May 19

Creating a Character – Randle P. McMurphy, Part 2

Just finished the first weekend’s run for the Camille Playhouse’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which I play the protagonist, Randall McMurphy. The theater gave us only 3 weeks of rehearsals before opening night, so I’ve had very little time to work on the development of this character, let alone write about the process.

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One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Camille Playhouse, May 2015

Now, half of the run is already finished, so I can look back at some of the things I had to work on specifically, to get ready to bring Randle McMurphy to life.

First, the physicality. McMurphy is a fighter. The novel tells us he was a decorated Korean War hero who was later dishonorably discharged for insubordination. McMurphy has a history of violence, though not of the stereotypical “angry white male” variety. He just has a hot temper that he doesn’t try very hard to control. He instantly balks at restrictive rules, and pushes back against authority if he doesn’t feel like he’s getting a fair shake. He’s tough in every sense of the word.

Thankfully, I was pretty close physically to what the character needed. I’m a “gym rat” for the past several years, but I’m not pretty; I don’t have muscles sculpted to Greek perfection, and I still like to eat. You can see in a rehearsal photo above that I’m pretty built, but also that I’m still just a little bit “soft”, like a real guy who works hard and plays hard (and eats like an ox). At 6’1″ and 225 pounds, carrying off the sheer size of the role wasn’t difficult or anything I had to prepare for.

Next, let’s look inside the man’s psyche. What makes this person who he is? What motivates him? Why was he willing to push this little contest with Nurse Ratched to its extreme climax?

There is a rambunctiousness and irreverence in McMurphy that, to a lesser degree, also inhabits me (and I suspect, many other people, particularly men, who travel through life in unconventional ways). McMurphy finds his joy in simple, albeit sinful pleasures: gambling, partying, booze, sex. In some ways, this makes him the stereotypical alpha male that the character needs to be in order to lead this group of men. In my own life, my irreverence shows up in other ways – I balk, for example, at wearing a suit and tie, even though my day job is as a financial advisor. I’m the guy in your circle who will tell the off-color joke, and say what everyone else is thinking but keeps to themselves. At some place along the way in my life, my Give-A-Shit broke, and I really don’t worry too much what other people think of me.

McMurphy is very much like that. At no time in the ward, and I suspect at no time in his life before it, does he worry about how others see him. No, McMurphy approaches everyone in life and thinks, “I wonder what I’m going to think of them.” (May we all find our inner McMurphy in that regard.)

Second, McMurphy is a natural leader. It’s unequivocal. The novel gives many more examples than 2 hours of theater can permit, but he is a determined leader, and to his credit, once he pulls the leadership position to himself, he is a fiercely loyal and caring commander. The man genuinely loves his “troops”, and is willing, almost by instinct, to put himself in harm’s way to protect them. When he sees his new “squad” of inmates being abused and mistreated by hospital staff, McMurphy declares war. And when the Big Nurse keeps increasing the consequences for his disobedience, McMurphy weighs first the impact his acquiescence will have on his followers. In the end, he decides his own life matters less than ending the tyranny the men have had to endure. And though he ultimately pays for it with his life, his men find a measure of freedom that will never go away.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Camille Playhouse, May 2015

Another amazing attribute of McMurphy’s leadership is his skill at giving each member of his new “family” exactly what they need to develop. As General George Patton once said, a true leader goes to his men where they are; he doesn’t expect them to come back to headquarters. McMurphy does exactly that. He is always the one approaching a character in retreat, probing what the issues are, how he can help, and giving the occasional pat on the shoulder or kick in the pants (whichever that character needed more). McMurphy instinctively knows how each man will respond best, and what each one needs to see and hear to grow. His leadership style is extremely effective, even if the battles he charges into aren’t always the best decisions.

Finally, there is a strong parallel in the character of McMurphy to that of Jesus Christ. I’m certain, as I’ve read the novel and now portrayed him, there are multitudes of allegories to the Christian story, and not just the greater one of self-sacrifice.

