Thursday, May 08, 2014

Observations on the Art of Acting from a Non-Actor

Occasionally I break my promise not to read the comments on videos.  It wasn't a deliberate act. I was scrolling to find a link at the bottom of the page when I saw this comment under an interview with Jim Parsons of the Big Bang Theory on

"I find it weird when actors separate themselves from their characters."

My first thought was "Someone is very unclear about the concept of acting."  And I could be very correct about that.  But at the same time, not all actors approach the art of acting in the same way.  Jim Parsons couldn't play Sheldon Cooper if he was like Sheldon Cooper, because a personality like Sheldon could never be an actor. Parsons doesn't even have the same interests. In his own words:

I don’t feel like I’m bringing much of anything when it comes to personal experience with him. For one, he doesn’t talk about anything that I have second nature of. Not only do I not have my own language for science, but for comic books, graphic novels, most science fiction, after Star Wars. I think this has been to my benefit and allowed me to connect with him more on a humanistic level because I don’t really get what he’s talking about 90% of the time.

People like Sheldon aren't emotionally aware enough to portray a realistic and humanistic view of themselves.  You need someone like Jim Parsons, who can portray him in a way that the rest of us can understand and identify with, while still being able to recognize as someone who is quite different from ourselves.  The same thing goes for the Evil Version of Wil Wheaton on The Big Bang Theory:

When he first talked to me about working on the show, Bill Prady told me that I'd be playing a "delightfully evil version" of myself. This sounded like a lot of fun to me, but it was more difficult to find that character than you'd think. When I'm playing Fawkes on The Guild it's easy to slip into his kilt and be a jerk, but wearing my own clothes and essentially playing a stylized version of myself made it a real challenge to hit "delightfully evil" without veering into "not committed to being delightfully evil" or "just plain evil." Keeping that twinkle in my eye, and knowing that Wil Wheaton (The Big Bang Version) is planning to scam Sheldon from the moment he sits down, was essential to this particular characterization working out, and I didn't completely find it until we'd run the episode a couple of times.

During one of the run throughs, when Jim did his Klingon bit, I turned to Kevin and asked him, "Did he just say 'revenge is a dish best served cold' in Klingon?" like I was trying to figure out if that's actually what happened, like maybe I misunderstood him. Chuck Lorre told me that it would be funnier if I was more exasperated. "You're just here to play this game, and now some guy is quoting Klingon at you. This happens everywhere you go," he said.

I sighed dramatically, and said, "Oh, it does." Everyone laughed, hard, and Chuck pointed his finger at me. "Yes. That is exactly the way to play that beat."

When Chuck gave me that note, I grokked how to play Evil Wil Wheaton (The Big Bang Theory version), and I could see the comedy in every beat I played for the rest of the show. I totally grew a level in comedy acting, and learned something about letting go of who I really am, so I could embrace the Delightfully Evil version of myself (who I seriously hope will return in the future, because OMG was it fun to play him.)

I think the evil version of Wheaton works because in reality, he's so not that way and is able to play a jerk because he doesn't have to be in denial that what he is doing is obnoxious.  He doesn't have to defend it or minimize it because it's not really him - it's a warped-alternate-reality him.  Of course, this is comedy, so exaggeration in proper amounts is essential for success.  This may also be why people say comedic acting is actually harder than dramatic acting.  You almost have to step outside yourself to be able to deliver these lines without becoming self-conscious about the whole thing.

Now on the other end of things, you have Viggo Mortensen who played Aragon in The Lord of the Rings.  By all accounts, Mortensen practically became Aragon. He carried his sword with him even into town and actually spent his days off riding the horses he used and even bought them because he bonded with them.  Being a dramatic actor, he goes to great lengths to become the character he's playing.  For Everybody Has a Plan, he learned his character's hobby, beekeeping.  He explains how he prepares for a role:

I think part of it is just how you prepare roles. When I prepare, I ask a simple question: “What happened between the character’s birth and page one of the script?” And right there you can find most of the answers, even before you start shooting. I find that process really enjoyable. Just like a kid does when he pretends: It doesn’t matter how little they look like a princess or an Indian or a Viking or a sports star, whatever they’re pretending to be, they really believe it. They enjoy playing, basically. So the goal is always — in a very serious, methodical, detailed, much more layered way, I suppose, intellectually, than kids use for make-believe — to get to the same place where it’s just fun and play. But you have to do your homework first, and that’s what I try to do.

