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The Illusion of Character in Acting


"The actor is onstage to communicate the play to the audience. That is the beginning and the end of the actor's job. They don't need to 'become' the character. There is no character. There are only lines on a page. There are lines of dialogue meant to be said by the actor. When they say them simply, in an attempt to achieve an object more or less like that suggested by the author, the audience sees an illusion of a character upon a stage." DAVID MAMET (True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor)

Acting is often seen as the art of becoming someone else.

Acting is often seen as the art of becoming someone else. Actors are praised for their ability to "inhabit" characters and make audiences believe in the reality of the people they portray on stage or screen. However, the idea of a character as an independent, fully-formed entity is a myth. In reality, what we perceive as a character is an illusion created by the words and given circumstances provided by the playwright or screenwriter and the physical actions of the actor. Understanding this deepens our appreciation of the craft and frees actors from the constraints of traditional character interpretations.


The Role of the Playwright or Screenwriter

The script is at the core of any performance. Playwrights and screenwriters provide the blueprint for the story, outlining the dialogue, setting, and events that drive the narrative forward. They offer a framework within which actors operate, but this framework does not present a complete picture of the character. It is a collection of cues and clues, a skeleton that needs flesh.

For example, Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of the most complex characters in literature. However, everything we know about Hamlet comes from the text. His soliloquies, interactions, and the circumstances of the play paint a picture of a troubled prince. But is Hamlet inherently melancholic and indecisive, or are these traits a result of the specific situations he finds himself in? Different actors have portrayed Hamlet in vastly different ways, highlighting how much the character is shaped by interpretation rather than being a fixed entity.

Given Circumstances and Their Impact

"Given circumstances" refer to the specific details and conditions outlined in the script that influence a character's behavior. These include the time period, location, social status, and events that occur within the story. These circumstances shape the character's actions and reactions, providing context for their behavior.

Consider the character of Walter White from the television series "Breaking Bad." Initially, Walter is a high school chemistry teacher struggling with a cancer diagnosis and financial hardship. These given circumstances set the stage for his transformation into a ruthless drug kingpin. Walter's character is not static; it evolves in response to the situations he faces. This evolution is not solely a result of inherent traits but is heavily influenced by the external pressures and opportunities presented to him throughout the series.

The Actor's Physical Actions

The script and given circumstances provide a character's foundation, but it is the actor's physical actions that truly bring the character to life. An actor's movements, speech, and reactions create the illusion of a fully formed person and convey emotions and intentions that may not be explicitly stated in the text.

For instance, the character of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" is often depicted as fragile and delusional. However, an actor's portrayal can emphasize different aspects of Blanche's character through their physicality. A more robust, grounded interpretation may suggest resilience in the face of adversity, while a delicate, nervous portrayal could highlight her vulnerability. Both interpretations are valid, showcasing how much of the character is shaped in the moment by the actor's choices.

Deconstructing the Myth

Understanding that a character is an illusion crafted by words, given circumstances, and physical actions allows actors greater freedom in their interpretations. It removes the pressure to "find" the character as if it exists independently of the script and performance. Instead, actors can focus on how to best use the tools provided by the playwright or screenwriter to create a compelling and believable illusion.

This approach can be particularly liberating in contemporary theatre and film, where non-traditional casting and innovative interpretations are becoming more common. For instance, casting a woman as Hamlet or a person of color as a traditionally white character can offer fresh perspectives and new insights, challenging audiences to rethink their assumptions about these roles. These interpretations work precisely because the character is not a fixed entity but an illusion shaped by performance.

Practical Examples

  1. Different Interpretations of the Same Role:

  • Consider the character of Sherlock Holmes. Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Benedict Cumberbatch have all played Holmes, each bringing unique qualities to the role. Rathbone's Holmes was more stoic and reserved, Brett's was intense and passionate, while Cumberbatch's modern Holmes is high-functioning and eccentric. The character of Holmes is defined as much by the actors' interpretations and physical actions as by Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.

  1. Environmental Influence on Character:

  • In The Crucible by Arthur Miller, John Proctor's character is deeply influenced by Salem's Puritanical setting and the witch trials' hysteria. An actor's portrayal of Proctor will vary significantly depending on how they interpret the given circumstances of fear, guilt, and societal pressure.

  1. Character Evolution Through Physicality:

  • In the film Black Swan, Natalie Portman's portrayal of Nina Sayers evolves dramatically through her physical actions. Changes in her posture, movement, and expression convey her transformation from a repressed, perfectionist ballerina to a liberated, though unstable, artist. These physical changes are integral to creating the illusion of Nina's psychological journey.


The concept of character as a self-contained, individual entity is deeply rooted in our understanding of acting. However, viewing character as an illusion shaped by the words of the playwright or screenwriter, the given circumstances, and the physical actions of the actor allows for a more nuanced and adaptable approach to performance. It enables actors to explore a broader range of interpretations and encourages audiences to appreciate the fluid nature of character development. Embracing this perspective allows us to deepen our appreciation for the artistry involved in bringing characters to life and to acknowledge the collaborative effort that makes theater and film such captivating forms of storytelling.

The concept of character as a self-contained, individual entity is deeply rooted in our understanding of acting.


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