27 October 2008

Type Face


I find it really fascinating when I can't seem to get into a particular character. We've become very comfortable with the notion that every actor has a "type," or at least particular strengths that lend themselves to one sort of character over another. Why shouldn't we accept this? Grouping by type is something with which we are not only very comfortable, but it's often a necessary, day-to-day survival skill. When I get bored, I sometimes seek out commedia dell'arte types on the street. I'm particularly fond of my ability to recognize clipboard-types even without their clipboards. Saturday I found myself walking along 10th Street when I caught the eye of a rather earnest looking man of about my age standing outside a building entrance. There was nothing special to provoke alarm about this encounter. There was no clipboard, no name tag, no eccentric clothing nor any thought-provoking "stress test" paraphernalia. Yet I instinctively knew I had come across a clipboard-type, and immediately engaged my evasive maneuvers. I averted eye contact before his mouth could quite open, and my pace became still more brisk, and once again I was saved by my trusty iPod (I should nickname him Tonto) from any cries of endorsement that may have been pelted at my rapidly retreating rear. Thanks, Tonto!

He could have been a Dianeticist, he could have been an Obama/McCain/Bloomberg supporter, he could have been lost, and now I feel like a total douche. What if he was lost? Oh well: Builds character. The point is, I narrowly saved myself at least a minute-and-a-half of free time, which was of course promptly consumed by my wait for the N train. When it comes to character-building, there's little better for it than absolute, unequivocal failure. Or so I've been raised to believe. This is part of why I'm such a nearly decent actor now -- repeated character failures. I seem to do just fine with romantic types; youngish believers; broad-strokes villains; anal-retentive authority figures; clumsy sorts and quiet intellectuals. These are "types" I can slip into with relative ease, and in various combinations. I'm rather fond of the anal-retentive romantic, just as an example. If you ask me, however, to do a volatile authority figure, or a homeless veteran, or a frighteningly aggressive gangster . . . I can't guarantee you what you're going to get, nor how convincing whatever you get will actually be. You may scratch your head. You may say, "Jeff, I asked for a broken-down farmer who's contemplating selling his wife to support his kids, and what you gave me seems more like Robocop . . . on a unicorn."

And so maybe there is something to this "type"ing. Certainly it applies to most screen work one can readily imagine. I do not begrudge the screen its intricacies. However, as a character-actor enthusiast, I can't help but feel that nothing is impossible. More to the point, I can't help but feel that anything is possible. I believe people all need pretty much the same things -- survival and joy (in that order) -- and the seemingly infinite variety of expression to be found amongst the people of the world can be emulated in great detail, by anyone interested enough to commit the time and effort. Maybe if I had more time with A Lie of the Mind, I could have developed a better grasp of Frankie. Maybe the praise I received for my portrayal of a gangster in Riding a Rocket Ship Into the Sun was merited not because I managed a unique approach to the character, but because people simply believed in me as a sadist. It's a world full of possibility! Robocops on unicorns abound, and are accepted by all!

This question of the validity of transformation, the value of a character actor in today's world, is one I have been asking myself for some time. I don't think I'll ever get a solid answer going; it's more of a meditation. Lately, my meditation has taken me into the realm of interpersonal communication. Specifically, I've been contemplating how to reprogram myself (for a play or some other socially acceptable [relatively] paradigm) to respond instinctively using someone else's emotional landscape. More specifically, to respond as such under a parameter of the feminine. More specifically still, to respond as such under a specific (told you I was being specific) female's parameter. To wit: What makes this one woman tick? Try it yourself. Imagine someone of the opposite sex whom you know and try to get inside his or her head. For the sake of anonymity and my future happiness, let's call my particular case study "Geggin." It's absurd to imagine anyone who lives in the continental U.S. having this name, and thus her identity is completely and unambiguously protected.

In approaching a character that is unlike you, it's best to lure its attention away from you with a raw steak. Toss it at least twenty feet to your left or right, then scale the . . . oh, wait. That's approaching an evil millionaire's mansion, guarded as it is by vicious Rottweilers. When approaching a character that is unlike you, forget the steak, and focus instead on its origins. Why? Because Freud says so. Why else? Well, because if we're all driven by the same categories of appetite, what's left to define us are our genetic modifiers and the story thus far. Take me, for example. I'm an emotionally sensitive person, in the best and worst senses. I get this from my parents, and from being raised in a house that advocated psychotherapy and its techniques, whilst simultaneously being an extremely loving and nigh gratuitously emotionally honest refuge. Plus my mom's a minister and my dad loves opera. Of course I listen to your problems, and respond to simple rudeness with reason-crippling rage.

In contrast, this "Geggin" grew up in a household that got through a lot by soaring on the wings of their senses of humor, said senses being made up largely of goose down and sarcasm (it's an incredibly strong-yet-lightweight adhesive, sarcasm). Thus, whereas I may respond to a particularly coarse moment of reality television with wincing, and cringing, and running into the next room to check on the aloe plant, "Geggin" can eat it up with laughter and relish and a crowing, "Oh no! Oh!" Followed, naturally, by entirely unrepentant giggles. Had we been raised in one another's environments, we might not simply switch these reactions to Rock of Love: Charm School, but it is a little piece of information that helps in understanding the background of a character such as "Geggin." Were I to play her in a show, I would do well to train myself to respond similarly to such nauseating moments of schadenfreude, and this along with other behavior practices might help me to eventually understand the mental and emotional connections that allow the unbridled appreciation of television that is utterly senseless time-wasting trash.

But let me not mislead you into seeing such analysis as being only of use to actors. Nay. Indeed, committing just a little time to contemplating others' motivations and personalities can be an invaluable aid in simply communicating with them at all. We are offered insight into people more often than we perhaps appreciate, busy as we are with defending our own borders. In a sense, this kind of perception of others' motivations is blocked by the idea of "types." We never know if the rigorously tattooed young man next to us on the subway isn't in fact an incredibly gentle chap, nor whether the old woman picking out an umbrella in the pharmacy isn't a dominatrix. We need to think we know, but we don't know, not until we open up to the possibility of it, of anything. There are a lot of advantages to being open in that way. We'll probably get more of what we want from people when we understand them with more specificity. Perhaps more importantly, being open like that may allow people to understand us better.

Whether we like it or not, actually -- because this understanding could extend to clipboard-types. Then again, maybe that guy held the secret to converting "Geggin"'s taste for VH1 into an enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Tony Jaa. Hm. I wonder if I can still catch him down on 10th . . .

4 comments:

Patrick said...

I'm feeling very dim this morning, I am having trouble following this post. This theoretical "Geggin" person sounds pretty fascinating though. I'd devote some considerable study to her, if I were you. Maybe the rest of your life. It's those questions and surprises that keep us hooked. I'd worry less about 'reprogramming' yourself though; your mysteries and foibles are just as intriguing.

Jeff Wills said...

That's not your dimness, methinks. I was reaching for a certain bygone style of mine in the writing of this post, and it came out somewhat more convoluted than most. But yes: "Geggin" is a fascinating subject. Think I'll commit my life to its study...

Greg said...

Gee, one might've thought you'd be all consumed with thoughts of the Bride and wedding and such this week...so it was refreshing to read this post devoid of any fear or concern or what-have-you about the future. ; )

Wishing you a great weekend to come and a lifetime of laughter, love and character study!! (Oh, and crows, too!)

Jeff Wills said...

Thanks very much, Greg. (Especially for the crows!)