I’ve been such a slacker about posting lately, I thought I’d repost one I wrote for the marvelous blog Pens Fatales just so people don’t think Zhadi’s Den is dying here! I highly recommend you visit Pens Fatales often – it’s on my hit list even when I don’t leave comments. Always entertaining and the team is a wonderfully talented bunch of swell dames.
When Juliet Blackwell asked me to write a post about character for Pens Fatales from the perspective as a writer and an actress, I pushed thoughts of impending deadlines to the back of the old brain pan and said ‘yes.’ Various writing related blogs talk a lot about creating characters: the pros and cons of pulling them from real life; how to make them realistic and/or interesting; what to name them; and so on and so forth. Lots of diverse advice and — like a salad bar — writers can pick and choose what works for them.
Actors have a lot of choices as well (and boy, will some actors talk your ear off about those choices if you give them half a chance) when developing a character. The choice of which way to turn can be a huge issue. I actually had an actor in my Murder for Hire troop argue with me when I told him he had to exit left. He objected, saying his character would stride forward, not turn. I pointed out the only off the stage and back to the dressing room in this particular venue was to the left. We did not get along well. Ah well, such real life anecdotes, while annoying as hell at the time, gave me much grist for the writing mill when I wrote Murder for Hire: The Peruvian Pigeon.
Sometimes the choice is as simple as following orders; some directors are very particular about performance specifics. Writer/directors are even worse. But at least when you combine the two, you don’t feel like you’re being Pushmepullyou’d.
Some actors build elaborate back-stories for their characters, even when the part is a walk on with one or even no lines. You’d be amazed at how many background characters could tell you details ranging from their first kiss to what their favorite brand of ice-cream or underwear is. And again, if you ask them, they would be delighted to enlighten you.
I worked with one actor who played the villain in CAUSE OF DEATH, a low budget movie put out by the same people who produced PRINCESS WARRIOR (my claim to low budget, fashion terrorist fame. More on PW in a sec). D had a list of demands he gave us before production started, including (to name but a few): several pairs of expensive leather gloves; certain designers for his wardrobe; and (my favorite) NO Rollo’s in the craft service area. Rollo’s, in case you’re not familiar with them, are little pieces of milk-chocolate enrobed soft caramel. He insisted these demands were necessary to help him fully immerse himself in his character. I wanted to immerse him in a large body of water and hold him down for a few minutes. He got what we gave him and I made sure to have a constant supply of Rollo’s on set. D ate most of them. Go figure. He managed to find his character. Actually D found more character than need. Some truly glorious over-acting occurred.
For me, I never thought a lot about background, etc., when I was cast in a role. I mean, Eliza Doolittle is pretty much Eliza Doolittle. And Kate from Taming of the Shrew is a no-brainer. Although I chose (augh! I made choices and didn’t even realize it!) to make her sympathetic as opposed to an uber-bitch out to screw with patriarchy just because it was fun. My best and favorite role was Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. In case you’re not familiar with the play, it focuses on a divorced couple who discover that they are honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel. Realizing they still love each other and regret having divorced, Elyot and Amanda abandon their mates and run off together to her apartment in Paris. Before long it becomes clear that while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, nor can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. During the course of the play, Amanda breaks a record of Elyot’s head. The actor playing Elyot happened to be my ex-boyfriend. We’d broken up right after we were cast in the roles. When I went into rehearsals, I was still in love with him. He brought his new girlfriend (who he moved into his apartment the day I left) to all the performances. By the end of the play, I was over him. In between, I thoroughly enjoyed breaking records over his head. Finding the character was amazingly simple in this case and it is honestly the best performance I’ve given in my life.
Then there’s PRINCESS WARRIOR. Juliet has seen it. I know she’s snickering while reading this and she is right to do so. It is a terrible movie, known for having the longest and dullest wet T-shirt contest in cinema history. I used the experience in a book (not finished) about low budget Hollywood and include here an excerpt that is very close to my real life experience. I’ve changed the names of the director/producer to protect the guilty.
“So you’re here to read for our villainess, Curette. Let me tell you a little bit about the story so you’ll have some context for the scene. By the way, are you comfortable with the sides? Do you need more time?”
The only correct answers to those questions were respectively ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so that’s what I said. Besides, it was the truth. My stage fright had subsided and the butterflies in my stomach had regressed into nice calm cocoons. I was ready to channel my inner Captain Kirk.
“Great! Okay, so Curette and Ovule are sisters, princesses on a planet in a galaxy somewhere far, far away.” He grinned, pausing, so I gave a ‘hah hah, aren’t you clever’ laugh in response. “Their mother, the queen, is dying and passes on the royal Seal of Power to Ovule even though Curette is the older sister ’cause Curette’s evil.”
Of course she is, I thought. She’s brunette.
“So Curette tries to kill Ovule, who escapes to present day earth in a teleporter. She transports into a strip bar and meets our hero, Darren. He thinks she’s crazy, but falls in love with her anyway and helps her hide when Curette and two of her evil minions follow in the teleporter. So it’s basically a classic tale about good and evil, very black and white, no shades of gray. Any questions?”
My only question was how he gave that entire rundown without taking a breath, but it didn’t seem relevant so I shook my head.
“Great! Don’t worry if you make a mistake, you can read it more than once if you want. It’s a short bit, so the main thing is to have fun with it. I see Curette as an old fashioned bad guy, black and white, she’s bad and she loves being bad! So have fun and be bad! Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.”
Okay, so this called for evil Captain Kirk, possibly Turnabout Intruder, ‘I’m really a woman’ Captain Kirk. I could do that.
“Great! Okay, whenever you’re ready.”
I took a deep breath, thought “I’m captain of the Enterprise!” and dove right in.
“Have you ever seen what a white hot spoon does when inserted into a human mouth?” I asked, enunciating and rolling the words out with relish. “It sort of…cleaves to the roof of the mouth and the tongue.” Pause for evil – yet subtle – chuckle. If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.
“Let me make myself very clear, sister.” I stared at both James and Manny and narrowed my eyes. “And if you don’t give me the Seal of Power, sister, your precious boyfriend will be something short when it comes to the more… oral pleasures of life.” Pause. “No? Very well. Bulemia—” Dramatic pause with evil smile “– hand me the spoon!”
The end result? I gave great white hot spoon. And I got the part. My performance is somewhere between a female Tim Curry a la Rocky Horror Picture Show and generic villainous from hell. My motivation? Mom always loved Ovule better. If you’d like to read more about the making of Princess Warrior, go here . If you want to watch it with MST3K type commentary, come on over to my place! Just bring a bottle (or three) of wine ‘cause I can only stand to watch it while tipsy.
I’ve done a few projects where I wrote or co-wrote the scripts. Murder for Hire is a good example, as is a horror/sci-fi film called PALE DREAMER. We cast it, made a trailer and got a lot of interest in the project, but the film never did get produced, more’s the pity. Although the part of Jeanette was not originally written for me, I knew I wanted to play it even while we were writing it. Strong, ornery women are the most fun to play and I was cast opposite Ken Foree (if you’re a horror geek, you’ll recognize his name as the lead in George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD). Also cast were Josef Pilato (another Romero favorite) and Brinke Stevens (former Marine Biologist turned Scream Queen). I was in heaven. Yes, I am a horror geek. Anyway, the trailer (co-directed by Brian Thomas – also co-writer – and Jeff Varga – also the producer) is linked here for your viewing pleasure.