An Actor’s Perspective

Kirk!It’s essential for a screenwriter to understand a script from the perspective of an actor. Acting, being the major component of performed drama, overlaps and interlocks with screenwriting in some very important and integral ways.

Thus, a great way to better understand the role that character plays in your own screenplays can be via an understanding of the actor’s process, and of how an actor looks at a script.

A Mirror Image

The way that a trained actor approaches a play or script in order to prepare for a role is exactly the opposite direction that a screenwriter or playwright takes to create that same script.

An actor, in order to create their role, must examine a script for clues that will enable them to understand the interpersonal dynamics within the story and the motivations and psychology of their character. Thus while a writer’s methodology is constructive, concerned with the building and creation of a story, and actor’s methodology could be said to be deconstructive (or even reconstructive, as the information they uncover they use to build their performance).

While the original author of a work may have specific ideas about their artistic goals and intentions, when a script is taken in hand by an actor or director as prelude to performance or film production, they will re-interpret that same work based upon their own preferences, life experiences, and personal agendas. This reinterpretive process is usually accomplished by analyzing the script to uncover kinds of information that are both textual (directly present and described in the work itself) and intertextual (literally “between the lines,” i.e. suggested by the work but not immediately visible in the written words). Between text and intertext is a lot of overlap, and many elements have both textual and intertextual components. As you might imagine, the intertextual elements are especially open to personal interpretation.

Some of the kinds of information sought by actors or directors in the reading of a text could be:

Textual:

  • The characters’ outer goals
  • Character actions and behavior, especially in relation to others
  • Dialogue
  • Character values, mores, hopes, fears
  • Detail about time and place (such as dress, class or societal values)
  • How the script structure reveals information (rate of revelation)

Intertextual:

  • The characters’ inner goals
  • Character subtext and hidden agendas
  • The backstory behind the current events, including the histories and biographies of each of the characters
  • The power politics between characters
  • The themes explored by the writer

But what does all of this mean to you, the writer?

Seeing Character Through an Actor’s Eyes

In order to perform a role, an actor must figure out what the writer meant when he or she wrote their work. An actor needs to know as much as they can about their character, and in fact, must invent a large body of material based upon the writer’s work. This invention of missing details is a large part of an actor’s creative process, and lies at the heart of individual interpretations of particular roles. Often note is made a certain actor’s version of a famous role, such as “Orson Welles’s Othello,” “Laurence Olivier’s Lear,” “Helena Bonham Carter’s Ophelia.” Each great performance of a noted Shakespearean role has its own particular flavor, and the actor in that role highlights aspects often overlooked or underplayed by different actors.

Because actors are constantly searching for clues to character behavior in the text, it is imperative that the writer be aware of the different levels of information which create character. Furthermore, it is the awareness of these different levels that will enable a writer to create truly memorable, dimensional characters.

Here are some examples of these underlying clues that sculpt performance:

Thelma & Louise: When Thelma is nearly raped in the parking lot of a honky-tonk bar, Louise shoots and kills the perpetrator. the only reason she gives for this pivotal action is that something happened to her in Texas that was so horrible, that when the two are later on the run, Louise insists that they avoid the entire state and take a long detour around it, instead of taking the quickest route to Mexico and escape.

This intertextual information is crucial to both Louise’s character and to the entire story, and certainly Susan Sarandon, the actress who portrayed Louise, knew the exact details of the event in question. We, the audience, might simply assume that Louise herself was raped, but I would further assume that Sarandon recreated the event in horrible detail in order to lay out the psychological groundwork for her character.

The screenwriter, Callie Khouri, must have also known the exact details of the event, and her version was probably very different from Sarandon’s — yet both of them were compelled to understand this key event, albeit from different perspectives.

Shawshank Redemption: Where does Andy Dufresne get the granite resolve it takes for him to survive and flourish within the walls of Shawshank Prison? The script actually gives very little hint to his astonishing determination, yet onscreen, that determination radiates from every pore of Tim Robbins’s body.

Indeed, the first description of Dufresne in the script reads: “ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20’s, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit. Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly dangerous, perhaps even meek.” And soon after, when he decides that he can’t kill — or even threaten — his cheating wife and her lover, he is described thusly: “He doesn’t look like much of a killer now; he’s just a sad little man on a dirt path in the woods, tears streaming down his face, a loaded gun at his side. A pathetic figure, really.” We also find out that Dufresne was a banker before prison. Hardly the kind of man we would expect to be in possession of rock-solid intestinal fortitude. So — from where springs the courage and strength of character he later evinces?