For instance, in the novel, the ward is McMurphy plus 12 inmates. Jesus had his 12 disciples. McMurphy gets the mute to talk (and also, in the Chief, the “deaf” to hear), the stutterer to speak calmly, the coward to stand tall. Like Jesus, McMurphy shows immediate disdain for rules and authority that govern the lives of others when those rules are not compassionate and unfair. His electro-shock therapy references the Bible repeatedly: McMurphy asks if he gets a “crown of thorns”, and mentions that the nurse’s aid “annointeth my head with conductant”. He leads a rebellion against the current powers that be to its awful conclusion, where he is finally sacrificed. And yet, through his sacrifice, the other inmates find healing and freedom.

I want to write some final thoughts on this character after our last weekend. Stay tuned for one more on this character.

March 8

Creating a character – Jesus of Nazareth, part 2

I thought I would have much more time before the shooting of the first of six episodes of the Christian mini-series, to flesh out a convincing and authentic portrayal of Jesus. We weren’t supposed to begin filming until late May. However, Episode 2 features a mostly-college-aged cast, and spring break is this coming week (March 9), so the producers asked if we could shoot that episode out of order, and very quickly.

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It always bothers me a great deal if a performance is approaching and I still don’t feel like I know the character well.   I don’t mean, as a believer, that I don’t know who Jesus is. I mean, as an actor, I don’t yet know how to feel like Jesus. It’s bothering me. The last thing I ever want to do is waste an acting opportunity by just “phoning it in”.

My wife said today, she could see the familiar distracted, serious, faraway look in my eyes while we were having lunch today. And I’ll admit – I put off much of my character preparation because I thought I’d have much more time.

This experience has spawned a new mantra for me as an actor – one that is so obvious, I’m embarrassed I didn’t fully appreciate it before now:

Get the work done. Right now.

I have known since January that I would be playing Jesus, and except for the beginnings of my beard and growing out what’s left of my hair, I had not done much in terms of line memorization or real characterization until last week. Acting is not (yet) my full-time job, and it’s been a very busy couple of months for me, away from this project.

So how do we find a character in really short order? How do we portray incredible strength and power (a pretty easy task for most actors), balanced with overwhelming love and grace? Do I just caricature this thing? I sincerely hope not, but I’m getting nervous to step into the life of a character I don’t feel I can ever properly understand. Of course, at the end of the day, an actor takes direction and delivers what is needed, but for me, the safety of a good performance comes from me, the actor, knowing and fully understanding the character mulling around inside of me.

Like I did in my preparation to play Leroy Jessup in Bad Seed, I’m going to answer my 6 fundamental questions briefly in this post, as they pertain to the character of Jesus Christ (played in the modern world).

1) What’s on the page?

Because Jesus is so widely known, no physical description or personality traits are given in the three scripts I have so far. I’ve been given a basic “look” and “feel” from the director, so I’ve had to go with that. So far, I know that the Jesus he wants portrayed is calm, smiles a lot, shows sadness and real emotion, and yet is still completely in control. That’s incredibly hard to pull off convincingly.

2) What does the action reveal?

Jesus himself does not undergo any change in personality or alteration by his experiences in these episodes. He is quintessentially a supporting part, because he is there to affect the leads in the most profound way imaginable. The action of the episodes reveals very little about who he is, and he is unchanged at the end.

Actually, on reflection, I think the action of the play does reveal a lot about Jesus. In each episode, a main character is undergoing a crisis that amounts to a pivotal point in their lives. At that precise moment, Jesus appears. He offers comfort, challenge, and finally, an invitation to accept or reject him. But even if the person is a drug addict, or a cynical doctor, or a kid about to commit suicide, they are all worthy of his personal love and attention. He agonizes for their pain. He wants to calm their torment. He wants nothing more than for each person who encounters him to embrace what he offers – an eternal life ultimately, but first, a chance for peace and clarity, and purpose in this life.

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So there is actually a lot to work with. This is a good example of why an actor must continually probe his character, looking for that one often hard-to-find opening to get inside the skin of the character and realize his or her motivations.

So what is Jesus’ motivation? Love. Unconditional love. And as I write this, I now understand the meaning of this series much more deeply. Heck, it’s even called “Unconditional Love”. And all this time, I had missed the meaning.

