Of course, as we have previously discussed on this blog--Genre matters, so that may not always be the case. But when it is, when one is filling a character's skin with some form of naturalistic life, a few things are true.
1. YOU, the actor, know this is a play.
2. and WE, the audience, of course understand that we are at a play
... but of course...
3. THEY, the character, do not.
The character is a person, who is just going about the business of living their life.
So why does this matter?
So often in the world of acting, an actor is tempted to use the judgement of an "outside eye" upon their work. There are absolutely times when this is appropriate and helpful. But for most, it is not. An actor may be overly concerned about their physical appearance, or that their beautiful tears are being fully received by the audience. They may be tempted to "show off" for critics, friends, or an adoring public.
Or perhaps the opposite! They may be nervous, self-conscious, maybe fearful of going "over the top." Or perhaps fearful because their character is repugnant--so they want to make certain the audience knows they the actor are perfectly nice it is merely their character that is a total jerk.
These things matter because the play is not about the actor. It is about the character's story and we as actors are there to serve. Serve the story, and serve the character. So if King Henry, Blanche DuBois, and Mama Rose don't know they are in a play, than they most certainly don't care that your mother-in-law is in the stalls from Milwaukee.
Henry is too concerned about rallying the troops and saving England...
Blanche is preoccupied with sneaking her next glass of bourbon right away...
and Rose is far too busy getting her bus-load of Newsboys to the next vaudeville house to give a damn about your hang-ups.
And thus because these characters do not know they are in a play, the actor can pursue the character's wants, needs and objectives without becoming concerned about their fears, anxieties or egos. They are free to serve.
Now this might sound a little crazy, but this, one of the greatest acting epiphanies of my artistic career thus far is not an original idea. It came from Jean de Segonzac, a marvelous film director whom I have had the joy of working with on both Law & Order: Criminal Intent as well as Law & Order: SVU.
In the SVU episode "Lost Traveller," I played Nadia Gray, a Romani mother of a nine-year-old boy found dead in Brooklyn (played a-dor-a-bly by Cameron Ocasio). She is obliterated by the loss of her only son, and her seeming inability to find justice within the system.
The episode featured a climactic, emotionally shattering confrontation scene (with the glorious and supportive stars Mariska Hargitay and Danny Pino, as well as Donny Keshawarz playing my husband).
Weeping from the pits of universal despair.
Electra. Antigone. Medea-type turmoil.
I didn't want this to be another over-the-top melodramatic turn in any ol crime show--I wanted to tell this woman's story with the very best of myself.
The fact was: I had never done anything like it on camera before.
And I was terrified.
A few minutes before shooting, Jean approached me in his quiet, gentle way. Checking in.
Then after a few moments, there was a silence between us. He must have sensed my trepidation.
"Everything alright?" he said, the soothing trace of French-Canadian in his utterance.
"Yes..." I replied, "...it's just...ugh, I'm a little blocked I guess. I want to do this woman justice. And I don't think I know how to portray this on camera without... I don't know... acting with all of me and risking looking like I am in Medea..."
Jean looked at me through his glasses and nodded his understanding. He looked away for a moment in thought. Jean is one of those directors that makes an actors feel absolutely trusted and believed in, as if he knows (perhaps far better than you do), that you already possess all the answers.
A thought struck him and he smiled solemnly. Then he looked back at me and said
"But it is Medea... this woman doesn't know she is on a television show. Her son is dead. And no one is helping her. Don't worry about anything other than that. You just live it truthfully, and I will catch it. Sound good?"
My brain promptly exploded,
and then we went about doing exactly that.
A lesson I have never, and never shall, forget.