People are complicated. At any given moment, they can feel both intense love and hatred toward someone—they can feel easy and confident one minute, and consumed with self-doubt the next; courageous, yet terrified in response to a threat. The complexity of the inner life is exactly what actors seek to artfully explore and express in their characters. When done well, a compelling performance draws audiences far and wide who are eager to recognize, connect with, and appreciate a character’s deepest struggles.
Here are several strategies to build a complex character:
The legendary grande dame of theater, Stella Adler, dedicated herself to mastering the craft of acting and passing the valuable knowledge on to her students. One critical element of acting, she insisted, was the actor’s imagination. “Don’t use your conscious past. Use your creative imagination to create a past that belongs to your own character. I don’t want you to be stuck in your own life. It’s too little,” she asserted.
A thespian’s imagination is vast and expansive. Not only is it a tool to rely upon, but it’s a dominant aspect of an actor’s identity. “The imagination is closer to the actor than real life—more agreeable, more comfortable,” Stella believed.
Really be specific
Renowned acting and voice coach Mel Churcher advises actors to not miss out on opportunities to fully bring their characters to life. “Everybody says from the day you start the school drama, ‘Be specific, be specific,’ and yet people don‘t seem to be. When I work even with really good working actors … people aren’t‘t specific. I say, ‘Well how long [has your character] been married? Where did you live before that? Well how did you get into this business you’re doing? What were you doing just before this? And where have you come from?’ And people don’t know.”
On the other hand, she points out that if people are asked about such details about their own personal lives, they have the answers to all such questions at the tip of their tongue. So she encourages actors to fill out their characters with more dedication. “Now I know it’s not possible to know everything,” Churcher admits. But she urges actors to have a better sense of their character’s attitudes, feelings, curiosities, likings, and understandings.
Consider writing out your character’s biography
Every person who’s ever lived has had a backstory. On occasion, characters—whether fictional or real—come with fully established backstories. However, actors commonly need to gather the clues scattered within a script to imagine a rich and plausible personal story about their characters. What are pivotal moments in their life story, starting with birth through the teen years and into adulthood?
This exercise is certainly not intended to overwhelm performers with inconsequential details, but rather to focus them on a few of the most impactful moments of the character’s life—those that serve as the foundation of his or her beliefs and needs.
Questions to ask when creating a backstory can include:
- What are important aspects of the character’s personality?
- What kind of stressors exist in his/her family life?
- What are the character’s feelings about people?
- How does his/her behavior change when under stress?
- What does he/she conceal from others and why?
As Viola Davis says: “I read [a script] over and over and over again. Just to find out, in actors’ terms, ‘the given circumstances’—who you are, what people say about you … And then I write a bio of the character. I try to fill it up as much as possible. What are her memories? Does she have brothers and sisters? What secrets does she have? What’s her favorite color? I do all of that work first. The character is always ever-evolving, just like we evolve based on circumstances that happen to us.”
Coming and going
Actors can consider what their characters were doing just before the scene starts and what they plan to do immediately afterwards. Are there subtle ways to weave these touches of real life into the performance? Matthew McConaughey puts it this way: “Catch. I love it when you catch somebody in a scene. I love entrances and exits. I love doing all the work—well, let’s backload about where the guy’s coming from, and why, how he got here, and where’s he going? I love to finish scenes. Anytime there’s the old dot, dot, dot… finish it! Write it out. Just finish writing it. I write a lot on scripts. I write more than I ever actually say, but I have it. It loosens me up on the entrance and the exit … I like my work best when I’m feeling like I’m being caught coming in and caught going out.”
Fine-tune your character’s physicality
What does the character look like, and how do they dress and style themselves? What life experiences made them choose to present themselves in this manner? What are the unique qualities of the character’s voice—the speed with which they speak, the volume, and what vocal quality (raspy, whiny, assertive), as well as which dialect?
People experience a physiological reaction with each word they utter. Certain dialogue will bring about stress within a character’s body, while other parts of the script allow for moments of relaxation. Physical expressions give clues about a character’s thoughts, emotions and desires, as well as levels of confidence, comfort, and forthrightness.
When preparing for a role, actors consider many details, such as how to hold their posture, effectively use their eyes, move across the room with purpose, and gesture with their hands, to name just a few considerations. The options of physical expression are truly limitless. But the more subtle the body language, the more refined the acting performance.
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