Here is some information on one of the techniques an actor can use to perform a character, best known as Method acting. It is not the only approach, but one of the more popular ones.
How does someone "get into" character?
One way to do that is to delve into oneself to find something that best connects with what a character is going through. This is where the idea of “putting oneself into a character' comes in. When an actor says this, it's not because they're just portraying themselves on screen. What they're saying is that they have to make the character a part of themselves in order to make that character believable to the audience.
What if the character is so different than what we've seen an actor do before, and so different from the actor himself? Why choose such a character and how is he able to relate to the role?
Well, that's the challenge of acting. If they only performed characters familiar to them, then it would get boring after a while. It's like business in general. Some people get tired of doing a certain job after a while and aspire to move on, or get promoted into another position. Acting wouldn't be half as fun if without an opportunity to portray a fresh and different character. It's considered a “stretch” for the actor to tackle this kind of part.
This is why some actors choose to leave a popular TV show after a while. While the often-heard reason is because they want to do films, it doesn't necessarily mean that they believe they have hit the big time. In many cases it's a career choice that not only provides a challenging change for them, but also a chance to show that they can do a variety of characters.
The key thing is to be in touch with a variety of emotions and be able to place oneself into a variety of situations. If he can't connect with them, then he is too removed from the scene, and the performance suffers for it. That doesn't mean one has to experience the emotion and/or situation first hand. But if he is aware of the kind of emotions one can have in a given situation and can draw them out, then he is one step ahead of someone who is unsure of how to convey the scene.
So the challenge is to make this unfamiliar character be so believable, the audience won't just see him as an actor portraying a role. To play a psychopath, for example, one has to try to think like that person. He tries to plant himself into the situation and say, “If I was a psychopath, how would I behave in this scene?” Once he gets his answer he can effectively “become” that person for that situation.
Acting can - in many ways - be equated to writing novels. Some people reading this article may have tackled fiction in one shape or form, while not necessarily experiencing everything that occurs in the story. There may be one or two elements that may come from personal experience, but not all writers are delving into real life situations that they themselves have lived through. Instead, they do research to get as much understanding and knowledge of what they're writing. Actors do the same thing. They'll research what they don't understand. If they're playing a serial killer, they might visit a prison and talk to some people who either were actual killers or were around them, using this experience or information to get insight into the character they're portraying.
How does this relate to what the director wants him to do? Doesn't it conflict?
Sometimes it can, but it usually gets worked out. Outside elements, such as the wardrobe and the mood of the scene are additional ingredients the actor draws on to create this character. The script and the director figure prominently in this. So not only does the actor have to look inward, but he also has to take in the setting, the requirements of the director and the other actors around him, because if he doesn't connect with his surroundings then he's not a part of the action.
If someone has to dig deep into himself for a role, doesn't that affect them as a person after a while?
It depends on the person, how deep they need to dig, and how well they can “switch it off” when they're not needed to be in character. It can be taxing for some people. Others might find the emotional work therapeutic, because they're able to act out their feelings and grow as a person through such experiences. Yet others can just switch it off when the director says cut and not let it affect them. In all these cases the job can be stressful, but the key is to be able to walk away when the scene is over and go back to their own lives.
US TV shows can be quite demanding on an actor. To play an intense character on a TV drama requires 14+ hour days, six days a week for six months or more, which is quite exhaustive and trying on the nerves, whereas in the movies, one has some more time to work on the character. The hours, though not so much less, seem less grueling. Also, a movie only lasts a month or two (up to four for big budget features), which then frees up the actor to can move on to something else. With movies there are more chances of taking breaks in between projects, and also more of an opportunity to explore new and different characters.
Another way for a change from the grind of a drama is to do comedy instead for a while. In the case of TV comedy, the hours are easier to handle. Most of the week is basically a nine-to-five schedule with the last day involving the taping/filming of the episode at night in front of a live audience. The pressure is less and one can spend more time with their family.
So the next time you see an actor in a role so radically different and he pulls it off so well, remember he's done a lot of work to get to this point to make it seem so real and believable. The fact that it's different from who he is makes it more exciting to watch as it is to perform.
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