Tag Archives: actors


This past week I saw the Paul Thomas Anderson movie Phantom Thread starring Daniel Day-Lewis in his last role. As I wrote here, he has retired from acting. Seeing the movie now, after months of getting used to the idea that it will be his last, left me sad but also energized and amazed by his work, as well as the other actors and the movie itself. Seeing artists like these at work inspires me. And Day-Lewis is a special inspiration — the way he approaches character and character development — for my writing and being a writer.

I find often that when I’m stuck with my writing, watching a good movie with good actors can rattle my imagination’s doors and windows. What is it that the actors do to establish the character?  And how do they sustain the character? What actors do is what writers do in creating and developing characters.  Paying attention to actors when they’re acting can be very helpful to fiction writers.


There are two areas of a character’s physical existence that both actors and writers pay attention to. The first is physical appearance. What does the character look like?  What is his hair color and style? Height? Weight? What kinds of clothes does the character wear? Does this change over the course of the story? I remember at one point when working on a draft of Perceval’s Secret, I decided to let Evan Quinn “go to seed,” i.e. he stops shaving, stops going to a barber, stops paying attention to his grooming to reflect his extreme focus on his work. But then he becomes interested in disguise and how it can help him lead a normal life — another aspect of physical appearance. Clothing can reveal character with respect to its style.  Someone (like Evan Quinn) who prefers to wear jeans and a T-shirt with sneakers is not the same as someone who wears chinos, an Oxford shirt, and loafers. When we walk down a street, we notice what other people are wearing and make conclusions about them based on their fashion choices. So readers will notice when a writer makes note of a character’s clothing. Also, is the character comfortable without clothing? Does he have scars, tattoos, birthmarks?

Paul Newman

The second physical aspect is movement, i.e. gestures, facial expressions, how a character stands (ramrod straight or slouched?), how a character walks. The actor Paul Newman had a distinctive walk that he used at times for a character he was playing, and sometimes not. Does the character walk fast, slow, with long strides or short? Do the toes point out? Maybe the character limps. Or maybe the character has a facial tic or a distinctive gesture. Some characters talk with their hands, as people do in real life, and others do not. Gesture can be a very subtle thing, but if it’s consistent, it can also reveal character.


What does the character’s voice sound like? Does she lisp or stutter? Perhaps she speaks with a foreign accent? Perhaps she’s a real chatterbox compared with someone more laconic. How a character speaks in any given situation reveals the characters emotions as well as thoughts. A writer puts the words in a character’s mouth, or ideally, the character simply speaks as the writer listens and records. An actor will have what’s in the script (which may or may not be written in stone — in theater it tends to be, but not so much for movies), and there’ll be a collaboration between actor and director on how those lines will be spoken. I remember seeing an interview with Anthony Hopkins talking about how he created Hannibal Lecter for The Silence of the Lambs. He commented that the key for him into the character was Lecter’s voice and manner of speaking. Once he heard that in his mind and could do it, he had Lecter. How a character speaks should not be underestimated as a key character trait. How a character uses language reveals intelligence level and emotion.

Anthony Hopkins


What a character does for a living can be a method of self expression and another path to reveal the character. In this interview in W, Daniel Day-Lewis talks about the preparations he made, the research he did, to play Reynolds Woodcock, the couture fashion designer in Phantom Thread. Writers will (and should) do similar research into the occupations of their characters in order to insure their characters behave in a plausible way for the occupations. So, with Evan Quinn, an orchestra conductor, I researched orchestra conductors — how they live, work, travel, and see their work. An orchestra conductor will have a different life compared with a plumber or businessman, or a fashion designer. Knowing how a character acts while working adds authenticity to the character in the viewer’s or reader’s eyes.


So, when I need some inspiration for character creation and development, I turn to fine actors who have helped me in the past, such as Daniel Day-Lewis. Who do you turn to?

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.


Who are Your Creative Integrity Heroes?

This above all: to thine own self be true,                                             And it must follow, as the night the day,                                             Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

William Shakespeare’s wisdom, expressed in Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3, stands as a recipe for integrity.  We find quotes relevant to our lives scattered among his plays – about love, life, power and the abuse of power, betrayal, honesty, humor, fun and trust.  Shakespeare wrote for everyone, not any one specific audience; and I would speculate that he also wrote for himself, the stories that most interested him.  He was true to himself and his creative process, and his words have endured.  Oh, yeah, he also wrote for money!  Well, writers must eat, right?

