Creating a Character – Randle P. McMurphy, Part 1
Concurrent with my work on the “Unconditional Love” series, I was also cast as the lead in the Camille Playhouse’s last show of this season, the highly celebrated play One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I will be filming two to three episodes of the mini-series, and performing the six-night run of Cuckoo’s Nest within the same 3 or 4 week period this May.
Even though it was originally played by Kirk Douglas in the Broadway production, this role made the career of Jack Nicholson in the film version in 1974, who won the Oscar for it (as did Louise Fletcher, who will forever be remembered as Nurse Ratched). Overall it won all 5 of the “big” Oscars, and although it had a stellar cast overall, it’s so iconic and so inextricably tied to Nicholson, that many actors who now play the role either try to somehow recapture “Jack” in their portrayals, or else try to deviate so far from him that it draws the comparison anyway (by means of contrast).
To take on this role, however, I’m making myself one rule: I cannot watch any previous version of this production before I perform it. I don’t want to try to differ from Nicholson any more than I want to imitate him. Instead, I just want the character to speak to me as an actor, and use my own life experiences as the catalyst for McMurphy’s motivations and demeanor.
At first I wondered how I was going to keep the characters I am playing, literally one then the other, then back again, separated. To my surprise, McMurphy doesn’t contrast as much as he complements some of the other character work I’m doing. He isn’t actually too difficult to get my mind around.
In many ways, he is remarkably similar to Leroy Jenkins in Bad Seed, the last stage role I played. Both are pretending to be something they aren’t. Both are uneducated and prone to bully. Both can see their nemesis’ true colors clearly, though others cannot. Both enjoy tormenting the story’s “bad guy”, in what they think is a sort of game, only to find out they grossly underestimated their opponents; both times, with fatal consequences.
There is also amazing parallels between McMurphy and my other current character, Jesus of Nazareth. Both are willing to take on corruption and abusive leadership. Both have pity on those less fortunate, although McMurphy’s ideas of how to liberate his charges are certainly profane compared to Christ’s. Both are punished for their rebellion against the rules and the established order, and ultimately, both are sacrificed for it. Whereas my portrayal of Jesus tended to be stoic and reserved in the first episode we’ve filmed so far, I think that playing Jesus alongside with McMurphy may help me to give more passion to my portrayal of Jesus, and Jesus may bring more of a sense of compassion to McMurphy.
One of the things I’ve been made aware of in my first outing as Jesus was that I felt very emotionally inhibited. I kept telling myself it was the nature of the character – otherworldly, omniscient, all-powerful but also all-loving. I felt Jesus would be very calm and soft in his manner, and the director definitely wanted more warmth and light-heartedness than I expected to portray. So, I’ve realized that I need to work on being able to summon emotion more quickly and more authentically than I had been feeling it. Playing a rowdy, gregarious, defiant “leader” in Cuckoo’s Nest will require me to be able to really reach deep into my old emotional reserves, which can only help my portrayal of Jesus. In other words, these might seem like the most odd mix of characters to play concurrently, but they each may actually do much to enrich my performance of the other.
First order of business is memorization. We don’t rehearse as a cast until April 20. I will also work out my normal personal Q&A for McMurphy’s character development. One other issue that came up while reading the script is seeing that McMurphy has an almost-naked scene. I’m not in terrible shape, especially for a guy my age, but I now have the added task of getting in a little better shape to be seen standing on stage in bright light in nothing but my underwear.
Stay tuned as these two roles twist and mingle together.