FEATURE: 28 FEBRUARY 2012
Event Summary: Whose Character is it Anyway? Auckland Writer’s Room, 28th February, 2012
Watching someone else take custody of characters created through a labour of love can be a profound moment for most writers. Allowing actors to breathe life into much-loved creations and enabling a ‘shared custody’ is integral to the successful transition of a script to the screen … and a critical part of an actor’s own performance and craft.
Director Mark Beesley (Outrageous Fortune, The Almighty Johnsons) spoke with Matt Whelan (My Wedding and Other Secrets, The Most Fun You Can Have Dying) and Antonia Prebble (The Tribe, Outrageous Fortune) about meeting a character at an audition, getting to know them, bringing the scripted words to life onscreen … and the writer letting go.
“We are here to answer a question,” said Mark, “…whose character is it anyway?” and to discuss the process of taking a writer’s character to the screen. The writer is there at conception when the character is born – but a character needs the lungs of an actor to breathe. It’s a ‘shared custody’ kind of a deal.”
The first point of contact a screen actor may have with the writer is at the audition and Mark used two clips during the course of the evening to show how the choices an actor makes at audition time can make or break a scene … or the audition. An actor may only be given a paragraph or two about the character and maybe a scene, so if the audition goes badly, is it the fault of the writer or the actor? And what is an actor looking for in a scene to help deliver a good performance?
“Anything at all,” said Matt, “and as much as possible. I dissect the script to find anything that will relate to the character. Often what you are sent can be the most dramatic or obvious and there is a strong character within that.”
And if an audition goes badly … “Sometimes in an audition I will say, ‘gosh I can’t make this work’ and then a colleague auditioning can make the lines sound amazing,” said Antonia. “I think it’s a combination of writing and performance. It sounds simple but it is a magic recipe.”
As a director, Mark felt that multiple readings of a script work best for him when it comes to translating the writer’s words onto the screen. “You have to really understand what you’re reading. You don’t have a relationship with the writer so all you can do is read their words.”
An actor’s approach to finding and unlocking a writer’s meaning in his or her words can be a very individual thing. “I try to work out what the writer is saying,” said Antonia. “I may not be right, but it is the combination of their words and my instincts … that’s how I can give a truthful performance. I look at grammar, syntax, sentence structure and vocabulary because those elements show me how the character talks: are the sentences long or short, the vocabulary simple or complex and how are ideas expressed through the mouth of that character? I ask myself the basic questions: what am I saying and why am I saying it?”
An actor will prepare for the audition and come with an interpretation that makes sense to them. This may not always be what the casting director has in mind. Antonia spoke of arriving for an audition to hear the casting director describe a completely different character to the one she had prepared for. “Fortunately that interpretation resonated with me as well as the version I had prepared and I got the part. It’s always a case of finding what sits well with me, what makes sense. If it’s not right, it’s not right but at least I’m playing a character and not an adjective.”
Watching an actor breathe life into a character that may have been laboured over for years can be a high moment of excitement, pride and inspiration for a writer. “It is a real thrill to see their family of young characters delivered into the hands of strangers and it can be exciting to see what happens – but it can also be a gut wrenching and soul-sucking experience that causes nightmares,” said Mark.
Writing can be a lonely, hard, gruelling process – but actors can find it tough too. American stage and film actress Rosalind Russell once said that ‘Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.’ Mark asked the panel to describe what they see on the page that inspires them to ‘give their all’ to a character.
“I’ve had encounters with, and can recognise, good writing,” said Antonia. “It captures and expresses the human condition. You can recognise a character’s humanity, the writing rings true, it moves and inspires you, makes you feel something, you’re involved and engaged. The story is interesting, there’s a strong structure – a good start, middle and an end – and the characters are well drawn.”
Matt added “It’s also a lot to do with what is not said. The mystery and subtext of the writing stands strong with me.”
Mark then focussed on process and preparation: when the audition is done, the role has been given and the script is in hand, what happens next?
“I read the script a couple of times to get a sense of it and then focus on my scenes,” said Antonia. “I take a piece of paper and divide it into three columns. In the first column I note the scene number so I know where it appears in the story, with the time of day and location. In column two I write down what happens in the scene, the action, and in column three I describe what I interpret as the underlying conflict of the scene, then I can see where the climax is for that episode.”
Matt said he reads a script over and over. “I must know where I’ve just come from and where I am going to. I make four lists. On the first are the incontrovertible facts – all the directions and facts about the character. In list two I write down what I have to say about myself which may not always be true but this is my vision of myself, my character. List three is what I say about others and list four is what others say about me. This process forms very clear ideas for me.”
