How Am I Not Myself? The Problem of Characterization in Performance

Laura MillerWhen I started working with “Backdrop Addresses Cowboy” nearly two months ago, I thought I had cultivated the necessary persona. I knew that I was speaking from nature’s perspective (the backdrop), and I even knew my audience (star-spangled cowboy). From my understanding of her in the poem, nature needed to be detached, yet quietly seething. She neither fears nor despises the cowboy, neither adores nor disregards him. The relationship is complex.

I took for granted that all of this could be conveyed through tone. I would simply inflect here and pause there and voila: an incredibly dynamic relationship between two imaginary people would magically materialize. What I discovered was that despite all the personality changes I imagined myself to be making, I still sounded a heck of a lot like myself. Therein lies the problem with performance. How do I become not myself?

So two months later, (I’d been rehearsing my poem so it was fresh on my mind) I’m sitting in a movie theater watching Cosmopolis when Samantha Morton pops on the screen. I won’t spoil anything when I say that her performance as Chief of Theory in an anarchist’s world blew my mind. Her delivery is deadpan, matter-of-fact, and yet she brims with excitement. Might I add that the entire scene takes place inside of a limo?

How does she do it?

Unfortunately, clips of the film are not yet readily available on YouTube, but from what I can remember, I think it had everything to do with the eyes. I practiced that look. I had a model. If my character could have half the intensity of Samantha Morton’s, I would be solid.

Of course, Samantha Morton has been practicing becoming not herself for years, and I’m only just beginning, but the important thing I took away from this experience was to find someone to mimic. Beginning painters and writers use this same technique, imitating the masters until they’ve developed the skills they need to make the art their own.

I was lucky that Samantha Morton fell into my lap at the exact right moment. Now I’m careful to keep my eyes open when actors float across the screen. What are they doing with their hands? What’s happening in the eyebrow region? What are they conveying with their eyes? I observe, I mimic, I perform, and then I repeat the process until something satisfying evolves.

Please click on the video below to watch Laura's performance!

Laura I. Miller is a MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Texas where she served as the blog coordinator for the American Literary Review. She has experience teaching college freshman and sophomore literature courses, as well as mentoring students on a one-on-one basis. Her personal essays have appeared in the Oxford American Online and her short story “Locust Street Circus” was recently chosen as a semi-finalist for the Kristen Iversen & David Anthony Durham Award.

Created on: 
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Arizona Board of Regents