As I delivered my workshop at Surviving Actors on living through the role, a fantastic question was asked by a young actress. She asked me, ‘how do I connect to a negative character?’. What she meant by this was someone who has done awful things and made bad choices that she didn’t necessarily agree with. She was also concerned that she could potentially get too caught up in the character’s shitty “stuff” and may end up losing herself.
I was asked this same question three or four times throughout the day and wanted to help, so I’m going to explore how to connect to challenging characters, so you can do the character justice whilst still walking away with your own values, beliefs and sense of self in tact.
- RESERVE JUDGEMENT – it is not our duty to judge any character’s actions or choices. When we do this we create barriers between ourselves and the character making it much harder to connect to them. Whilst it is very healthy to have opinions, letting these get in the way of a character takes away our ability to empathise with them. I found a quote by Alan Rickman which sums this up perfectly. He says “If you judge the character, you can’t play it”.
- ASK WHY – As Sanford Meisner said “WHY is the most important word in an actor’s vocabulary”. You should be asking ‘why does this character feel they have no alternative but to take this action?’. ‘What has got this character to the point they feel they have no other choice but to behave in this way?’. At the workshop I gave the example of Hitler (who we all know made awful choices). If you were ever to play him you would need to know what was going on in his head for him to feel like the choices he made were the right ones. Ask how the person you’re playing justifies their actions?
- FIND THE HUMAN – No matter what choices people make, everyone is a human and we’re all made up of the same stuff. FInding the human element of each role is a sobering way to make that connection no matter what actions the character takes/has taken. If we go back to Hitler, he was still a son, someone’s partner, a grandson, maybe a brother or uncle. Remember there is always different sides to each character, they are not two dimensional.
- WHO ARE THEY – Your duty as an actor is to find out who each person is. What experiences have they been through that contribute to the snapshot you see of them in present day in the script? What is really going on at a soul level with the person? What is going on emotionally and in their mind? How have the experiences they’ve been through affected their behaviour and maybe their judgement? But before you can understand another person, you must firstly understand yourself and who you are. The work for any actor in the first instance is to work on themselves.
- STEP OUT – At the studio we have a fantastic technique called “Stepping out”, where you literally do that – step out and come completely away from everything. You see, Method Acting is not about losing yourself in another’s identity, it’s about knowing who you are and being in control whilst remembering that you are creating art – albeit with the same instrument you live through. Your power as an actor always lies in your choices. You can make the choice at ANY TIME to step out and step away from the atrocities of any character, because whilst they come to life through you from time to time, you are not them in their entirety.
These 5 simple, yet powerful steps can be used to connect to any character, not just those that are more challenging. I would ask you to begin putting these steps into practice right away and see the difference they make.
Has this been useful?
Let me know in the comments box below, or share with an actor friend who has struggled connecting to challenging characters.
Here’s to your success!
Don’t give up, just keep learning.
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Louise O’Leary is a professional actress, method acting coach and Artistic Director of StandBy Method Acting Studio. Her mission is to help as many actors as she can launch their careers and become the best actor they can be.
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