When Your Character is Very, Very Bad

08_Doubt_Streep.jpgA local theater is doing a production of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Doubt.  The audition notice described Sr. Aloysius, the older nun determined to rid her school of the priest she is convinced has molested a young boy (and played on Broadway by Cherry Jones and in the film by Meryl Streep) as an

Old School elementary principal, stern, suspicious and cynical.  She shows no weakness and discourages any and all signs of weakness.  Her nature is excessive. She is unsympathetic and rules with an iron fist, adults and students alike.  She strongly dislikes Father Flynn’s sense of compassion and his compassionate demeanor.  Think cold, heartless and 100% strong willed and mean spirited.  Her anger and guilt-inducing suspicious nature, drives her passion.

Pretty extreme description, no?  “No weakness”, “any and all signs”, “excessive”, “iron fist”, “cold” “heartless”, “100% strong willed and mean spirited”.  Not a lot of room in there for playing the opposites, which I hope you now understand, if you’ve read the rest of the blog, helps to create a nuanced, interesting, unpredictable, believable character.

As it turns out, the director attended parochial school during the 60s and 70s until graduating from high school, and the description he provided reflects his own experience with at least some of the nuns he encountered.  Which is Lesson Number One:

Be careful about bringing your own baggage to the role.  Be sure it is applicable.

I’ve heard actors say things like, “Well, I would never do that, so I don’t find it believable!”  (Yes, but your character does, so you need to wrap your head around that.)  About La Marquise de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuses:  “I just can’t like her, she’s evil.”  (If you’re going to play her, you better understand her pain and what drives her to do terrible things, and not just see “evil”.)

The play isn’t about you; it’s about your character.  Separate your personal beliefs and experiences from what is happening to your character.  Use your own experiences if they are aligned with the character, but be careful to not assume that some correlation implies complete correlation.

If you perceive your character in the way this director sees Sr. Aloysius – if you can step back and recognize that you are using some weighty, definitive, and extreme language to describe her – it’s a very big indication that you’ve got some personal issues that are clouding your judgment about the character.  You need to sort out what those are and open yourself to the possibility that your character isn’t a mirror image of whomever it was who harmed you in the past.  (Similarly, if you paint your character with rose-colored glasses, you need to look for some flaws and accept that they do exist.)

But let’s say you’ve never met a nun in your life nor had any cruel teachers, and yet your reaction to Sr. Aloysius is not unlike the director’s response.  What do you do?  How do you go about playing characters with no redeeming qualities?

Stay tuned . . .

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One thought on “When Your Character is Very, Very Bad

  1. Pingback: Liking Bad Characters: Doubt, Part 1 | Spacious Acting™

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