Creating a Character, Part 6 – Leroy Jessup
Two weeks ago, we wrapped production of Bad Seed, and I wanted to share a brief post about the character, now that I’m looking back at the work in retrospect.
Feedback from cast and audience members gave me the following few insights:
1) My Leroy was very different than the character portrayed by Henry Jones in the film. He was also very different than what the director had originally envisioned. But he worked – really well.
My take on Leroy was that he was not an idiot, nor was he a very angry man. Leroy was, for lack of any better descriptive, a loser.
It’s true I had to remove some of his fiercest anger in his first scene in order to properly attenuate his role to the audience; that was an immediate decision after the first night’s performance. Leroy came across as a little too dark – too much of a “heavy”- instead of an antihero, which is what I believe he ultimately is. Leroy identified the true evil in Rhoda, engaged it, and did battle with it. His outrage was our outrage; his confrontations with Rhoda were the closest the audience gets to telling her what we think of her. The audience never gets another chance to push back against the evil Rhoda represents, except through Leroy.
And yet, there is still a pall of unease around him. He’s a creepy guy. He’s a bully. He’s a bastard. But in the end, he’s our bully. He’s our bastard. As the main protagonist and the building’s janitor, he has to do the dirty work, both literally and figuratively, throughout the course of the play. He has to confront Rhoda, and does so, not because he sees himself as morally above her, but because he sees in her a lot of what he sees in himself. He badgers and bullies her until he realizes too late that she is capable of worse, much worse, than even his dark soul can handle. And, once he realizes he’s woken a monster and stands exposed, he’s our own shock and indignation. Like us, Leroy is a sinner. Rhoda, though, is a demon.
2) My Leroy was certifiably creepy, and some of that transferred on to what the audience thought of me as an actor.
What might mark the difference between a lead actor and a character actor, is the level of willingness each has to being seen as ugly and unlovable. Generally, lead characters are noble and have events transpire upon them, that affects them (and our view of them) in various ways. In fact, watching a lead character undergo changes from the conflict of the play is the entire purpose of theater. The main character gets to learn and grow from the experience.
In contrast, supporting characters typically do not get transformed by the experience. They often provoke the changes in the main character, and are seldom different at the end than they were when we first meet them.
Not every actor is willing to let him or herself be presented in an unflattering way. That’s both the curse and calling of a huge number of actors out there – the driving needs of their vanity. The rush of applause. The silent reverence of an enthralled audience. The deep appreciation our society has for those in the arts (too much appreciation, but that’s a story for later).
In order to play a character like Leroy, an actor has to be willing to dig up and present ugly parts of himself. He must be willing to let an audience grow to dislike his character. He must be willing to stand in the shadows while the lead in the play be given the moments to shine, both in the script and by the director’s decisions. Not every actor is willing to be ugly or small or petty in front of an audience.
Yet, to play a character like Leroy successfully, that’s exactly what you have to do. He’s not pretty; far from it. To let him live authentically, I had to lay aside my own actor’s ego, and allow him to be ugly and nasty and scheming, and more. Where most of the cast applied makeup, donned beautiful costumes, and put their best faces forward (as their characters would in the south of the 1950’s), Leroy had to be far less appealing than that. I had days of beard growth and overalls, and at one point, just a plain white Fruit of the Loom undershirt. But that was it. I decided to let my now very thin hair stand on its own without trying to cover or hide it. I decided to let Leroy be the most “real” and human character on the stage, both in appearance and in temperament.
This was basically a first for me, because in my previous roles, I was usually cast as the lead. When given the role of Leroy, I immediately understood that my place was not to try to stand out, but to allow the other characters to do so. Leroy was functionally the “help”; and that’s the attitude I went in with as an actor. If I did Leroy correctly, then Rhoda would be the true villain, Monica would be the funny one, and Tasker would be the engaging one.
3) My decision after the first night’s performance, to mute some of Leroy’s darkest thoughts, was the right one.
From the second night to the end, Leroy’s delivery of certain lines resonated far better with the audience after I made the decision to modify my delivery of one of his lines (see the previous post on this character). Every night after the first, Leroy got an appropriate level of uneasy laughter at the right places (mentioning that they have a pink electric chair for little girls), etc.
This was a decision I’m glad to have had, and be able to document.
4) Unexpected lessons are always waiting to be learned, and as an actor, discipline matters.
The final two performances were of particular challenge for me, not so much from a technical or skill perspective, but as an exercise in personal discipline.
For a couple of months prior to the show, my daughter, who is 16, had been experiencing progressively worsening headaches. My wife believed they were hormonal, as she had also experienced headaches as a teenage girl. But only a couple of hours before the final Saturday night performance, we received shocking news. During a routine eye exam for glasses, the doctor told us she saw that my daughter had swollen optical disks and was hemorrhaging in both eyes. The most likely cause of this was a brain tumor, but even if it was not cancer, left untreated, the doctor said, the odds were good it would result in blindness. Not wanting to waste any time, my wife and I decided she needed to be seen immediately.
This is one of those moments when the trite words, “the show must go on,” really meant something. As I stood there, trying to absorb this devastating news, it occurred to me that the next performance was in two hours, and I had no choice but to go to the theater. I had no understudy. They could not do the show without Leroy. So, I left for the play, while my wife took my daughter to an emergency room at a nearby hospital.
It was one of the hardest few hours of my life. My wife and I texted back and forth while I was backstage, her keeping me informed about events, but I can tell you, it took everything in my power to stay in the moment, and deliver the performance I was expected to. I felt like I had been punched in the face and walked around in a daze, but, like they say, “the show must go on.”
Before the performance started that night, my wife texted that my daughter was being taken for a CT scan, and I didn’t get any update until intermission. Thankfully, the news was as good as we could hope for – the CT scan showed nothing abnormal in the brain. I was able to perform the second act with a sigh of relief and quick prayer of thanks to God, that my little girl wasn’t facing brain cancer. Her condition remained, but the nightmare every parent fears was not to be.
I write this as an aside to young professionals in any field, not just actors: Shit happens. Deal with it. The show must go on. Acting is a profession like any other. And like any profession, it is easy to find reasons to take us out of the moment, to not perform our best, or to quit long before we should. Yet at the end of the day, all we’ve done is hurt ourselves and those around us. I haven’t had a long career as an actor today because I let life circumstances derail my dreams. This time, 20 years later, as I try again, I decided to push through. Learn that lesson as early in life as you can.
Yes, we were scared of what news may come, but I was powerless to do anything but wait. I needed to pull myself back and get busy with the task at hand. It wasn’t easy, but it was my job.
As for my daughter, her tests and diagnosis continues, even as I write this today. We spent my birthday (Friday) and most of Saturday in the hospital while my daughter endured two lumbar punctures. An MRI and MRV are still pending as they determine what is causing her spinal fluid pressure to be so high. Your kind thoughts and prayers are appreciated as my girl battles back from a very rare and dangerous condition.
Anyway, to close, I have written thousands more words on this character than he ever had written for him in the play, so I’ll likely close my writing on Leroy. Only let me conclude with this: playing Leroy was a marvelous way to rekindle my love affair with the theater, and I’m so grateful to the cast and crew for the opportunity to do good work with talented people. My love and thanks!
The cast of Bad Seed, Camille Playhouse, October 2014.