Interviews and award shows reveal that actors must own their character to excel at their craft. Directors must do the same, but with multiple characters. The hard work for the actor and director starts with what I call the “Ownership Read” of the script. With each reading of a script, the actor and director look for certain elements to build an award winning performance.
I’ve shared in the past about the first read being a tool to determine the story’s strengths, the emotional pulse or rhythm of the story, and the effectiveness of the turning points—none of which can be determined during a subsequent reading. The educated, award winning actor reads and analyzes the script 5-8 times during the process of developing his or her character. The second reading is best done as the Ownership Read.
The Ownership Read requires the following seven steps to gather and mold the proper information about the character:
STEP 1: Read your character out loud without influence.
The actor’s ear is well trained through experience and workshops. By reading the script out loud, the actor can quickly ascertain the voice of the character. This process also allows the psyche to pick up on nuances that might otherwise be missed. It’s important that the reading is not done as a performance, but a straight reading to avoid adding undesirable characteristics or embellishments. This also allows the words that were carefully selected by the writer to inform the character’s development.
STEP 2: Skip reading the action lines.
The character is the only focus during this read through, so action lines are avoided. Some argue as to whether other characters should be read, but I hold to the idea that if it is necessary, which it shouldn’t be since the script was already read in full once before, the other characters can be read silently—and only when necessary for context.
STEP 3: Paraphrase the character’s profile.
By finding a friend or a partner to test the materials, the actor shares the character’s profile by saying, “This is a character who….” This is the first real step in the ownership process, as it gives the actor a clear understanding of what the outsider sees in the character. Some of the wording will sound strange to the actor because he or she is not the actual character. The amateur actor will immediately get an itch to suggest dialog changes because it doesn’t sound “realistic” or like them. But this read is to learn who the character is, not conform it to the actor’s personality.
STEP 4: Paraphrase the character’s profile in a personalized fashion.
This step is identical to the previous step except for one major change. The actor this time shares the character’s profile by saying, “I am a person who….” This approach automatically shifts the perspective and ownership to the actor as if he or she is the character. Suddenly the wording brings up defense and justification mechanisms—the real beat of the character’s lifeblood. This practice also shifts the passive view of the character into a proactive or driven view. This perview empowers the actor to conform his or her negatives into a presentable positive, regardless of what outsiders might actually think or see.
The process makes the antagonist more powerful and gives strength of character, regardless of good or bad, to supporting roles. The biggest difference from the previous step is the uncanny ability for the actor to gain empathy for the character—being able to play a flawed individual as if the flaw was an asset, generating three-dimensional character traits.
STEP 5: Build a backstory and hidden secrets based on what’s gleaned from the read.
The natural results of exploring the character through this process is a depth of knowledge and behaviors that are worthy of exploration. By considering how the person got to the place they’re in at the start of the story, the actor is able to build a backstory that gives credence to the scripted voice and behaviors.
This reflection, coupled with the new-found empathy, allows the actor to mold his or her instincts and responses according to the new character—making sense of the dialog not previously understood. The added bonus from the generous amount of material also gives the ability to plant a secret to keep throughout the shoot that brings more depth of character into the eyes of the actor during close ups.
STEP 6: Avoid the obvious, as nothing in a script is obvious.
Most amateurs take the script at face value and miss the subtext, underlying character elements, and hidden reveals. The actor must take note of anything that appears obvious and dig to find out what is really being said. By assuming nothing in the script is obvious, the actor is forced to conduct a deeper dive to find out why the character says what they say. The focus is on looking for hints of depth behind every statement. The actor can even ask and consider the question, “Does this line have more than one meaning?”
STEP 7: Commit to the character.
The number one reason a character fails is because the actor skips the due diligence to develop the role. The second reason comes into play when the actor doesn’t commit to the developed character. Locking in the character is mandatory. Should there be a script or action conflict found later, the actor can talk through the issue with the director—the best troubleshooter on set. Remember, the director knowns the character best, that is, next to the actor.
The greatest pitfall of a rookie actor is attempting to rewrite lines of dialog before understanding the character. Unfortunately for all involved, should one of these types of rewrites be accepted, the character is most likely going to shift from a three-dimensional to a two-dimensional character. The pro actor always dives deeper into the character to learn why he or she says the line to avoid flattening the richness of their uniqueness.
Actors that are unsure if their rewrite suggestions will help or destroy their character should trust the director (as long as he or she is a pro). No great director will ever choose to direct a script with poorly written characters. After all, they’re responsible for the overall story, and their credit will be on the film for a very long time.
Meaning built within the dialog can only be understood in the right context. In Step 3 the dialog might suggest to an outsider that the character is short, ill-tempered, and rude. But in Step 4 the same dialog packaged through empathy reveals that the character is actually tired, abused by the system, and protective of his or her heart. Therefore the actor should never suggest a rewrite until he or she has totally understood and owns the character.