Acting builds character. And voice versa.

Edge Studio

In a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, [] about Max von Sydow’s long history of building rich, stand-out characters, the author muses, “How does von Sydow know so much?” and answers, “It’s just the sort of imagination that some actors, a very few, are blessed with.“

Actually there’s also another answer. Stephen Sondheim, when asked “How do you know so much?” replied, “I listen.”

Do you keep your eyes and ears open? There are characters all around you. We’ve mentioned this before, but here are yet more examples, and ways to absorb and use what you will.

Another observation from that article about von Sydow:

What von Sydow brings to The Exorcist is more than the skimpily written part demands, maybe more than it deserves, but this is what he does in even the smallest, poorest roles. Like a novelist, he finds the human details that vivify the character.

Details. That’s the key. And, as with doing accents in audiobooks and many other VO situations, sometimes all you need is one connotative detail at a time. That one distinctive (and not necessarily unusual) characteristic may make all the difference in bringing the character to life. Integrated into your performance, it blossoms to transform your own personality.

Not everybody sees these things. It takes training, remembering, and even a certain outlook on life.

Consider the experience described by Richard Gere during the filming of his recent movie “Time Out of Mind,” in which he plays a homeless person. It was shot on the streets with hidden cameras, so that passers-by would not see a film shoot in progress. Nobody recognized him … almost.

“In 21 days of shooting, … only two people engaged me as Richard Gere. … We were shooting in Grand Central, two African Americans came up to me, in passing, and said, ‘Hey, Rich,’ and kept walking. … There’s a sense that white people, we’re very much in our capsules, and especially with the smartphone, we are looking into the phone, we don’t see what’s going on around us. We’re going from here to there, and we kind of block out the journey from here to there. The ethnic and racial minorities tend to be more connected to life on the streets, and the world around them. And it was very clear to me that that was the case.”

Whether or not Gere’s broad generalization about various groups’ perspectives is correct, he was in a great position to observe firsthand. And he’s correct that people tend to walk around wearing blinders. Blinders that might as well be physical. We also wear mental blinders. Even emotional blinders.

To see new character development cues around us, we must take the blinders off. See the world as others do. And notice the unusual in everyday things and people. Not just among the everyday, but in them.

It might be physical: how does a person speak with their body, how do they stand, even how close do they stand? How does their voice sound, and how is it formed? It might be emotional: what’s their objective as they speak (what meaning are they trying to give, or what response are they trying to get?). How do they seem to feel about life in general, and does that change when dealing with a certain subject? Do they appear to feel vulnerable in some way, and do they overcompensate for it? (Often a vulnerability is actually something common or small.) It might be their timing: at what pace do they talk, how long do they take to respond? It might be verbal: what terms do they use, what verbal or vocal habits do they have, how carefully do they speak?

It might be anything.

You may want to keep a journal of your observations. Not only will it help you remember what you’ve observed, it may help you in thinking about these characteristics, where they come from, and where they reside in you. This may work for you, or you might find it a waste of time – maybe you’ve sorted things out already or can never remember to do it. But it’s something to try, and refer to. At least keep a list. Over time, you’ll probably be surprised at what a collection of characters you’ve developed.

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