Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever was shallow, narcissistic, arrogant and naïve. We could tell by the way he…ahem…used his walk. Shelley DuVall’s portrayal of Olive Oyl in Popeye stands out because of her incredible mimicry of a cartoon character’s well-remembered neck-stretches and nervous twitches, not to mention her warbled and whiny voice.

Becoming The Character:

DRACULAMake-Up is often the doorway to becoming the role. Anyone who has donned a new visage through the wonders of greasepaint, crepe hair or prosthetics, can attest to the power of the make-up kit. Get a copy of Richard Corson’s classic Stage Makeup and have some fun transforming yourself into another person.

Note the importance of make-up in so many landmark roles. Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, Lon Chaney, Sr.’s Phantom of the Opera and Hunchback of Notre Dame, and F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in Amadeus are but a few that spring immediately to mind.

You’ve got your script. You’ve got some direction. You’ve got background that your director has given you and more that you’ve dreamed up.

Now start digging deeper. Take the personality of your character. How does he or she walk? How do they talk? Are they confident or are they shattered? Apply the appropriate attributes. No one is going to buy Willy Loman skipping and spinning around lampposts or The Wicked Witch of the West as a shuffling, withdrawn shoe-gazer.

Archetypes exist everywhere we look

GORILLAWatch the behavior of animals. Watch how they move. Is your character a scared little mouse, a lumbering ape or an elegant swan?

Become a people-watcher. Archetypes exist everywhere we look. Study movements, speech patterns, clothes, how they wear a hat, the speed that they walk, etc. An occasional “what the hell are you looking at” is worth the knowledge you will glean.

Read your script out loud. Apply the various dialogue techniques from our previous blog. Read it again and add a type of walk. Again, with facial expressions. Once more with the mannerisms of an animal. Soon your portrayal will begin to take shape.

Remember, the more work you do to shape your character, the more your character will do the work for you.

Go get ‘em!




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