Creating a Character, Part 3 – Leroy Jessup

badseed24We had a couple of good rehearsals since the last post, finally getting to one of two major “Leroy vs. Rhoda” scenes. In the first, you finally get to see just how creepy Leroy really is, but also how perceptive and “on target” he is regarding Rhoda’s involvement in the death of the boy at their school picnic.

This scene helped me to make a lot of decisions as an actor, and see if those decisions would “play” against the performance of Rhoda. I think we’re on track to a couple of really intense scenes, in large part due to the amazing talents of the little girl who is playing Rhoda. There is a lot of stigma in the theater about working with child actors; they are either very difficult to work with- especially the very young ones – or they just aren’t yet able to make certain character motivations ring with enough truth. When you find a good one, they stand out quickly – think of Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning. Whenever you forget you are watching an actor in a role, that’s a good performance. But whenever you forget you are watching a child actor in a role, that’s simply amazing.

Anyway, this young lady will be a lot of fun to watch grow as an actor.

In this scene, Leroy, who is already suspicious because of Rhoda’s obvious lack of empathy for the death of a classmate, decides to put out a little bit of theory that Rhoda in fact, killed the boy. But he does it in a taunting way that smacks of immaturity and a bit of a dark side himself. He enjoys immensely that he has this very smart girl figured out, and sets about to provoke her until she gives something away.

The next scene, one we are finally blocking and rehearsing tonight, is where Leroy’s theory is fully confirmed, and gives the audience a full dose of how nasty little Rhoda really is, but this scene is an obvious tension-builder and moves the Rhoda storyline along more than anything that’s happened so far.

Many of my decisions about Leroy came after I finally read him in the theater, against our Rhoda actress. It played well to see him leering, relishing his taunts, invading her space. The delivery was slower and more calculating and far more menacing than I expected at first. It’s in far contrast to the original portrayal by Henry Jones. (Hey, at least I won’t be accused of imitating.)

In my first post on this character, I listed 6 questions I always ask myself in preparation for a role. I answered the first two in detail in the second post. Here’s a quick review so far:

1) What’s in the script – very little other than he’s definitely southern, uneducated, lazy, has a family. Is not very likable and is kept on as an employee mostly because the landlady pities him. One character says he has the mind of an 8 year-old, but she’s 100% wrong about Rhoda, and mis-diagnoses everyone around her to such a degree, that I chose to just let her underestimate Leroy, like she does everyone else.

2) What the play reveals – he’s far more cunning than he lets on. He sees Rhoda’s dark side because, he reveals, he also has a dark side. He later underestimates her and becomes afraid of her after “poking the bear” one time too many.

The remaining answers to the questions in my character study are really a combination of decisions I make as an actor, and how the character finally interacts with the other characters in this specific production. For example, I could choose to make Leroy an actual low-functioning individual, but it wouldn’t provide (my opinion) enough motivation for his constant needling of our Rhoda, who herself is still playing Rhoda as more girlish than serial killer. Someone like Forrest Gump wouldn’t relish tormenting a little girl, but a creepy bastard would.

So let’s tackle questions 3 and 4 today:

3) How does he see the world? What is his life story?

I decided Leroy is either separated or divorced from his wife and lives apart from his family. He has to support them still, which is probably why he works at all. But he hates his job and the people around him. He’s very much a loner. There is almost certainly an emotional immaturity to him, for him to relate best of all to the youngest person around him. Leroy is looked down upon, with pity as well as scorn (mostly due to his surliness), and the adults in the room never speak to him except to either scold him or give him orders. Even Rhoda sees this man as beneath her attention, until he picks up on the right “hot buttons”. Then he pounds on them over and over with a bit of sadistic glee.

A rough-and-tumble boy, Leroy likely peaked in some endeavor way back in grade school, and since then his life has been one bitter disappointment after another. I decided that he’s tried his hand at a variety of jobs and failed out of most because he felt they were beneath him. It’s the same reason his marriage failed – he felt it should just come easy without any effort on his part. Leroy feels important and believes he’s smarter than most people, and shouldn’t have to prove himself to get ahead in life. Think of a college educated person who remains in a $10.00 call center job, huffing constantly that they never get promoted out of some kind of prejudice on the part of the employer, taking no responsibility for their own life or initiative to better their situation. Why can’t people just see how smart he is?

Because I’m pretty physically built and stand 6’1″, I tower over most of the rest of the cast, especially little Rhoda. To stay in shape at age 42, I have to work out and weight train 4 to 5 days a week, which I have done for years. There is no way Leroy would have that kind of discipline, so my decision is that Leroy WAS once in much better physical shape, likely from football in school (it’s the south, after all), and a long stint in the army during WW2. This would put my character’s age at roughly 35, based on the play’s setting in the mid 1950’s.

The military decision was key: Because he’s seen combat as a foot soldier, that’s where he got a lot of his anger and exposure to evil. He’s seen bad soldiers, war crimes, and Nazi atrocities up close. He came home a very dark, bitter, depressed man. I believe he married his high school sweetie after the war, but it didn’t last even five years. He was too changed, too unambitious, too detached from the world around him. Now, he just exists.

(That is a lot of exposition, but it gives me something to “anchor” my portrayal to. Now instead of just a dim-witted janitor who happens to be surly and stumbles upon the real story behind the little boy’s death, Leroy is a much deeper character who has seen so much in his past that he immediately recognizes those traits in Rhoda. It also helps me answer question 5, which I will in the next post.)

4) What are the character’s current circumstances? 

He lives day-to-day in a meager, soul-less existence. Most of his pay goes toward supporting his estranged family. He lives in a squalid apartment off-site from the building he works at. He’s already given up on ever really finding a woman again, though he definitely thinks about it. His own wife has since remarried.

He’s attracted to Christine Penmark, Rhoda’s mother, but thinks about sex with her in demeaning ways – he thinks she’s uptight, too “uppity” and needs a little more dirty action. He’s not romantically attracted – he doesn’t like her. He would just like to, for lack of a better phrase, “hit that”. The fact that he’s thinking about violating an army Colonel’s wife is all that much more fun for him after his years in the service.

His work is boring to him and he does it poorly. He is sarcastic and disrespectful to his employers (as he was in the army, to the degree he could get away with it). He thinks the world is out to hold him down, and so he constantly has a chip on his shoulder.

I am making the decision that Leroy knows the grounds and building really well, enough to know its hiding places and how he can get away without working (but make it look like he is). I think he’d pocket anything valuable he found if he could get away with it. He certainly feels no loyalty to his employers.

I also decided that he will be entering scenes after coming from other apartments, in his own little world, lost in thought, going through the motions. That will give my entrances a low-key, almost insignificant feel.

The one thing that suddenly gives him a spark in his otherwise dull existence is discovering that Rhoda is not what she appears to be. So he thinks on that a lot, watching her at play, fixating on her. Peeling back the onion. He loves to invade her space and poke at her. I think if the play was written in 2014, the writer could hint that Leroy is likely a pedophile, or at least has thought about it. I don’t want to take it to that level of creepy, so I made the decision that he has no interest in Rhoda beyond tormenting her. Finally, someone he can bully. He most definitely enjoys the power position in his relationship with Rhoda. It’s the only one he has in life.

Tonight, we rehearse the final scene between Leroy and Rhoda. This is one where he reveals he knows how she killed the little boy, and we get to see Rhoda go full-on evil once she realizes her secret is out. I’ll also be refining my previous thoughts, and answering the last two questions. Stay tuned!

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