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The Lesson of The Valve Stems
by Roger Kunshick
A few years ago, a lady friend of mine was a judge at a Scale Modeling competition. (One of the few females of the species involved in the hobby at that time.) She was one of several judges who were to determine which entry in the "Custom Car" class was the best custom built model racing car kit. It all came down to two entries built with seemingly the same skill and talent. In order to determine the winner, the judges brought out their magnifying glasses and literally examined each of the two model vehicles in almost microscopic detail. The entry that brought home the blue ribbon was a customized kit whose builder fabricated from scratch, tiny detailed valve stems for each of the model kits tires that were almost invisible to the naked eye.
This is the level of attention to detail that we, as actors need to aspire to in our own art form when creating characters. In many great performances, it is the almost imperceptible touches of character that distinguish the fine line between a good performance and a great one. (Or perhaps even between a bad performance and a good one.)
Initial clues as to who your character is can be found by reading, and re-reading, the script. What the author writes about your characters behavior and how other characters in the script see your character can provide you with a wealth of information, if you have the patience to do your detective work.
Beyond the script, you have to rely on yourself, your director, and the comments of your fellow actors when they offer their personal views of what helps them to create more believable characters. Their comments and our own instincts can serve as guideposts to make our performances more "real" in the eyes of the audience.
Actor John Glover, (Batman & Robin, Love, Valor, Compassion, Melvin and Howard), who teaches at Santa Monica University, is always concerned about the hair and shoes of the characters that he plays. Hair plays a major role in a persons self-image. The attention, or lack thereof, that a person pays to their hair can define how they see themselves. Their level of self esteem; The length of ones hair can tell a lot about ones social, economic, and political views. Shoes can define a persons trade. A carpenter wears different shoes than a lawyer. A lawyer who has scuffed shoes that they never shine could be a person with major personal or professional problems. (Or perhaps theyre just slovenly.)
The late actor, Michael Chekov, nephew of the legendary playwright, taught a more esoteric approach to developing character. He suggests the use of visualizing an "Invisible body" to help form the character an actor will play. You visualize the appearance of your character; Someone taller, shorter, larger, smaller, has red hair, green eyes, or any physical attributes that you think make the character different from you. Then, you "step" into the invisible body of your visualized character and move it around. Find out how it feels to be someone heavier than you, taller or shorter than yourself. In his view, this exercise will lead to finding not only a different way of moving physically when you play the role, but lead to finding different emotional perspectives as well.
Theres also the classic Method "Animal Exercise" where you determine an animal whose personality would apply to your character and use it as a way of finding who the character you are playing really is. In the original production of "Death of a Salesman," Lee J. Cobb, still a relatively young man at the time, used the Animal Exercise as a means of finding who Willy Loman was and how he moved, producing a believable performance of a man who life has passed by.
And then there are the happy accidents that come out of rehearsal time with your scene partner(s). Whether its in the few minutes of rehearsal you have on a film shoot or the extended rehearsal period in the theater, a few minutes of rehearsal can open you up to who this person you are playing is and how they relate to the other characters they encounter in the performance.
In the role of Carlino, in the play "Wait Until Dark," I found that hunger and his taste in ties defined who he was to me. Carlinos a small time con man; He never sees the big picture, hes only concerned with the immediate gratification of his wants and needs. Hes hungry. He eats. He needs money. He steals. He never is aware of the consequences that his actions may cause. Hes stuck in his lower chakras. As part of my research into the character I found a tie that defined Carlinos sense of "style". A cheesy, sleazy tie for a rather cheesy, sleazy man. In these choices I discovered a lot about who Carlino really was.
There are probably as many ways to discover who a character is as there are characters to play. Theres no formula that can get you there. Exercises and concerns such as these are just a few glimpses into ideas about finding character. But the common thread in all of them is that by paying close attention to the finer details of the character and their circumstances you can find a greater psychological and emotional depth in the roles you play.