04 August, 2009

Ask Al: The Actor's Process

What is the creative process like? Do you have a particular method for creating the characters you portray?


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Dear H,

The short answer is No. But...the best way to put it is that I approach character development a lot like a collage. I want my character to live and breathe-- I want the character to be as close to a real person as is sane and possible. I know that sounds pedestrian, but the truth is, oftentimes there is a great deal of emphasis on a performance rather than on creating the impression of a living, breathing person. It is part methodical, part spontaneous and varies for every process.

I always have a book. (Usually a really simple, ugly one I feel happy to destroy, alter, throw about, and accidentally drop in the bath) which I fill with both very technical things (technique stuff a la Stanislavsky, Meisner, Hagen), and a tremendous amount of instinctively collected material.

Technically speaking one must collect several piece of information from the text itself: facts about the character, things the character says, and things others say about your character, etc. Those pieces of seemingly obvious information sometimes reveal a well of literal and subtextual inspiration and information about the character.

I always write out a full fleshed-out back story (I prefer writing this in third person "Julie Jordan was born in a small fishing village 40 miles south of Portland, Maine in the middle of the 19th century..."). I do the same for the gaps between scenes my character appears in, filling in the unspoken or unmentioned details of what happens between the scenes the audience views. For example, with Julie, I filled in the entire story of what happened between the opening scene where Billy and Julie fall in love, to the next scene where we see them unhappily married 3 months later. Etc.

Last, I collect any kind of visual or written additional inspiration that might help me access the character in another way. This means drawings, newspaper clippings, poems, bits of literature, photos, even fabric I feel is relevant to the development of the human being I’m chiseling and layering.

In general I like to arm myself with this copious research and more cerebral material before I ever get "on my feet." Once we’re staging, the work becomes primarily instinctive but I feel free to "feel" my way because the instinctive work has been informed by the prior intellectual work. I never leave a corner (either technical or instinctive) unexplored.

As I said of Julie Jordan in Ryan Roark's article last December:

"As far as Julie is concerned, I wrote down her biography, her history, and I wrote down what happens between the scenes, that the audience doesn't see. To be perfectly honest, I'm a closet academic. I want there to be a real cerebral process of what happens between the scenes, that then can translate itself emotionally, so that when you see Julie after two months have gone by, you can actually see that two months have gone by. I know exactly what has happened to her and what she's done. The lines and the words are rooted and loaded with real events and real things I've created in my mind. We all did a lot of that together, as the process. One of the great things about Lindsay [Posner, the director] is that we sit around a table for two weeks and we comb through the script, asking 'Why that word, and not another word?' and 'What do you think happened?', and we're all on the same page about exactly why we're saying what we're saying. What's great about that is that even nine months down the line when you're tired and you're maybe a little bored, that sort of detail can see you through. There's no way of losing yourself, because it's so specific and so rooted...."

I hope that answers your question! Good luck!

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