I’ve been thinking a lot about integrity lately, honesty, truth, inclusiveness and the kind of caring for others that the corporate mindset leaves out of everyday work life.  As a writer, I work hard to create with honesty, to dig into stories for the human truth that will make my work inclusive.  In other words, I work to meet my own high standards of creative integrity.  I do not steal from other writers.  My imagination gives me enough stories to keep me busy for the rest of my life.  For each story, I work hard to remain true to each character’s voice and personality, and to the realities of life, i.e. scientific laws, for example.  When I feel my creative determination and momentum flagging, I turn for inspiration from my hero of creative integrity: actor Daniel Day-Lewis.

Credit: Time Magazine

Credit: Time Magazine

True, I admire and respect other actors, men and women, for their talent and artistic achievements.  I admire and respect other writers, also.  And there are musicians I admire and respect, both composers and performers, for their artistic integrity.  But Day-Lewis and I have a history that goes back to the early 1990’s when I suffered a particularly long and stubborn writer’s block.  Seeing Day-Lewis’ work as Hawkeye/Nathaniel in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, reading about how he prepared for this role, helped me focus as a writer on character as the most important element of my work.  I finally got it.  I would learn much more in the years following, especially about narrative structure from other writers, but for me Day-Lewis’ artistic and creative integrity as an actor was the light that illuminated my path.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye (photo: Morgan Creek Productions)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Hawkeye (photo: Morgan Creek Productions)

Day-Lewis has portrayed an astonishing range of characters on film.  With each one, he seems to have burrowed his way into the character’s core, his soul, by studying every aspect of the character and his life.  For Hawkeye, he took an outdoor survival course to learn how to live like a Mohawk Indian in the 18th Century.  He learned how to move in a forest, to listen to the sounds, and to track animals and people, to shoot with the kind of rifle used during that time.  He added physical appearance to Hawkeye: lean, tanned, graceful, with long hair, tattoos, and other decorations (I’m certain the hair, make-up and costume departments were also involved, as well as the director).  Then you have Bill “The Butcher” Cutter in Gangs of New York, an arrogant, powerful man, a villain, who Day-Lewis gave a human dimension by the way he moved, talked, and dressed.  I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

As Bill "The Butcher" Cutter

As Bill “The Butcher” Cutter

I anticipate seeing Day-Lewis’ latest creation, President Abraham Lincoln, with excitement and confidence in his creative integrity.  His Lincoln will be not surface recreation of the man, but a full-bodied character whose energy and soul will be consistent with those of that conflicted leader.  I wonder what an actor with such high standards of creative integrity thinks of an American President like Lincoln?  I can’t wait to find out.

As President Abraham Lincoln

As President Abraham Lincoln

My gratitude and appreciation to Daniel Day-Lewis for being the actor he is so that I can look to him as my creative integrity hero.  Who’s your creative integrity hero?

Day Lewis in Ireland

He, Himself

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.

Heath Ledger

Watching actors at work, whether on stage or in a movie, is watching characterization in living motion.  They do what writers think about regarding character development.  What are the personal, specific gestures that make a character an individual?  How does he speak?  What clothes communicate his unique personality?  A thoughtful, dedicated actor considers these things and much more in bringing a character to life for his or her audience.  And so does a writer to bring a character to life on the page.  I love watching actors, and I have learned from them.  At times, an actor’s work has sparked the insight in my mind that I’ve needed to break a creative logjam in my writing.

Heath Ledger was an actor I had watched with respect and admiration for his craft, thoughtfulness, imagination and skill in his characterizations, from the rebellious son in The Patriot to the deeply conflicted cowboy in Brokeback Mountain to the lovable scamp in Casanova and more.  It is beyond sad and tragic to have lost this actor now, after such a short time of working and sharing his talent and insights with us.  From my writer’s perspective, I had looked forward to learning more from him as well as to the pleasure of watching him bring more characters to life.

My heart goes out in sympathy to his family, friends, and everyone else who share in this terrible loss.