The moment I read a script, I’ve made dozens of decisions about a character. Who she is. How she speaks. How she moves. How this or that line probably should be said. What sort of movement is required. What I want. Etc. You do, too. We can’t help it.
Human beings are always judging and evaluating new information placed before us. We like to categorize things. When you meet someone, you immediately start “identifying” who it is. What are some of the favorite questions we like to ask new people? Where are you from? Do you have brothers and sisters? Where do you work? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Where did you go to school?
And we assess the other person’s appearance immediately, too. Are they attractive? Do they dress neatly or sloppily? Do they care about their appearance? Do they have good taste in clothes (according to our lights, that is). Are they color blind? Do they need a haircut? Is that blond real or bottled? Are they athletic or bookish? Funny or annoying?
We aren’t always right about our assessments of people. Ever know someone who makes snap judgments about people, pronouncing someone to be a “jerk”, only to tell you months later, after he’s gotten to know the guy, what a “good guy” he’s turned out to be? Or who praises someone to the hilt after a single meeting, only to discover later that it was all a show and that he’s done someone wrong? If you don’t, then look in the mirror, because the odds are that you’ve misjudged someone along the way. But knowing that doesn’t stop us from making quick judgments about those we meet.
Real people have the opportunity to change your mind about them. But characters in a play aren’t as forceful. They won’t resist your labels, at least not loudly enough to get your attention.
What seems obvious on the first read-through often IS part of the scene, and part of the character. But it is only one part. Human beings are much more complicated than the broad strokes we sometimes settle for as actors, without even realizing that is what we are doing.
In fact, human beings are not just complicated, but they are also often contradictory, and their behavior and dialogue reflect that. When you are inclined to say, in response to a director’s suggestion, “But my character wouldn’t do that,” you are often censoring it on the basis that the director’s suggestion is blue, but you’re creating a character based on oranges and reds. What if, instead, you chose to go for a rainbow? Or instead of a quartet, for a symphony? When you do this, you not only surprise the audience, but you make the play richer and more layered. And you create characters who, by virtue of their very contrariness, seem like very real human beings.