Often when people praise a great performance on stage or on film, I hear them say, “Wow, so-and-so was amazing! I totally didn’t recognize him.” or “Such-and-such was great. It’s like she became a different person.” People seem especially impressed when an actor can pull off a different accent or a radically different physicality.
The paradox of acting is that no matter how different one may appear, the essence of a great performance comes from finding the truth of a character from within. The chameleon-like qualities of a Meryl Streep or Daniel Day Lewis are certainly praiseworthy but what makes their performances exceptional is how they discover and reveal themselves in their characters.
In portraying Raymond (Torvald), there are external characteristics I must consider. Raymond is an overseas Chinese who was educated in Great Britain and thus he talks with a certain clipped accent which is not my own. He is a gentleman of the 1960s and thus his posture is not like Jovanni’s. Raymond is a smoker, I am not. These externals must be executed with precision or my performance’s credibility will be undermined.
But, ultimately, these technical considerations do not a performance make. The heart of my performance will come from discovering and revealing as much of myself in my portrayal of Raymond. In the end, my performance is limited only by the range of my experiences and the depth of my imagination. Whatever I can bring to the table, I will share with everyone. This is what can make acting such a painful and harrowing experience.
This week I felt like a had a real breakthrough in discovering Raymond. I know this because I experienced that terrifying/exhilirating feeling of exposing my nerve endings for all to see. Playing Raymond is exhausting. In the third act of the play, one goes through a veritable roller coaster of actions and emotions. In quick succession, one goes from drunken lust to the pain of hearing my best friend is dying to Vesuvian anger at discovering Nora has lied to me to ecstasy at hearing that we will not be blackmailed. Then, to top it all off, when Nora leaves me, I am left alone and brokenhearted.
So if I am attempting to make each of these sensations as real and visceral to myself as possible, you can understand why I call acting painful and harrowing. Anyone who has had their heart torn asunder is not keen on reliving the experience. But that is what actors cheerfully strive for in exchange for dismal pay. What a strange lot of masochistic exhibitionists we are.
The other painful part of my journey is realizing how many aspects of Raymond do exist within me. I like to think I’m a decent husband and human being and yet how many of Raymond’s manipulative tactics are like my own? When do I treat my wife the way Raymond treats Nora? Often, the journey of discovering a character is also a journey of self-discovery. And we all know how fun those can be. I don’t know if my Raymond will be noteworthy but I suspect I’ll walk away from this experience a more patient man.
So, in short, this week has left me feeling miserable, enraged, humbled, and emotionally naked. I couldn’t be happier.