The sweat rolls down your brow as you walk excitedly toward the list. The show has finally been cast, and it’s one of your favorites. You’ve spent your entire life waiting for this moment, watching the movie, waiting for the chance to show the world just how great you can be in this role. Your heart is pounding as you traverse the list, hoping against hope that your audition was good enough even to get any role, let alone the one you want. It seems like there are a thousand names on the list, none of them yours. Did you get it? There it is! Your name is on the list. Time stops as your eyes travel to the other side of the page where… You’ve gotten the part! You shout to the world that you’ve finally been given the chance to perform one of your favorite roles in the world, from one of the films you’ve spent your entire life watching! Now to go home, watch the movie, and start memorizing your lines!
Hang on there, Superstar. You’ve just made one of the biggest mistakes an actor can make; Basing your performance on the movie. Yeah, we’ve all been there. A lot of the shows that are currently being produced have become victim to the Hollywood treatment. Some of them have turned out well, and become the instant classics that we all grew up with. Some weren’t able to live up to staged performances, and faded into obscurity. There’s hardly anyone on Earth that hasn’t seen most if not all of these classic films, so it’s natural that a theatre producer would choose to produce one of these timeless classics. It’ll gather a great audience, and the cast already knows most of the plot, lyrics, and, with any luck, lines. The problem with this lies with the actor performing the role.
Think about a movie that you’ve seen lately that’s a remake of an old classic (Trust me, there are plenty of them out there…). Imagine how you felt when you heard that Will Smith would be playing the role of the Genie in the new “Aladdin” movie, a role made famous by the incomparable Robin Williams. Betcha your first instinct if you grew up with the original was, “Why did they cast him? He’s never going to be good enough to meet the needs of that role! Robin did it better!” This is often how our minds work. The mind is a complex web of interlocking ideas and memories, and we tend to use what we know from previous experiences to judge new ones. It’s natural that we’d immediately compare this new version to that old classic we all love so dearly.
As an actor, your job isn’t to just replicate an older performance. If that were the point of what we do, why would we need the stage, when we could just go watch the movie? Nothing is going to be as good, so why bother? We as actors need to make the role our own, and learn on our own, through rehearsing, memorizing, and interacting with our directors, castmates, and ourselves, what it is that this role means to us. Some of the most memorable characters in the history of the stage and screen have come from actors who refuse to imitate another actor, and instead, create a brand new character for themselves. Think about how many different actors have played characters in the Batman Universe. Each and every actor plays each role significantly different than their predecessors, adding new life and depth to their character.
I recently encountered this when I was cast in a production of “A Few Good Men,” a military drama about two US Marines who are on trial for the murder of another Marine while carrying out a hazing. My character, Lt. Sam Weinberg, despite spending the entire show defending these men, says constantly that he believes that the men were wrong, and should be sent to jail. From the perspective of the film, Sam changes his mind, and fights to free the men from prison. However, upon rehearsing and studying my lines, I realized that Sam really doesn’t back off on this idea. He fights to free the men, but purely so he can support his friend Danny, the lead attorney. By analyzing the script and thinking about my lines, I created a back story for Sam that involves Sam having gone through these hazing rituals himself, and thus, has strong personal feelings against the Marines, though they were just following orders. Had I just watched the film, I wouldn’t have gathered this information about my character, and would have just recreated Kevin Pollack’s performance from the film.
When you are given a role, it’s up to you to develop an interesting, relatable character, one with a thought-provoking back story that shines through to the audience, despite you never mentioning it. You need to understand your character in a way about which the audience has never thought before. That character exists to an audience only in the time that they are onstage, but to an actor, that character has an entire life that’s never discussed. It’s up to us as actors to create that life, from our own imagination and from the playwright’s work, in order to create a meaningful, long-lasting character. Copying another actor’s performance robs the actor of the chance to put our own feelings and experiences into the character, and it robs the audience of the chance to see a new, possibly more interesting performance of the character. You’re not a celebrity imitator, you’re an actor, and it’s up to you to decide who your character really is, not some Hollywood hotshot who’s played the role once in their life. Character development is half the fun of acting, so why rob yourself of the chance to bring a new view of the character into the world?
“I’m confused,” you’re thinking, “How will I know when I can watch the movie again? Can I ever watch the movie again?” It’s okay to watch the movie, especially during certain times. If you’re familiar with the show, but would like to review the characters and plot before you audition, there’s no harm in watching the movie. In fact, I earned the role of Sam because I watched the movie shortly before auditions, in order to remind myself of the story, and determine which characters I thought that I’d best portray onstage. Knowing the character’s place in the show is a great way to land a role onstage, so don’t shy away from doing a little research before auditions. Also, watching the movie after the final curtain has fallen is a great way to feel confident about the performance you have just given. We all like to think we did a great job, and watching the movie at the end of the run is just reassuring ourselves that we did a great job, and possibly offering some ideas for how we’d like to portray the character the next time we do the show. If you’ve never seen the movie before, watching it before auditions may help you to better understand the story, though it can also influence your view of the characters. Personally, if I’ve never seen it, I don’t watch it until after the show, so that I know my portrayal of the character is completely genuine and new. However, from the second that auditions start to the second that the cast party ends, STOP WATCHING THE MOVIE! The previous actor has already had his moment in the spotlight. It’s your chance to shine, and, with dedication, understanding, and a little bit of creativity, you’ll be able to create a whole new experience for your audience every time you walk on the stage.