By John Swanbeck | Backstage
An actor and her character go to couples counseling and the therapist says, “Tell me why you’re here.” And the character says, “I don’t feel like I’m getting my needs met. No matter how hard I try to be the kind of human being audiences can relate to, she wants to use me to teach them a lesson. And she’s always projecting her own prejudices onto me, instead of accepting me for who I am. I feel like I don’t exist anymore.” The therapist turns to the actor and says, “And how do you feel about what your character is saying?”. The astonished actor replies, “Oh my God. You mean you see her too?”
When I’m working with an actor on camera, one of the first questions I like to ask the actor is, “What do you like about your character?” The second question I like to ask is, “What do you dislike about your character?” When I ask the first question, I am met with a list. When I ask the second question, I am met with a pause, a long pause. The actor thinks and thinks and finally says, “I never thought about it.”
If I were to ask the actor to pick anyone in his or her life whom he or she knows very well and ask the actor the same two questions about that person, if the actor was being honest, I would be met with a list, long or short, for both questions. There are likes and dislikes about anyone in our lives whom we know well. It doesn’t mean we dislike the person. It means some of the things the person does or says, such as habits the person has, preferences, beliefs, tastes, or qualities we don’t like. When we meet someone for the first time and have a brief encounter with the person, we often walk away thinking how nice, how likable, how wonderful the person is. The better we know someone, the more we see a person’s flaws and the more that person sees ours. If an actor doesn’t dislike anything about his or her character, the actor doesn’t know his or her character very well.
Of all the challenges any artist faces, objectivity has to be one of the greatest, and the lack of objectivity one of the greatest threats. Lack of objectivity can drive away audiences, viewers, and readers. It can destroy a work of art and even a career. If it finds an audience, it won’t be as art, it will be as advertising.
Actors who try to ennoble their characters, who want audiences to like their characters, who try to take care of their characters, misunderstand the film camera. The film camera takes the work of every artist involved in a film at face value except the actor, because the actor is the only one who is responsible for creating a human being. The film camera doesn’t take human beings at face value. It doesn’t give the benefit of the doubt to what human beings say. It sees human beings for what they are: a collection of complex contradictions. Hence the power and popularity of the documentary film genre. Actors who create characters with an agenda of making audiences like their characters run the very high risk of alienating those audiences. They should want, instead, for audiences to empathize with their characters.
The same goes for actors who are playing characters who are written as saying bad things, doing bad things, and treating others badly. Actors who play these characters can easily fall into the trap of using those characters to preach to an audience how not to be. If actors want audiences to empathize with their characters, they shouldn’t create characters as they see them. They should create characters as the characters see themselves. When it comes to creating the human beings in the stories we film, the film camera doesn’t embrace artistic agendas. It embraces truth, and the truth is always chaotic.
John Swanbeck is a director, author, actor.