Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Becoming Harry...

There are those that don't believe in the concept of "becoming" a character. I agree with them to a certain extent. We are who we are on stage no matter what. DeNiro can gain 80 pounds to get to where he wants to be as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull or Daniel Day Lewis can twist his body into a pretzel to be closer to his version of the character in My Left Foot or Christian Bale can become a virtual skeleton in The Mechanic to make his point but ultimately it is still DeNiro, Lewis and Bale doing the role. In Stephen King's book "On Writing" he talks about how a character is but a mere "bag of bones" compared to a living, breathing human being. He says that's the most an author can hope for. So the Strasbergian idea of "becoming" a character is pretty much nonsense. However, having said that, an actor can still do things to create the "illusion" of being someone else on stage. At least in his own mind.

So I thought I'd write a bit about the process I'm taking to become Harry, the character I'm playing in From the East to the West.

My approach has always been an "outside in" approach as opposed to an "inside out" approach. It's the old Olivier quote...I run as fast as I can and hope someone throws me the ball (see earlier blog). The first thing I do is find the walk. I experiment with different centers of gravity, find out what kind of shoes or boots I'm gonna be wearing, go through my mental inventory of people I've known that might have a similar walk, throw it all together in a pot and see what I have. In the case of Harry, two things came to mind. One is a next door neighbor I had as a kid. His name was Freeman Stark and he was, earlier in his life, a star athlete. He still had the slightly pigeon-toed, swaggering walk of the confident athlete. But he was older, in his forties, by the time I knew him and there was an added element. His knees were going. So in addition to the "athlete" walk, there was also a slight groaning about his movement. He was still graceful, but there was a slight hitch here and there, and a definite reluctance of his body to get going. It was still a rather intimidating walk.

The other image was Tom Hanks way back when he did "A League of Their Own." Same sort of thing, an athlete gone to seed, his knees and hips refusing to do as ordered. I remember seeing that film a long time ago, this was before Hanks had established himself as the very fine actor he is today, and saying to the person next to me in the theatre, "This guy is good. He's more than just a sitcom actor." Little did I know.

So I practiced walking around my back yard as Harry. Finally, I found the walk. And as I've discovered throughout my career, once I've found the walk, the rest usually follows fairly quickly.

Next was the voice. As I mentioned before, I had in mind the growling, tender, volatile sound of George C. Scott. But I also had to incorporate that hard R, sort of ugly, southern Missouri sound. Listen to the actress Holly Hunter in nearly everything she does...that's the sound. Fortunately this part was pretty easy because that's where I grew up and many years ago had worked hard to actually discard that dialect in my voice. Now all I had to do was bring it back.

Next was the psychological gesture. Every character has something they do, either vocally or physically, that is singular to who they are. In this case, I've incorporated two gestures: the slight pause before certain words as Harry allows his brain to catch up with his mouth (Duvall does this especially well with some characters) and a sweeping, open hand gesture he uses to make a point.

Also the stillness of the character. Ben Kingsley once said he's spent his entire professional life learning to be still. I like that. A stillness on stage from a character can be quite chilling. Every instinct in an actors body tells him to move, keep moving, do something, shuffle, grimace, drop the head, lick the lips, clench the teeth, change the stance, sit forward, etc. To work against those instincts and find a stillness often times allows the audience themselves to place upon the actor exactly what they want him to feel at any given time. It is an aspect of "Naked Face" work, too. Lose the emotion in the face, and let the audience do the work for you. It is not easy because, as I said, it goes against every instinct the actor has. But, when done right, it is really, really compelling.

This is something I strive for with Harry.

Had a friend watch rehearsal a while back...afterward he said something to the effect, "I'd like to see in Harry this such and such reaction." I could not possibly agree less. I'd like to show NOTHING and let the audience decide what they'd like to see. It is an odd approach, I know, but that's what I teach to my students and that's what I strive for as an actor. A lot of times, like this guy, a respected veteran actor here in LA, they just don't get it. But that's okay.

Alright, so I've got the walk, the shoes, the voice, the inflection, the psychological gesture, the speech rhythm, the stillness, the motionless threat of the character. What next?

For me, what's next, are the externals, the costume, the set, the heat under the lights, the other characters, the relationships, the blocking, the props, the space itself. All of that is now incorporated. So how does Harry and his walk, his talk, his posture, his stature, react to all of this? Suddenly it starts to get interesting and really complicated. The fun part.

Moriarty once told me long ago when I asked him about the actor Jon Voight, whom Michael had known for many years, to take note at how brilliant Voight was when he "had something to work with." That is to say, an accent or a limp or something external. Then, he said, look how hard he struggles when he doesn't have any of that, when he essentially is just play Jon Voight. Day and night. Michael was right. Voight is one of those actors that soars when he has a hook to hang on to. Something to play with, some "thing" that is different. But take all that stuff away and Voight struggles. I know exactly how he feels.

Last night at rehearsal as we worked through Act II, several times I stopped and did it again as Harry would do it, physically, that is. Makes all the difference in the world. Cross stage left as Clif and it won't stick. But cross stage left as Harry, in his halting, swaggering, injured-athlete walk, and it sticks forever.

An old friend of mine, a director, once said something to me in passing that has been in my mind for three decades. He said, "What you do in rehearsal is what you're going to do in performance." A seemingly common sense piece of advice. I dare say it has turned out to be far, far more than that. Somewhere deep in an actors mind is the idea that he will "explode" on stage opening night, once the audience is there. It is not true. Even veteran actors think this sometimes..."well, I'm not worried, I'll pull all the stops out when I get an audience." This is very dangerous thinking. What we do in rehearsal is, when under moment to moment pressure under the lights on opening night, is EXACTLY what we will do on stage. A very important and often self-preserving piece of advice.

I also remember doing 1776 years ago. The guy playing Ben Franklin, an older gentleman, made me laugh very hard one day. He called me aside and asked me to listen to his "three different accents" that he had narrowed it down to for Franklin. He spoke a few lines in the first "accent." Then he did the second. Then the third. I swear they were exactly the same. No change whatsoever. But I didn't want to topple this guy's perception of himself. He, clearly, really thought there was a difference. I said, straight-faced, "Oh, the second one, definitely." He seemed pleased and went about his work.

The point is, sometimes the work is only visible to the actor. And that's necessary. It's important. And it's what this silly pretending business is all about.

See you tomorrow.