He's not kidding about being more layered.  He's not just playing Agustín in the movie, he also plays Agustín's ailing twin brother Pedro, and then plays Agustín pretending to be Pedro.  I haven't seen the movie, but based on the trailers, I don't see much of Aragon in those characters.  And let's face it, outside of cult films, an actor who can only play one character isn't going to be that successful.

Helen Mirren, who does an awesome job in both dramatic and comedic roles, approaches her craft much differently than Mortensen:

A light bulb went on in my brain. I thought, ‘That’s it! Just play what’s on the page.’ I’ve followed that ever since. If it says, ‘Over-the-hill, angry woman with no makeup gets out of bed,’ that’s what I’ll play. I don’t mess it up with, ‘What’s her back story?’

Obviously, there are many different ways to be an actor.  You can be like Robin Williams and ad-lib when the spirit hits you, leaving the director and editors decide what fits with the story content-wise. Or you can be like Ian McDiarmid and memorize the scripts so thoroughly that you can easily change the delivery of said lines to fit the mood of the story, without derailing anything later in the plot.  It all depends on what works for you and the role you're playing.

Back to the young lady who posted the comment that started all of this musing.  While it would be easy to dismiss her as just lacking in knowledge, it's very possible that perhaps she, herself, doesn't have the capacity to separate - to imagine herself as someone much different than she is - to get inside someone else's experience.  So, it would be extremely mystifying that people can do this; she may even think that they really aren't doing what they say the are.

I'm just as guilty about this.  For over 30 years, I could never understand why people would not only eat cilantro, but relish it. To me, cilantro tastes like liquid dish soap.  I had assumed that people must have deliberately cultivated their love for the taste of soap, for reasons I couldn't fathom.  The closest I came to a reasonable explanation was to think that maybe they had their mouths washed out with soap too often as children, but that wouldn't explain the wide-spread acceptance of cilantro as a culinary mainstay. Then one day my best friend took me to a Mexican restaurant for lunch because I needed to get out of the house.  Already in a grumpy mood, I complained about the salsa dish not being rinsed out properly. She was about to ask the waiter to bring me another bowl, but I told her not to worry, I would just take my salsa from the center.  Then I tasted soap again, only this time I paused a moment and detected the taste of leaf behind it.  "Oh, it's cilantro," I said in a disgusted tone.  I then launched into my I-can't-believe-people-like-this-stuff rant, when she interrupted me with "Cilantro tastes like soap to you?" I nodded and she excitedly explained how they were discussing on her foodie mailing list that about one third of the population has a genetic tendency to taste cilantro as soap. She was extremely stoked to find out that she knew someone in real life that had this condition.  And I realized after all those years that the rest of humanity wasn't actually insane when it came to this herb, they just weren't tasting it the same way I was.

So, in answer to the woman who commented - actors separate themselves from their characters because that really is how they experience it.  Even though Jim Parsons "becomes" Sheldon for short periods of time, he's not Sheldon.  He's not a comic book geek.  He's not an arrogant physicist, who looks down on others.  He's no where near as socially clueless as Sheldon.  He's not even heterosexual.  But he can portray a character who is all of those.

And it's okay that you don't have the ability to separate from yourself and an imagined self.  I have several friends like that.  I used to think that they were like that because they were afraid of losing themselves in some way, or of weakening their moral compass.  But as I've grown older and studied more, I've found out that for some people, that's just the way their consciousness works.  Sure it frustrates the hell out of me sometimes when you're not able to understand any view different from your own, because running separate mental simulations is how I explore concepts and achieve empathy to a level that I am not naturally gifted with.  But I realize that I can be just as frustrating to you too.

I'm not sure how to exactly transition in this story into this post, but I really have the impression that it belongs here as part of the discussion of being someone else other than yourself. Many years ago, I created a persona for an online group my kids initially wanted to be a part of.  She was brash, out-spoken, devious, and a born leader.  She was also a Slytherin head of house. Even though my daughter lost interest in the online group, she liked pretending to talk to Prof. Mysteria Ester Paracelsus, and we had fun pretending together.  Then one day she came up to me, looking glum, and asked if she could talk to Mysteria.  I assumed that she just wanted to be cheered up, so I played along.  To my shock, she began to tell me about something that happened at school that upset her.  Staying in character, I gave her Mysteria's solution to such a problem - a solution that I would never advocate as her real mother.  Then I dropped the character and reminded her that I was always there for her; and that I didn't approve of the solution my alter-ego just gave.  She said, "I know, Mom.  You would have suggested (...), but I really needed to talk to someone who has no problem kicking butt."  I realized then that what she needed was a way to stand up for herself, not a way to be diplomatic and civil.

Some days, I think I need to channel Mysteria more often...