Creating a Character, Part 2 – Leroy Jessup

Sometimes finding a character is an almost immediate occurrence – the playwright either gives you so much detail that it is impossible to not see a character the way it was written (Stephen King comes to mind). Other times, there have been so many performances of the character by others that you have a wide range of ideas from which to draw.

I’ve always liked to see other performances of my character if I can. Our play’s director advised the cast against it, for the most important reason so many actors and directors avoid seeing other performances, as well: whether you mean to or not, you run the risk of simply imitating the other performance.

That’s not been my issue. Instead, I tend to want to just see this person living and breathing via another performance, to get my mind around him, and to see what kinds of decisions the other actors made.

In the case of Leroy, the role’s originator was noted stage actor Henry Jones. Jones, like most of the film’s cast, first played Leroy on Broadway, and was asked to play him again in the film. As such, Jones’ film performance shows strong stage presence, but looks a little overdone for cinema. But it’s a great place to start.

So for the first part of my character development process, I want to take what I know about the character from the script, and also from the work Jones did.

Here’s what I know so far, from the script and this one other performance:

1) Leroy is described as having the mind of an 8-year-old, but that’s only by a character who spends the first half of the play thinking she’s an expert psychoanalyst (Monica Breedlove). In fact, Breedlove launches into an excessive and bizarre tirade about Leroy in the first scene, in which she calls him nearly everything in the medical dictionary. So the IQ issue is really only one character’s opinion. Sure, he is written to be either lower class or lower intellect, as his lines are full of slang and outdated imagery, but he’s not specifically mentioned to be an idiot, and Henry Jones’ performance seems to concur with me. Leroy is no Forrest Gump.

2) Leroy is a bully. He’s surly and acts petulantly, in some ways like a child. He’s most likely emotionally stunted more than he is intellectually stunted, since he is the only character to see little Rhoda for what she is. She’s also the only one he can relate to. The other characters (all adults) ignore or demean Leroy, and he tries hard to avoid serious conversation with any of them. Yet he seeks out opportunities to engage Rhoda. He bullies Rhoda; it’s likely his only real sense of power or authority at all.

3) The script mentions that he has “somehow made a family” in spite of his other shortcomings, so we know Leroy is married and has at least one child.

4) Leroy is unambitious and often lazy.He does his job, but not to the best of his ability, and not more than what is expected. He sleeps in a bed he made from excelsior (old packing material) in the garage of the building where he works, while he is supposed to be working. (This is ultimately the source of his demise.) Lazy people generally don’t worry about posture or putting on appearances, so I would assume he’s also sloppy in his dress, manners, and carriage. He wouldn’t likely worry if he showered every day.

5) Leroy speaks of a few of the relationships he has with other characters, that I as the actor have to keep in mind. For Monica Breedlove, his haughty employer, he has utter contempt. He loathes her. He has an odd line about Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother, in Act I, Scene 1, where he calls her “trough-fed” and says she “doesn’t get enough of what she needs”, and then tells himself boastfully that he could be the one to “give it to her”. (This leads me to believe he sees Christine as a bit spoiled, uppity, and sexually frustrated, as Colonel Penmark is mentioned as always being away for weeks or months at a time.)

And then there is Rhoda, whom Leroy immediately senses is “damn smart”, but also says that they “see through” each other. He keeps drawing parallels between himself and Rhoda in terms of both their smarts and their meanness, and how they both “get away with things”.

The rest of the characters he doesn’t interact with.

6) Leroy seems to have some anger issues and doesn’t like repetitive noises. In the first scene, he purposely wets Rhoda’s tap shoes and then drops a wet sponge onto Christine. He later mentions to Rhoda that he wet the shoes because they were always tap-tap-tapping and he didn’t like it. In a later scene, Leroy enters a room alone where a phone is ringing, and because it wasn’t picked up, he goes over to it, picks it up, and slams the receiver back down to stop the ringing.

Quick aside: Leroy also has the most unusual characteristic of announcing himself every time he enters the room. My assumption is that the “help” was expected to announce himself before he entered, most likely a rule laid down by the very proper, aristocratic, southern Monica Breedlove. Because Leroy hates Mrs. Breedlove, he follows the rule but would do so in a very half-assed way.

Night three of rehearsals is tonight. I’ll be updating before the weekend on the decisions I’ve made as an actor on his background story, appearance, and motivations.

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