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Creating Unique, Authentic Characters on Set

Playtime Isn't Just for Kids

I never imagined that one day I’d become a character on a board game. Last fall, that’s exactly what I became: Karen, the wacky home decorator and fictitious employee of a national flooring retailer.

The board game was part of a training series for the company’s employees. Different approaches to customer service - some appropriate and others definitely not! – were played by an assortment of characters in a variety of jobs. The training included a series of videos showing these characters’ journeys from customer service novices to accomplished public-facing employees. Well, at least the ones who weren’t fired along the way for incompetence, insubordination, or unwillingness to change entrenched old habits. The board game allowed real-life employees to become one of these characters and figure out the training challenges for themselves.

It was a lot of fun, from the scripted interactions to performing for the drone-mounted camera that was flying around the showroom floor, taking it all in. More than anything, it reminded me of why I enjoyed acting to begin with … it wasn’t showtime, it was playtime!

Having fun on set and being able to play is half of “the chicken and the egg” puzzle for me. A good actor never knows exactly how his or her character will react to the other people in the scene, despite the scripted lines. So much depends on the organic give and take between the scene’s characters as each tries to get what they want from the others. The life of the scene comes from the “real” moments the characters experience as they interact with one another. So one half of the puzzle is the preparation that we bring to our work: our character’s personalities, likes and dislikes, personal history, physical quirks, etc. The other half comes out while the scene is in play – the genuine reactions and nuances that’s in the spontaneity of the scene. That’s the half that I love to explore while I’m in the middle of the action on set and it brings authenticity to my work.

Every character that I play has a bit of my own authentic self. That bit could be philosophical, sassy, tenacious, or any of a large number of personality traits that could be trotted out at any one time. On set, I can spin that bit of my authentic self in any number of directions, depending on my character’s personality and proclivities – many of which I can invent – and just play with the situation at hand. Oftentimes, I’ll be surprised at my reaction, but it’ll be real and believable because it’s an authentic reaction. And that all comes from the willingness to have fun and play, come what may.

Many talented actors seem to be born with that inherent knowledge and ability. I think I’ve discovered it as I’ve journeyed through life. As I’ve grown in maturity and years, I’ve found that I worry less about what others think of me, how I look, whether or not I’ll be chosen for this or that gig. I’m more comfortable in my own skin. Hey, what you see is what you get! Either you like me as I am in the here and now, or you don’t. I’ll always work hard and do my best, but truthfully, either I’m the right fit for what you, as the creative director, have in mind or I’m not. It’s the same with voice over. The creatives and the corporate decision-makers (usually) know what they want and they’re all looking for the best option, often whatever best matches the vision or voice in their head for a particular project.

So since we don’t know exactly what the decision-makers are looking for, let’s just give them the best version of ourselves. Who knows? It may line up with their vision. It may give them a new and better way to see that character. Or it may just go by the wayside: “nice job, but not what we’re looking for.” That’s how we audition for a given role. We read the character description, imagine the character in the scripted scene and develop intentions, motivations, and tactics to help that character get what he or she wants. We fill in the blanks ourselves, coloring the character with a personal history and perhaps experiences from our own lives. We make that character our own, and then turn it loose in the scene to act and react to every moment.

In this particular case of the interior designer, I built upon the specs of a middle-aged decorator who’s tired of running her own business and just wants to be an employee, enjoying helping retail customers choose the best flooring designs for their home remodeling projects. The scenes were a bit funny, so I chose to skew her in a wacky, fun-loving direction, and just had a great time filming the taped audition. Fortunately, the client liked my vision for Karen and I was able to explore this free-wheeling character as she assisted the store’s customers, happy that she was free from the administrative duties that had formerly taken too much of her time away from the creative process she loved.

It was a great experience from start to finish. Now if I can only get a peek at that board game…. 