This guide to acting is written with the intention for the novice actor to follow it in a linear way, building a character with certain tools the way a child would build with blocks. The first two sections deal with what I consider the foundation of creating a character: establishing the importance of setting, or more specifically, understanding the importance of where your character is geographically and emotionally.
Once you have established where you are, or that you don’t know where you are, the next step in building your character is learning how you relate to the other characters. Your relationship to other characters goes far beyond merely how you are linked or otherwise connected to them. In real life you connect with the same people in different ways at different times and under different circumstances. In addition, you may treat the same person differently from one setting to another. See how setting becomes important when added to relationships? Remember how I said that you will be adding these components together? That’s just one example, and a very simple one. Later on, you will be adding components together in a very complex and exciting way that you will probably never have even thought of before. It is that process that of learning how to combine aspects of your character together in unique and unexpected ways that makes the difference between a familiar performance and an innovative one.
What is the relationship between you and your father? Simple question, right? The relationship is that of offspring and parent. Figuring out your relationship with other characters will surely be one of the easiest things to figure out as an actor, right? Think again. We all know that in real life relationships are never easy. Well, guess what? This is even true when it comes to movies and plays. Because those stories are all about conflict and because they are required to condense the events they relate, the relationships told in movies and plays are especially volatile.
Let’s look at that simple question again and ask a few more questions. What is the relationship between you and your father? Is it the same now as it was when you were ten? What about when you were sixteen? Is the relationship between a father and a child the same when the child is twenty-five and when the child is fifty? No, of course it isn’t. Well, in most cases it probably isn’t.
A relationship is never a simple fact. When you’re acting in a scene with another person you can’t be satisfied with the simple facts. You can’t just say I’m the worker and he’s the boss. Or I’m a prisoner and he’s the jail guard. Facts like these don’t mean anything. They don’t tell you anything really important. Of course, you need to know whether the other character is your wife or your sister, but you can’t stop there. It’s your job to figure out exactly what the nature of your relationship to the other characters are during the particular time in which the scene takes place. And that relationship may be completely different in the next scene, even if the next scene only takes place a few minutes later. Because of the fluid, surprising nature of relationships, it is quite simply never, ever enough to be satisfied with a factual description.
As an example of this, let’s use a really extreme situation. The factual description of our two characters is this: One character is the President of the United States and the other is a thirteen year old boy. From this description we would probably expect that the President will be the more knowledgeable, in control, dominant. But what if the scene took place after the crash of Air Force One into a dense forest area. The President is the only survivor and he has a broken leg. The thirteen year old boy is the first person to the scene and the only hope the President has of making it out of the woods. Now what the relationship between these two? Who is the more knowledgeable? Who is in control? Who is the dominant member? The facts of this relationship are still the same, but knowing those facts aren’t very helpful anymore are they?
Relationships change over time. There is a constant giving and taking, a struggle for control and power. Sometimes one person has the upper hand, the next day the other person has the upper hand. Society is really, when you think about it, nothing but a collection of relationships and so understanding them is really key. Because of the time constraints inherent in storytelling, as an actor you can almost guarantee that relationships will change over the course of a movie or play. In fact, it is not unusual for relationships to change over the course of a single scene.
Imagine doing a scene with a character who is your father. In this particular relationship, you have always gotten along well with him, rarely argued, rarely disagreed. At least since you were a teenager. Because of this history, you start the scene filled with admiration and love and respect for the man. But during the scene you discover that this man whom you’ve idolized all your life has been leading a secret life. Maybe he’s a serial killer. Or a drug dealer. Or a thief. Think of all the conflicting emotions you would experience if you discovered one of these bombshells. With this sudden addition of information, can you now honestly describe this relationship simply as one between offspring and parent? That doesn’t even begin to adequately describe this relationship, does it? Rather than thinking of relationships as this solid structure build around a fact, why not start thinking of them in terms of ever-shifting situations of role playing. Even within the most seemingly concrete of relationships, such as that between parent and offspring, the roles often shift. Sometimes even as an adult you are still the little kid around your parents. At other times, you are friends. There will even be occasions when you are required to play the adult and your parent becomes the child. Thinking of relationships in that way, now look back at our scene. How does the relationship shift here?
You will be required to transition yourself emotionally from loving and trusting child to shocked adult. This may even turn into one of those situations where you end up taking over the role of parent, moving to comfort your father as he breaks down and you realize he’s not a monster at all, but a confused and scared little child who is incapable of understanding what made him become the way he is. Now that is a very intense and complex scene that should illuminate how a relationship is so much more than a simple diagram of labels. But we can still do more with it.
Let’s add another twist into the mix. Even though the scene as described could be a terrific opportunity for an actor to really show his stuff, we can give you even more to work with. Let’s say you’re not just a child listening to your father tearfully confess his crimes. Let’s say you’re also a cop. And what if this story is about a dedicated cop chasing after a serial killer. And in this scene you learn the horrifying truth that the monster you’ve been chasing is your own father. With just a few strokes of the pen, we’ve completely overturned the idea of relationships being in any way simple. Now this scene already starts out with two factual relationships. Father and son and police officer and criminal. Those are two pretty interesting factual relationships there, but move beyond the fact into the realm of emotion and your choices when playing this scene are virtually limitless. Think about it. You started out in this scene as a loving child and then moved to shaken adult. And now you must move beyond a family relationship to a professional one. Not only that, but you must take the role even further, to a philosophic realm of good and evil.
Now let’s stir the pot up even more. Would this scene work in the same way regardless of the ages of the characters? Would this scene play out the same way whether you were twenty-five or forty-five? Whether your father was fifty or seventy? If your father was seventy, might you contemplate letting him go? If he was in ill health and near death would you at least be tempted to conveniently forget the confession ever took place? On the other hand, what if he were fifty years old and in good health? Would your fear that he would continue killing outweigh your fear of his spending the rest of his life in prison? Or being executed. And what about you? At twenty-five your career is just getting started. You’ve got a long time ahead of you and you can’t afford to make a mistake as big as letting him get away. If you let him go it could come back to haunt you, or even destroy you. And how would setting play a role in this scene? Would your emotions and the decisions you make be the same regardless of whether you heard this confession in a back alley or the house you grew up in?
How would you describe this relationship now? The original facts haven’t changed one bit. You are still the child and he is still the father. But describing the relationship in that way seems kind of silly now, doesn’t it. See how relationships are not solid? They are not structures that are difficult to change. See how they are better understood as situations of role-playing? And now comes the scary part. If this scene took place in a movie or television show, it might very well be played out in under five minutes. You might get only three minutes to move from loving child to arbiter over your father’s life. Think about that for a second. In less than three minutes your relationship to this man could change from kid to God.
The facts in this scene are simple. He’s your dad and you’re his son or daughter. Now go out and play this scene using only that information. Impossible, right? It’s never enough to simply know the facts of a relationship. You have to find the emotions of the relationship.