True to screenplay form, we discover and understand Andy’s character via events shown in the present, specifically through his actions. These actions reveal him to be extremely resourceful, resilient, and patient, but they do not stem from anything in his past that we can directly see onscreen. Instead, screenwriter/director Frank Darabont and actor Tim Robbins must have had a strong sense of both Dufresne’s history, and also created a specific decision in Dufresne’s mind in which he resolved to do whatever is necessary to survive in Shawshank. Although we don’t actually witness this decision onscreen — there is no big moment of character epiphany — we see the results of this decision and unconsciously accept that such a decision exists, just as we accept that oxygen exists without being constantly aware that we breathe it.

Jerry Maguire: What motivates Jerry to write his “Mission Statement” in the beginning of the film? We are only given a few thin clues to the occurrence of this pivotal event, which takes place quickly (on page 6 of a 132 page script). In a series of short scenes accompanied by Maguire’s voiceover, we see that the business of sports contains a mixture of glory and naked greed — and greed seems to be winning.

The final segment before Jerry’s epiphany is a scene in which the 14-year-old son of a football star confronts Maguire about his father’s fourth concussion. Maguire glibly dismisses the kid’s concerns. Screenwriter/director Cameron Crowe (writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, writer/director of Singles) inserts a beautiful piece of description, which reads, “The kid stares at Maguire. It feels as if the kid is peering into his soul… and all he sees is trash.” Then the boy swears at Maguire and stalks away. This incident deeply disturbs Maguire, but it is merely the straw that broke the camel’s back, as his newfound feelings have obviously been bubbling just beneath the surface for a long time; perhaps even since when he first became a sports agent.

In order for Maguire’s epiphany to be believable, we, the audience, must sense Maguire’s inner struggle to regain his humanity, and feel that it has been going on for some time. Crowe peppers the script with these clues. On page 8, Maguire notes about his Statement, “It was the me I’d always wanted to be.” And certainly, this phrase and its weighty sense of previous (yet invisible to the audience) history sums up Maguire’s struggle to go from profit centered manipulator to real person. We also see a shot of Dicky Fox, a man Maguire describes as “the original sports agent” (and who seems like some kind of a hero or role model to Maguire). Fox says, “The key to this job is personal relationships,” a phrase which also becomes a kind of underlying mantra behind Maguire’s new motivation. Certainly both screenwriter Crow and actor Tom Cruise knew exactly from where Maguire’s humanist streak originated, and that it lies at the core of his being.

Behind the Scenes

What these underlying layers of information suggest to screenwriters is that they need to create and maintain a deep awareness of information and events that lie just outside, or beneath, the directly visible realm of the story. A few questions to ask yourself when preparing to create the world in which the story takes place are:

  • What events happened directly before the story takes place? How did these events lead to the present story? What is the history of the society, realm, or universe in which the characters live?
  • What might happen after the story is over? How are the characters or the realm that they inhabit irrevocably changed by the events of the story? Where do the characters go or what do they become as a result of the story?
  • How does the society in which the characters live operate? What are its rules or codes, especially in the ways that they apply to the characters? If the story takes the characters into a new realm, how is this realm different from their everyday lives?
  • How does the main character’s struggle set them apart from their society or environment? How do others respond to the main character before, during, and after the story’s events?
  • In what ways are the characters uniquely suited to deal with the story’s problems? In what ways do they find themselves challenged or overcome by the new conditions imposed by the story?

All of these are questions that you should be able to answer before you have begun your script. This information will help you define and refine the world of your story and the characters within it, and will give you amazing, insightful ideas that will add needed depth to your work.

I once saw an interview with one of the head writers of the television show Murphy Brown, in which he mentioned that for each half-hour show (actually only 22 minutes because of commercials), the writers would create a forty-five minute script which they would edit down. He described these missing minutes as a kind of residue that permeated and informed the final script. He felt that the absent information still left its traces upon the final work, and gave it layers that the audience sensed.

A Final Suggestion

I highly recommend acting classes for screenwriters. At minimum, a crash course in stage improvisation will help hone and energize your creative process, and is of enormous help in writing dialogue that flows naturally.

Acting will give you a whole new perspective on character and its place in dramatic narrative. And in the process of learning acting skills, you will learn about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and come to terms with parts of yourself that you have forgotten, denied, or ignored; and it’s much more fun than therapy. The emotional and psychological revelations gained through acting will greatly help you to become a stronger, deeper, and more realistic writer of human experience for screen or stage.

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