Whenever I read a new script for the first time, I try to do so objectively, without paying special attention to the scenes in which my character appears, but treating all parts equally. I do this because it is important to get a sense of the whole organized in my mind, and because once I start working on my part, I’ll be too preoccupied trying to understand just what the hell is going on to give proper consideration to too much else. So, I must get this understanding of the entire script before I concentrate on my piece of it, otherwise I never will, and, during this period, I must remain objective. Of course, this is extremely difficult, and whenever I arrive at scenes which involve my character, my cheeks blush, my energy levels rise and my concentration intensifies, all symptoms of the desire to commit and begin working on the role. But I try to repress this desire and continue to read. However, once I’ve turned over the page and arrive at the next scene where my character does not appear, there is a tendency to turn back….I glance over my character’s dialogue again, and images begin to flood my imagination, fiery images, of myself as the character in action, and in these images my movements and gestures and expressions belong to him, and I can only observe, as though gazing into a crystal ball. But I dismiss these images, and remind myself of my objectivity, and continue reading once again. It is important also, not to place too much importance on this early imagery, because I don’t want to be locked into a certain point-of-view about the character and therefore a certain way of playing him, and also because this early response reveals itself, later in rehearsals, after my rational understanding of the script improves, to be immature and wild, and incapable of being acted upon but only mimicked. Ironically, it is the gaining of a rational understanding of my scenes which liberates my imagination later on, but this time the imagination has been disciplined by my script analysis work, and therefore serves me in a constructive way, whereas those early images only overwhelmed me.
The actor’s relationship to the character is a complex one, because in the end, he must do the actions* called forth by the script on behalf of the character, however, when the actor first reads the script, the character is unintelligible to him, because, at this point, he doesn’t understand what the character is doing. And this presents the actor with a test of philosophy and technique, a test which is preceded by a generalized anxiety (when overwhelmed by imagery). Ultimately though, the actions of the character on the page must become the actions of the actor, which is to say that once the actor has defined for himself what those actions are (which the rational analysis seeks to do), he practices doing them until they have become habitual. And by the time performance comes round, the actor has shed the character as it were, and is left only with himself. In this sense then, the actor’s work can be described as an effort to absorb and then banish the character who was so troublesome to him when he first received the script.***An action here refers to the actors attempt to accomplish something. For example: to sell a great idea, to tell off a fool, plead for a second chance, get a straight answer etc. Crucially, the action must be concretely doable, as this helps the actor to be truthful, and frees him up to create in the moment.
**I refer to “the script”, but when there is no script, only ideas and improvisation, the principles are the same.