Mark believes that we live in a story telling world of fiction where “… looking real is all we want to achieve and it is incredibly hard to achieve that.” By way of illustration, a clip from Matt’s latest film The Most Fun You Can Have Dying was shown, one that showed the power of the visual over the power of the word.
“There isn’t a whole lot of dialogue in this film,” said Matt, “it’s very visual, more about how you see things and less about what is said with dialogue. I know there is at least one person (the writer) that knows exactly what they want to achieve. That’s why it’s there on the page and that’s what drives me to crack the puzzle and understand what that person is writing and why.”
And ‘cracking the code’, attempting to understand what the writer intends, can be a team effort with writer, producer, director and actors working together. “It is a team game,” said Antonia. “We’re all firmly committed to producing the best product possible. We can’t do what we do without a script and the writer cannot bring the vision to fruition without the actors. I’ve had experiences where I haven’t understood something and haven’t been able to find an answer. That’s when you just have to work to the best of your ability, soul and knowledge.”
Sometimes an actor may feel they are wrong for the part. Recognising this and trying to work around it can be challenging. “I revel in that challenge,” said Matt. “I enjoy playing against type. People have clear visions of that they want and it can be a challenge for me to meet that but maybe I can open up their eyes and show them something they weren’t expecting.”
Antonia said she had auditioned pieces that were well written and could integrate the words and ideas into her performance but … “… they may be beautiful words but I am dancing on top of them rather than having them come from within me.”
Most of us would be unaware of just how deep and extensive the actor’s preparation for a role can be. “I do lots of stream of consciousness diary entries,” said Antonia, “writing in character and from her point of view. The jumping off point is always the script and I let myself go from there, with the freedom to invent experiences she may have had in the past, create her morning routine, the things you don’t see before she walks into the kitchen, what she feels about her family. I find myself creating shared experiences with other cast members too. This makes up a back story for my character.”
Matt related his experience in My Wedding and Other Secrets where he played the part of the husband, based upon the real-life husband of writer Roseanne Liang. “I spent some time with him which was very helpful. The script is a dramatisation of Roseanne’s life and the characters are different but I couldn’t help stalking her husband and picking up on his mannerisms. A character has to live outside of the script, with a history and a future. I create that.”
Antonia chose a clip from the hit TV series Outrageous Fortune that she felt showed some great writing. “That clip is a good example of comedy coming out of character as opposed to gag. It’s funny only because the characters are well drawn, behaving in ways that are unique and rare but in ways we expect them to behave. Each character has a specific and strong point of view, making them easy to play for the actors, a private point of view that butts up against everyone else in the most delicious way. The writers underpinned all this crazy anger, sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll with the fundamental value that the Wests actually love each other. In spite of all the bickering you know they do and it is conveyed in a way that isn’t soppy. No easy feat and I take my hat off to the writers for that.”
Antonia said that the character of Loretta in Outrageous Fortune was “a weird alchemy” because
“… I was a 20 year-old University student and she was a 15 year-old Westie but I got it, didn’t have to do any stream of consciousness or intellectualising, it just seemed simple. That is the magic we look for, something in me just knew how to play it.”
Mark opened up the discussion to the audience and one query invited the actors to explain the difference between working with a writer/director as opposed to a director.
Antonia said the film she is currently rehearsing is written by the director. “It is an interesting process and one that is helpful. The director has lived with the character for a long time and can offer me far more insight than I have gleaned from the script. There was so much in the script that I had overlooked in my interpretation so I felt very fortunate to have the resource right there to answer my questions without having to go through a middle man. I’ve also worked with directors who haven’t written the script and that has been very good too because they have had an excellent understanding of the script and story.”
Another question asked the panel to explain what they felt could be done to stop characters and story being derailed during the film making process. Antonia replied, “Work out as clearly as you can what your characters want. The intention of their wanting is what will carry the story through on its narrative map as opposed to being derailed and going somewhere else.” Matt added that if he felt his interpretation and the project were heading in different directions, he would say to the director, “OK, I’ll do it your way – and then I’d also try to do one for myself.”
To conclude the evening, Mark had some advice for writers. “You may look at the work you have penned, see it on screen and think, “That’s not very good! What were they thinking?” Someone else may look at it and say, “I love what you wrote! It was great.” We are in a business where self criticism and criticism by others is part of the process. Enduring self criticism is probably the worst. I always think I can do better next time and really, it’s folly to beat yourself up about how something plays.”
Written by Jane Bissell for Script to Screen