The actor’s job is to find ways to relate to the character. You need to be able to create a connection so strong to this fictional person, that you and him/her become a Venn diagram together with zones of overlapping qualities and zones of separation.
Developing a role into a nuanced individual should feel like you’re developing a close relationship with another person—it should be intimate and a little terrifying, as you’re allowing yourself to be exposed, while looking into the shortcomings and oddities of this new individual that you’re helping to shape.
Michelle Williams’ reflection on playing Marilyn Monroe so fabulously in the film “My Week with Marilyn” clearly demonstrates the importance of aligning your heartbeat with the heartbeat of the character. As one L.A. Times journalist recounts, “‘This is nice,’ she [Williams] says at one point. ‘I miss Marilyn, and talking about her keeps her close. I'm still not ready to let her go.’" This sentiment clearly reveals an actor who has been able to synchronize heartbeats—so much so, it’s as if they had forged a real relationship. Creating that connection is significant as it makes the character you work on more and more authentic.
Many doctrines and techniques offer seemingly warm and fuzzy escapes from the dangers of facing this fictional person in the moment, as it’s far less scary to dance around the rabbit hole than to dive in headfirst without a safety harness.
Here are a few ways to connect with your character.
Own them in the moment.
This work starts with four simple words, “I am one who…” This work can be done anywhere you like: car, subway (only for the brave), home, etc. This is the time to start wading into the deep end and confronting the aspects of your character that might be charming, or those which might be disturbing. For instance, this exercise might cause you to say things like “I am one who has sex for money,” “I am one who saves all my fortune cookie messages,” or “I am one who brings a flask to work.” This exercise is extremely effective as it allows one to shine a flashlight towards the darker areas of a character’s psyche, allowing one to come face to face with some of their demons, quirks, and golden tinges. Often times, this work gives the actor courage to make the more dangerous choices—the ones other actors may be too afraid to make.
Coming face to face with these details of the character allows you to own them in the moment, and begin to forge a lasting rapport with this flawed, but fascinating human being.
Backstory exercises are boring; here’s an alternative.
Go to a website like Pinterest and create a visual backstory board, which, essentially, will be an online collage of all the things related to your character. You will have millions of images to select from, so you can be very precise. The importance of this exercise revolves around the fact that you are developing a visual rendering of the influences which have shaped and continue to shape your character’s world. For example, you can find images of their abusive parents, or the tenement where they grew up, or the boarding school they were sent away to, and the heartthrob or movie star they adored as a kid.
By creating these visual renderings, you can develop a much deeper and more intimate understanding of where this fictional person has been and why he/she does the things he/she does. You’ll also get a more lucid sense of where you end and where your character begins.
Go on a date with your character.
This is one of the more wackier exercises that one can do when seeking to create this deeper level of intimacy with a character, but it is effective. Clear an evening and leave the house, going to all the places your character would want to take you on a date. Where would you end up? A dive bar? A five-star restaurant? A train yard? A movie theater? Would the night be fun and a non-stop adventure, or would it be more predictable and safe? Visiting all these places and going through these activities while looking at everything through the eyes of your character can’t help but foster a deeper sense of how your character views the world, and what he or she wants from it.
The goal of all these exercises is to foster a tangible sense of overlap with the rhythm of your heartbeat and that of your character’s own heart. These exercises will allow you to get to a place where when you no longer have to play this role, you will in fact, like Michelle Williams, miss this person.
This article was originally posted on Backstage