Creating A Character, Part 4 – Leroy Jessup

 

 

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Opening night for Bad Seed was last night, to an audience of about 150. I hadn’t posted an update into creating this character until now, because I wanted to see how my choices played to an audience, and see what changes I would make (if any) for the remaining five shows.

Before I give the insights from audience reaction last night, let me first answer questions 5 and 6 from my original post on this character.

Question 5 is, what can I bring from my personal experiences to ground the character in real-life emotion and thinking, and in so doing, make his reactions and responses more believable? This took some work. Certainly, I am an acceptable age to play Leroy (I’m almost 43), and with that age comes a wide range of life experiences, both good and bad. I grew up very poor, spending several years in project housing, and did at times feel that people born into better economic conditions were either better, more blessed, or somehow superior to me. I sometimes heard the all-too-common populist nonsense in my home, that people who were better off than we were, were somehow crooked or devious. The assumption was always that the rich get rich by somehow screwing over the poor. It’s a mindset I’ve since overcome, and it’s one of the primary reasons I’m a financial advisor today, but sadly we see this same mentality so often in the protest movements of our own time.

So I drew upon that sense of lack, and the underlying resentment of it, as a definite cornerstone on which to build Leroy. He likely came from not much of anything, is isn’t likely going anywhere. He doesn’t really see himself as able to advance socially or economically, but he is definitely not contented with his lot in life. There is simmering resentment and anger in him.

That was actually easy for me to summon. Surprisingly so.

Also, like Leroy in many ways, I come from a largely blue-collar and hard-working ancestry. Although both sets of my grandparents owned their own businesses, they were not Fortune 500-type endeavors. My paternal grandparents labored for years running a string of service stations, a towing company, and an auto repair shop. I hardly remember my grandpa wearing anything but one of his company work uniforms, and he was up and out before dawn and came home, exhausted, just in time for supper. My other grandparents worked similarly difficult hours owning a bakery. My grandfather would get up at midnight to go in and make all the food for the day’s business, and then at 5 travel to his full-time job as a forklift operator for Coors. My grandmother would come in and run the bakery all day.

So, seeing myself for the first time in costume, in blue denim overalls with rolled-up shirt sleeves, I instantly remembered seeing (and now feeling) the hard work of my grandfathers coming through.

 

Question 6 is what I needed some time with the rest of my cast to figure out: how do my choices of character development actually work when you match this character up with the other people in his world? Does Leroy ring true in all situations?

I’ll be honest, I don’t know if he “works” at every moment. There is an early scene in which Leroy is first seen by the audience, that he becomes annoyed with Rhoda and purposely wets her shoes as he walks by. He’s caught by Rhoda’s mother and his employer, Mrs. Breedlove, and faces a dressing down by all three characters before being sent back to work. The end of that scene, he is seen alone on stage, seething with resentment at his treatment, commenting about each one, and showing only the slightest bit of respect for Rhoda. He sees Rhoda as “almost as smart as me”, but only because he and Rhoda can see through each other’s false fronts.

The remainder of his time on stage, Leroy interacts almost exclusively alone with Rhoda. In these scenes, he is finally alone with both his foil and his prey. Rhoda is the one person in Leroy’s world that he has some power over. I will add that in our production, that power and dominance was exaggerated in the physical sense, because I am 6’1″ and weight about 225, and our Rhoda is played by a very petite young girl. I tower over her in every sense of the word. I worried that I would be seen as too much of a bully, or too predatory, and that it wouldn’t ring true that he could actually grow to fear this little tempest in a teapot.

But luckily, our Rhoda actress (an extremely talented young lady), was up to the task of meeting Leroy head-on. Eventually. At first I think she was actually intimidated by me because I played Leroy as so strong and with such a creepy, bitter edge. But with some coaching and with the relaxation that comes with working together, she summoned her inner strength and met Leroy’s blather head-on.

I knew my job was to be almost as bad as Rhoda, but not quite. He could be smart, but not quite as smart as Rhoda; thuggish, but actually fearful of genuine evil when he saw it. The director and I agreed that Leroy should be someone the audience was supposed to not like, but would grow to root for over the course of the play.

That leads me to finish this post with a quick discussion of how this all played out to our first real audience.

The first thing that struck me was that the audience found the play far more humorous than any of us expected. Mrs. Breedlove started getting laughs just walking on stage. Her long-winded tirade at Leroy had the audience laughing. In my first monologue at the end of scene 1, I could actually feel the audience darken their attitudes toward him. He’s just coming across as such a bastard. And during the “battle” scenes between Leroy and Rhoda, even though she is showing so much evil, they loved seeing her put Leroy in his place.

