Creating a Character, Part I – Leroy Jessup
It’s been 24 years since I was last on stage. Recently I decided that was far too long, and auditioned for a small part in my local community theater, the much celebrated Camille Playhouse in Brownsville, TX. There were a couple of small parts I thought wouldn’t require much effort or time on my part (in my “day job” I’m a financial advisor).
The play is Bad Seed, the mid-1950’s Broadway hit about a little girl who is much more than she appears to be. In fact, little Rhoda Penmark is a serial killer and one very nasty little creature. The play discusses the role of nature vs. nurture in the construct of a person’s character: can someone “inherit” evil?
I thought I’d audition for the part of Rhoda’s father, Colonel Penmark, described only as straight-laced, good looking, and very loving. Easy enough a part, I thought, being so naturally all three. Plus, he’s only in two scenes. So even though it had been a long time since I stepped out in front of an audience, it’d be a cake walk.
I auditioned for the very fun director at Camille, Eric Vera, and then we discussed a few of the other roles in the play, including the one male role that certainly has the most impact on the plot, a janitor named Leroy Jessup.
Leroy, I told Eric, would be a challenge for me to figure out. He’s described as having the mind of an eight year old child, and that’s about it. Yet throughout the play, Leroy serves as little Rhoda’s nemesis; he’s almost as dark and conniving as she is. There’s a definite “ick” factor to Leroy, who is lazy and acts impulsively and spends a little too much time thinking about the females in the play, including little eight-year-old Rhoda. And even though Leroy is supposed to be basically an imbecile, he’s the only one who clearly and immediately see Rhoda for what she really is, and is slick enough to trick her into revealing her evil deeds.
In short, I went in to audition for the simplest character I could find, as the easy way to resurrect my acting career. I walked out with the task of portraying one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever played.
What will follow in this post is part internal monologue, and part character study. It is how I go through the process of bringing a character to life; how I make him “real” to me. I believe that if I as the actor don’t utterly believe in this person who inhabits my body for the duration of a play, you as the audience will never believe he’s real. It starts and ends with how much I believe in him. If I believe in him, then you have no choice.
I always found it helpful to write about the characters I play, as if I am his therapist as well as his creator. But I also have to be a bit of a detective – who is this guy? What makes him tick? What is his motivation for taking every action the audience will observe? What is it about this man’s life that I have to discover first, so that the moment he steps in front of the audience, his “life” seems perfectly natural?
Certainly the character whispers many of his secrets to you from the pages, and a good playwright can make an actor’s job incredibly easy if the character is vividly described and written with great care. And although the “Bad Seed” script is excellent, Leroy was left very blank.
My process looks like this:
1) What’s on the page: what does the playwright tell me? What’s been gifted to me by this character’s creator?
2) What the play reveals: what is the character going to discover about himself? How does the action of the play change him?
3) How he sees his world: what does his interaction with the other characters tell me? Where does he live?
4) What are his circumstances: what kind of a background would lead the character to that moment in his life that we will see on stage? What’s his life story?
5) What can I relate to? What can I bring from my own life experience to add “meat’ to this person? How can I find synergy between us? How can I care about him enough to play him as a real human being?
6) Decide and set it (almost) in stone. Although I make my final decisions about a character’s life and circumstances before the action of the play, the interactions within the chemistry of the ensemble often changes my characters subtly during performance. They are occasionally different each night of a production if the cast chemistry changes.
I’ll create this character in a series of posts throughout the rehearsal process. Stay tuned!