Creating a Character, Part 5 – Leroy Jessup

One sentence can change everything.


Yesterday, we concluded the first three performances of Bad Seed. We have three more to go.

As I mentioned in Part 4 about creating this character, I realized only after witnessing an audience’s reaction to Leroy, that he was a little too dark. His sinister and brooding attitude had surpassed our real villain, Rhoda, and he had become unsympathetic. While an actor can give that kind of performance when called for (I can’t imagine someone trying to make Jeffrey Dahmer pitiable, for instance), in this case, I had overplayed his dark side a little too much. It was important for me to correct this, because Leroy isn’t evil; he’s a creep, but he isn’t a killer. Rhoda is.

For Leroy to be successful as a character, he needs to be villainy but human at some level. He’s more than a simple plot device. He has to be the audience’s moral outrage once the truth is discovered, and as he pays a horrific price for crossing Rhoda later on, he has to be in some way someone the audience can feel something for.

Luckily, if you are attuned to the audience, you can tell when something plays differently than you intended it. My epiphany came during the very first scene, in which Leroy is alone on stage, giving a brief monologue to himself about the two women and Rhoda. His first lines are:

“That know-it-all, Monica Breedlove. She don’t think nobody knows anything but her. I’ll show that bitch plenty.”

When I read this initially, and again in rehearsal, it was as a man smoldering with resentment because he had, once again, been scolded and lectured by her earlier in the scene. So I read it with seething bitterness. All was well, I thought.

But when I said that last sentence as a fuming, angry man, I actually heard the audience gasp slightly, and then immediately chill toward him.

At no other time in the play was the audience on Leroy’s side, after that line. Leroy’s funnier lines were met with almost no reaction. His death didn’t evoke any pity. And my reception as the actor was definitely muted at the curtain call.

The following morning, the almost hostile reaction to Leroy really bothered me. I could pinpoint the moment where they turned against him, but I couldn’t figure out how to correct it. At least not at first.

My wife knew I was distracted all morning, and asked what was up. We’ve been married so long, I couldn’t lie to her anyway, so I told her I was working out a character problem from the previous night’s performance. She hadn’t seen the play yet (she and my kids were going that night), so I gave her a quick synopsis of the first scene and told her I knew that there was something I was doing that turned the audience against Leroy.

She said, “Well, he’s a bad guy, right?” To which I replied, “No, Rhoda’s the “bad guy”. Leroy’s creepy, but he’s not the villain.” We talked briefly about other characters who were bad, but you liked them anyway: Darth Vader, Scar, Hannibal Lecter.

I explained that what was missing was some glimmer that I as the actor was having fun playing Leroy. I was missing that very subtle “wink” at the audience, that I’m just playing a role; that I’m just a tad self-aware of how he comes across.

She asked me to deliver the line I knew caused the audience’s hostility, and when I did, she also recoiled, just as they had. She told me the line, “I’ll show that bitch plenty,” said the way I was performing it, was a direct, serious, and imminent threat against a character that was already well-liked by the audience. She said Leroy sounded like a rapist, or worse.

So I knew now what my problem was: a single sentence, said in a way that made this guy a really nasty person. Said differently, it might change the entire character in a way that would not only put Leroy back in the right place in terms of the plot, but also add just a touch of humanity to him.

Could it be that easy? I decided to try it out on the Saturday night performance. When the time came for that line, I decided instead of being ominous, I would have Leroy say it in a boastful way, like he was gloating a little. Immediately I felt a difference from the audience. They didn’t laugh at the line (nor should they), but the air didn’t chill and the gazes didn’t become glares. The rest of the monologue got a little laughter, actually, and the applause at blackout was much warmer.

In later scenes, Leroy is having his fun tormenting Rhoda, and this time, the audience was enjoying it, too. They liked seeing these characters sparring, and Leroy’s death was much more serious and scary to them this time.

After the show, the cast formed a reception line to thank the attendees as they exited the theater. This time, it was completely different. Lots of people stopped to say they thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

I decided to finish refining that monologue one more time during the Sunday matinee. This time, I had Leroy start out angry at Monica Breedlove, but then begin to snicker a little at his naughty thoughts about the two women, and brag a bit more. The audience laughed with him this time. I knew I had won them over to Leroy’s side, and that was confirmed by the much warmer reaction throughout the play, laughter at the right places, and louder applause. In the reception line, there was significant interaction with the attendees this time, with many heaping praise on the character and the work. It was an entirely different experience from the first night, and it was a single sentence, spoken differently, that turned Leroy back into a character you love to hate.

I’ll post one final entry on this character once the show’s run is concluded. Stay tuned!

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