So there was my first surprise – Leroy was someone the audience wanted to see lose. They actually wanted to see him get his in the end. I had created a character that was largely unsympathetic.

A final thought came during the curtain call and reception afterwards. The director decided to have me bow right before Rhoda’s mother and Rhoda did (basically making me the third “star” of the show), but the applause was polite but subdued. During the reception, I had several people come up and tell me the performance was “very good”, but very few wanted to stick around and talk to me. One young boy came up, very sheepishly (I was still in costume), and remarked about how nasty and evil Leroy was, and wanted to know a little about acting, but that was it. I didn’t take from anyone that they didn’t like the performance – it was more that how could I be a nice guy to talk to, after what they had just seen.

I’ll post again after the remaining five performances, just to update on any changes that were made, or on different audience reactions.

 

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.

Creating a Character, Part I – Leroy Jessup

It’s been 24 years since I was last on stage. Recently I decided that was far too long, and auditioned for a small part in my local community theater, the much celebrated Camille Playhouse in Brownsville, TX. There were a couple of small parts I thought wouldn’t require much effort or time on my part (in my “day job” I’m a financial advisor).

The play is Bad Seed, the mid-1950’s Broadway hit about a little girl who is much more than she appears to be. In fact, little Rhoda Penmark is a serial killer and one very nasty little creature. The play discusses the role of nature vs. nurture in the construct of a person’s character: can someone “inherit” evil?

I thought I’d audition for the part of Rhoda’s father, Colonel Penmark, described only as straight-laced, good looking, and very loving. Easy enough a part, I thought, being so naturally all three. Plus, he’s only in two scenes. So even though it had been a long time since I stepped out in front of an audience, it’d be a cake walk.

I auditioned for the very fun director at Camille, Eric Vera, and then we discussed a few of the other roles in the play, including the one male role that certainly has the most impact on the plot, a janitor named Leroy Jessup.

Leroy, I told Eric, would be a challenge for me to figure out. He’s described as having the mind of an eight year old child, and that’s about it. Yet throughout the play, Leroy serves as little Rhoda’s nemesis; he’s almost as dark and conniving as she is. There’s a definite “ick” factor to Leroy, who is lazy and acts impulsively and spends a little too much time thinking about the females in the play, including little eight-year-old Rhoda. And even though Leroy is supposed to be basically an imbecile, he’s the only one who clearly and immediately see Rhoda for what she really is, and is slick enough to trick her into revealing her evil deeds.

In short, I went in to audition for the simplest character I could find, as the easy way to resurrect my acting career. I walked out with the task of portraying one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever played.

What will follow in this post is part internal monologue, and part character study. It is how I go through the process of bringing a character to life; how I make him “real” to me. I believe that if I as the actor don’t utterly believe in this person who inhabits my body for the duration of a play, you as the audience will never believe he’s real. It starts and ends with how much I believe in him. If I believe in him, then you have no choice.

I always found it helpful to write about the characters I play, as if I am his therapist as well as his creator. But I also have to be a bit of a detective – who is this guy? What makes him tick? What is his motivation for taking every action the audience will observe? What is it about this man’s life that I have to discover first, so that the moment he steps in front of the audience, his “life” seems perfectly natural?

Certainly the character whispers many of his secrets to you from the pages, and a good playwright can make an actor’s job incredibly easy if the character is vividly described and written with great care. And although the “Bad Seed” script is excellent, Leroy was left very blank.

My process looks like this:

1) What’s on the page: what does the playwright tell me? What’s been gifted to me by this character’s creator?

2) What the play reveals: what is the character going to discover about himself? How does the action of the play change him?

3) How he sees his world: what does his interaction with the other characters tell me? Where does he live?

4) What are his circumstances: what kind of a background would lead the character to that moment in his life that we will see on stage? What’s his life story?

5) What can I relate to? What can I bring from my own life experience to add “meat’ to this person? How can I find synergy between us? How can I care about him enough to play him as a real human being?

6) Decide and set it (almost) in stone. Although I make my final decisions about a character’s life and circumstances before the action of the play, the interactions within the chemistry of the ensemble often changes my characters subtly during performance. They are occasionally different each night of a production if the cast chemistry changes.

I’ll create this character in a series of posts throughout the rehearsal process. Stay tuned!