Watching Actors

Fiction writers could learn a lot about creating characters by studying the Stanislavski method of acting.  This method emphasizes the psychology of character: what motivates the character’s behavior.  Writers could learn how to put themselves into the character — enter his world, live his life, master his actions, his thoughts and feelings.  What would the character do in a certain situation? 

I love watching actors.  They embody characterization and character development.  I watch movies and TV to watch actors,  their characters and the characters’ stories.  Superb actors, those in which you can see the character in their eyes, are a particular joy to me, and often inspire me to write.  I recently watched two actors, one I knew well and the other a discovery, create unique characters that evolved through each of the stories.

While in the hospital, I watched a lot of cable TV and became addicted to the series Monk.  Adrian Monk, prone to OCD behavior as a successful detective, was married to a beautiful journalist.  Her murder sent him spiraling down into a black abyss that intensified his OCD to the point that it became debilitating for him.  The series begins with his return to detective work as a consultant to the San Francisco police.  He’s not cured but has a loyal nurse, Sharona, who insures that he stays focused.  The challenge for actor Tony Shalhoub in creating and sustaining Adrian Monk as a character is to make him a real human being and not a caricature of OCD symptoms.  And filter the world and all the people around him through his OCD lens.  Shalhoub’s work in this series is a revelation.  He makes Monk a subtle being, gentle but fussy, tortured by his wife’s unsolved murder and driven to try to bring order back into the world.  At the same time, he knows he has no control over anyone but himself, and yet, his OCD can prevent him comically from chasing a suspect or can become an obstacle for him to overcome in order to save Sharona from a determined killer.  Shalhoub uses his body, the way he moves it, to convey Monk’s fastidiousness more than being actually fastidious, in contrast to his big, compassionate brown eyes that reveal his suffering, and his empathy for others who suffer.  I thought this was brilliant characterization work by Tony Shalhoub, and I recommend the series to writers for it.

Viggo Mortensen is an actor I trust.  I know that if he’s chosen to play a character that it will be interesting and honest work.  He chose to play the Father in the movie adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  The movie is impressively faithful to the novel but does cut down on the amount of repetition in the father and son’s life on the road.  Mortensen is a father in real life.  His task in this movie was to convey the father’s motivations in gesture, glance, the bow of the head, the defiant set of his jaw.  The only major female character, his wife, is seen only in flashback to give context to their journey.  Mortensen’s acting adds depth and breadth to that context in the way he responds to those memories.  It’s in his eyes, in the way his hand rests on his sleeping son, in the way he looks at a piano in an abandoned house.  Mortensen has become that father, the man who resolutely teaches his son to be all that is good about humanity, to hold that goodness in his heart, to keep the fire alive, in a world overrun by humans reduced to being animals.  Kodi Smit-McPhee, the young boy who played his son, was astonishingly superb, and Robert Duvall, who plays an old man they meet on the road, makes characterization by an actor look effortless.  Visually, this movie can be a huge downer, but the acting makes it all worth it.

Watching actors can inspire me, energize my imagination, or teach me something new about creating and sustaining a character…. and I hope helps me create real people as my fictional characters.


4 responses to “Watching Actors

  1. I enjoy reading/watching the “extras” on movies I enjoy. Sometimes these are a total waste of time; some not. Those which are truly intriguing are those which expand my understanding of the Process by which the movie was made. I listened to the Commentary of Moulin Rouge (Kidman & McGregor), and was really fascinated, although I don’t recall off hand if the discussion was from the director or not. The Commentary for Lord of the Rings was very different between the Actors’ and the Producer/Director/Screenwriters (being a group of only 3 people). But in this, the Actors discussed often their experience as Actors in making the movie, not in creating the characters. Mortensen wasn’t in the commentary group, but I did see him interviewed in some other part of the (copious) extras … apparently New Line approached him to play Aragorn & he initially turned them down. Filming had already started & the initial choice had left, so they were rather desperate to get someone on board asap. Mortensen said he mentioned the part to his 14 year old son, whose response as along the lines of “oh, my god, dad, you can’t possibly turn it down!!” His son’s enthusiasm is what caused him to at least read the script. (if I recall correctly, he said he borrowed his son’s copy of the books to read on the flight to New Zealand, since he’d never read the books.)

    This is definitely a Father who respects his child and relies on his child’s ability to have a worthy opinion. The role of a Professional being influenced by how one inhabits the role of a Father.

    The movie The Road also provided, I think, the opportunity to see the occasionally conflicting roles a man must play: Father v. Husband. Most men do not do them equally well, because one cannot do them identically. (this applies to women/wife/mother, too 😉

    It’s easier watching a high quality Actor. They’ve already done the hard work for you in creating the character. You can just sit back and Believe.

    • High quality actors — they are a joy to watch. I love how they incorporate everything at their disposal — costumes, hair, make-up, stance, gestures, voice, speech, as well as facial expressions — to communicate the character and how the character is living in that particular moment.

      I too was impressed with Mortensen’s respect for his son’s opinion. His son, at the time, was younger than 14, though, which was why I was really impressed — I think he was 10 or 11 (he was born in 1988, the filming began summer of 1999). But Mortensen was already knowledgeable about some of Tolkien’s source material, the Norse mythology, so the story wasn’t totally unfamiliar. I personally do not know what in Norse mythology Tolkien used, though. Anyway, I haven’t watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy for quite a while. Maybe a nice diversion some weekend…..

  2. Thank you for this post. You are definitely right…I love watching actors put themselves in their character’s shoes. It’s great to watch them develop, and I have to say Viggo Mortensen is one of my favorites. 🙂

    God bless,
    Taylor J. Beisler
    Author and Freelancer

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