In creating a character, it is believed the actor uses a vast array of techniques to try to first create the physiology of that character, that is, taking a name on the page and creating a look, walk, accent, etc. They then must find a way to empathize with whom they are portraying, and finally perform their interpretation on call take after take until Warren Beatty runs out of film; or, in Woody Allen’s case, the Knicks’ tipoff; or your co-star Jim Carrey finally succumbs to physical exhaustion. And…print.
Acting is unlike most crafts. After centuries there is still disagreement about the right and wrong way to do it, which implies there is no right or wrong way. Rather, it seems that performance, true performance comes from somewhere inside the actor, some more fluidly than others. For Stanislavsky, the man most associated with the craft of acting in a historical sense, the quest for truth lies at the heart of a great performance, and hence actor:
“The actor must first of all believe in everything that takes place on the stage, and most of all he must believe in what he himself is doing. And one can believe only in the truth. Therefore it is necessary to feel this truth at all times.”
Stanislavsky continues, not allowing his critics the opportunity to pounce:
“The actor says to himself: All these properties, make-ups, costumes, the scenery, the publicness of the performers are lies. I know they are lies, I know I do not need any of them. But if they were true, then I would do this and this, and I would behave in this manner and this way towards this and this event.”
Fine and dandy, however, when the “truth” of a performance has already been determined in advance, and lies not in interpretation but rather in historical facts long decided, what role, or more to the point, what credit, does the actor take in its delivery?
Robert De Niro famously thought of his character in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, as a crab. The motion of the crab, that slow, methodical side-to-side tied into how he viewed Bickle’s equally methodical, pre-meditated mentality. Like the crab, Travis Bickle never came straight at you, literally or figuratively; there was always a motive. Were Bickle a real person (screenwriter Paul Schrader apparently based the character on Arthur Bremer, the man convicted of shooting presidential hopeful George Wallace) would De Niro still need to envision Bickle as a crab scraping and crawling his way through life? Or could he get all he needed from watching interviews or film footage of the “real” Bickle? For that matter, what if Jamie Foxx were to show up on set and proclaim he’s decided to play Ray Charles not blind. He’ll play him deaf instead; 30% in one ear, totally gone in the other.