Yesterday HE reader and L.A. Daily News guy Bob Strauss wrote that “any critic who can’t distinguish between the performance and the character doesn’t just have lousy perception, they’re unfit for the job.” That’s almost total bullshit — all actors blend themselves into the characters they play, and when the process is finished nobody really knows where the actor ends and the character begins, least of all the critics. It’s all an improvised mashed-potato process. With the exception of those rare world-class actors who can truly be called chameleons (Meryl Streep, the late Laurence Olivier, Daniel Day Lewis and maybe, what, 15 or 20 others?) very few actors are really playing “somebody else”. A performance is simply a process by which an actor tries on a coat or a pair of shoes or a mood or a history lived by some character on a page, and then they cross-blend themselves into this person and…tah-dah! How’s this sound? Should I do it differently? I love this job, man…I love making movies.
Those who can do this well or at least smoothly and who’ve been agile enough to scale the hurdles and who have sufficiently big heads…they’re all good to go. Almost no successful actors will admit this because revelations of this sort seem to devalue their craft. They want you to think it’s tricky magic or rocket science, but it’s not. I’m not saying it’s easy or that anyone can do it, but a lot of people can.
Every actor in Hollywood history has lied through their teeth about this process. They’ve all used the same line about simply and purely playing a made-up character, and that what they perform has nothing to do with who they really are and so on. That is undoubtedly true to some extent but it’s NEVER, EVER 100% true. Even though Cary Grant always claimed he would like to be “Cary Grant” as much as the next day, he was still always Cary Grant. Vince Vaughn has always been (and always will be ) Vince fucking Vaughn. Humphrey Bogart was always that guy with the dangling unfiltered cigarette and the tough Manhattan attitude. Owen Wilson has always been Owen Wilson in every performance he’s ever given.
Very few actors are serious chameleons. Most of them are just making it up as they go along. All good actors take their looks and personalities and attitudes and toss them around in a salad bowl, and then they tailor or modify a character to fit their own personality or psyche and swirl the salad around some more and then they GO THERE. They do that thing, they let it rip and that‘s what makes certain performance “pop” and others not so much. No film is entirely pretend. In a sense all performances are documentary-“real” if you allow the deep-down to come forward in your perceptions.
“Whatever the on-screen persona or character, whatever the makeup, it is nigh on impossible to obfuscate the person. Not only that, but it records them doing what inspired them the most — acting. A film is the plate on which a butterfly is preserved.” — Checking On My Sausages, 7.30.10.