More On Character Development

Last week, I shared some insights from Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore regarding how they approached creating characters.  This week I’m sharing more excerpts on character development from a New York Times article written by Michael Cunningham, describing his incredible experience on set observing Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep transform into the characters they portrayed in “The Hours.”  There’s so much to be learned from these three extraordinary actors on character development.

The Hours Character Development

Source: Paramount Pictures 2002

Julianne Moore prefers to do as little preparation as possible, and doesn’t like to rehearse. She works intuitively; she simply knows what to do when she gets there. She and I did talk briefly about the genesis of Laura Brown, her character, before she did her scenes. I told her how I’d found, when I wrote the book, that Laura was the most difficult character to summon, in part because, of the three women, she was the one who veered most dangerously close to stereotype. We have seen the unhappy 50’s housewife many, many times, and although Laura was in no way stereotypical to me, I couldn’t seem to get her right. She came fully alive the day I decided to think of her as an artist; as someone as relentlessly driven to create perfection as was Woolf herself. Laura’s medium was modest and transitory. She wanted to keep a house so clean that nothing could ever go wrong within its walls; she wanted to bake for her husband’s birthday a cake as magnificent (as immortal) as the cakes in magazines. When I thought of her in those terms, and understood that she was every bit as entitled to her ecstasies and sorrows as was Woolf, she became a person.

As I watched the women do their work, and when I saw the finished movie, I understood that what you lose in turning fiction into film — the ability to enter your characters’ minds, and to scan their pasts for keys to their futures — can be compensated for by actors. You lose interiority. You gain Ms. Streep’s ability to separate an egg with a furious precision that communicates more about Clarissa’s history and present state of mind than several pages of prose might do. You gain Ms. Moore’s face when she looks at her son with an agonizing mix of adoration and terror, knowing she will harm him no matter what she does.

Actors, too, if they’re this good, can introduce details you can’t convey on paper, if only because by writing them down you’d render them too obvious. Actors have the incidental at their disposal. Ms. Streep’s Clarissa is stunningly complex, in part because she creates a whole person out of movements, expressions and inflections. When she says to Louis (Mr. Daniels), an old friend who’s dropped in unexpectedly, ”But I never see you,” the line has a sing-song quality. It rises steadily to the word ”see,” then drops to the ”you.” It is offhand and girlish, venomous, haggard. And when she finally begins to lose her desperate composure there’s a moment — a half-moment, you miss it if you blink — when she literally loses her balance, tips over to the left, and immediately rights herself. If there’s a way to do things like that on paper, I haven’t found it.”

I hope that reading the above has given you some new inspiration on character development and is something that you’ll be able to use in your work both in auditions and on set.

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