3. How does the character see the world?

In Christianity, Jesus is omniscient and omnipresent. He was part of the Godhead from the beginning; he “is, was and always will be”. Because he can see the world in an instant, and peer into the hearts of everyone, Jesus sees the world not as a good place, but rather, a lost place. And because man was created, in the Judeo-Christian worldview, in God’s image and likeness, a fallen, wicked man is a tragedy for Jesus to behold. So much potential, lost. So many souls forever separated from their Creator, solely because of sin. Jesus is saddened by the world he sees before him – there is no redemption for man, except by his own sacrifice.

I don’t mean to make this a theological discussion, or a call to say the sinner’s prayer (but if it leads you to do so, it’ll be the best thing you ever did). I just want to see and feel the world, in my own limited way, the way Jesus would see it.

I think the ultimate thing Jesus would always feel and say with his eyes, smile, and attitude is simply: “I love you.” That will be the message I continually tell myself to feel as an actor in every scene. No matter who the other character, or what the circumstances, the bottom line is always: “I love you. So much I’d die for you. So much I did die for you.”

4. What are his circumstances?

Circumstances generally mean the character’s back story, but also where they were in the moments before the audience first sees them. In each episode, the circumstances for Jesus are similar. Jesus arrives just as the episode’s lead is reaching a crisis point in their life, and in two of the first three episodes, he vanishes as the scene concludes.  He’s still very much “magical” in the sense that he arrives from Heaven and returns to it. He doesn’t knock on a literal door – he’s just suddenly there. So from a technical perspective, it’s pretty simple- he’s not going to feel hot or cold, or tired, or hungry, or distracted by other events. He’s 100% there, in the present moment, to rescue a lost soul if they will let him.

As I reflect on it, it is amazingly daunting to find, in my own limitations, the scope and size to play someone like Jesus. Nothing surprises him; he sees all things. Nothing startles him. Nothing provokes fear, or hatred, or rage. He is first and foremost, loving. He grieves at the state of humanity. He wants nothing more than to be part of our lives. He acts always first out of love, even when he must shake up a character to get their attention. He is all-powerful, but uses it gently and with great care and sincerity.

5. What can I relate to?

The closest thing I can come to understanding a character like Jesus, who could do anything to anyone, but loves the world so much as to willingly die a horrific and excruciating death for all of us, is to remind myself of my own children. I love my children with as close to an unconditional love as I believe a human is capable of feeling, and I would willingly die in their place. As an actor, that is something I must draw upon in every situation in which Jesus intervenes. Love – unflinching, unending, unapologetic love. Who knew loving people could be such an intimidating thing to portray?

(Actually, Jesus did, when he said that the greatest of all commandments was to love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself. He said it was the greatest commandment, I believe, for two reasons. First, if you love God with all your heart, you won’t break the first five commandments, and second, if you sincerely love your fellow man, you won’t break the other five.)

I can also relate to a strong desire to help others in times of need. When you see someone else struggling with a difficult circumstance in life, it is natural to find empathy and want to help that person. As a believer, I believe that the desire to come to the aid of another is a remnant of our creator inside us. It’s evidence for the existence of God. That will be an easy emotional reservoir to draw upon.

6. Decide and (almost) set it in stone.

So, at least for Episode 2, about to begin filming in 4 days, here is what I must portray:

  • Jesus is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving. There is simply no other way to portray him.
  • His purpose in each episode is to reach the heart of each lead character, and he does that a variety of ways – through intellectualism, through allowing them to vent anger, to boldly asserting his wish for them to embrace the life he wants them to have. He is unafraid of what he says. He doesn’t equivocate. He means what he says.
  • The purpose of this series is, of course, to reach “real” lost souls and introduce them to Jesus. This is not lost on me, either. If we do our jobs correctly, this series should be a way to reach troubled people and show them a way not only to eternal salvation in the Christian faith, but a better way to live in the here and now.

Even after this episode, there is a lot more to go, and I’m sure the character of Jesus will become richer and stronger with more time. Part 3 will be written upon completion of shooting of Episode 2 this week.