How to get into character

How to get into character

By Jo Caird 05/03/14

What's the best way to make a role yours? Stay in character for months like Daniel Day-Lewis or just focus the script? Jo Caird asks three actors how they do it...

Do your homework 

Getting an audience to believe that you’re the character you say you are is all about preparation. This begins before you even start rehearsals, says Adam Best, soon to appear in The Silver Tassieat the National Theatre: “Make sure you have a good understanding of what you think the play and your character are about.” That way, by the time you get into the rehearsal room, you’ll be ready to “make decisions on your character; be bold,” Adam says. “Your director will be your guide on what works and what doesn't.”

Jane Milligan, currently playing Rosie in the West End production of Mamma Mia!, stresses the importance of creating a “back story” for your character. “You’ve been cast because you’re the right person for the part, therefore you should try and gain confidence from that, but you do have to get your head into the part you’re playing so that when you walk on stage, the audience will sense that you know what you’re doing. If I walk on stage and I’m empty and I don’t have any kind of back story at all, it can be a terrible experience.” 

For Jane’s current role, this meant extensive conservations with the actors playing Donna and Tanya about how the three friends met, what they studied and who they dated, in an attempt to “add flesh to the bones of the part that you’re playing”. 

Jonathan Broadbent, who is touring with Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night and is also associate director at the company, believes it’s important to demystify the whole concept of “getting into character”. “It's you, the text and the audience. You are the character. If you have rehearsed well and made interesting choices then the character will appear as you start speaking.”


Think physically

How you present yourself physically is a crucial element in conveying character, particularly if you don’t have a big speaking part. “Think about the physicality of your character,” says Adam. “How your character stands, walks, the gestures they might use. How we are physically says a lot about us.”

Costume can be helpful too, says Jane: “Things do transform in the process when one gets the clothes on, your gear, your wig. It can transform the character. It can give you a character. The whole thing is a fusion between you and the audience; it’s a chemical reaction. The clothes, the hair and the accessories and all that, they’re all part of the gig.” 


Get in the zone

When it comes to the period just before going on stage, many actors like to distance themselves from proceedings in order to reconnect with what they were working on in the rehearsal room. “Focus and concentration are useful,” says Jonathan. “But the character doesn't suddenly appear in a puff of smoke if you rub your hands together or will it inside you. Do the homework and then be free and focused and the rest will take care of itself.” 

Jane always tries to take “a little bit of quiet time” before the performance to think about her character. “You can do that in minutes in the wings, you can do that in seconds, just to get in the right frame, but it has to be something that in a meditative way you should try and commit to if you want to do it right,” she says. Then again, she says, “Some people just walk on and they just do it. Acting is a journey and some people are more confident about it than others.” There’s no right or wrong answer.


In Focus: IdeasMag top tips 

Maxine Peake: “I research history, a bit of music, find out what was going on culturally and try to build a character from the script; fill in the gaps, build a history, think about where they’ve come from.”

Honeysuckle Weeks: “A lot of getting into character is about the rhythm of the speech. Look at the grammar and the syntax of how this person speaks. Don’t make assumptions about a character until you’ve read [the script] all the way through.”

Cillian Murphy: “...for every role it’s different. Some are very transformative and you have to spend a lot of time physically and mentally working on it. Others are just a small adjustment of who you are and your place in life.” 

Jolyon Rubinstein: “For me it always starts with their shoes. In the Drama Centre, where I trained, they talked about ‘garments’ rather than costumes. I find certain pieces of clothing to hook the character around.”

Jaime Winstone: “I don’t ever go into a scene thinking, ‘I’m going to do this’. It’s more like, ‘Where am I taking her?’ I’m going to take her to this point where she’s upset or angry or happy. Your instinct is your biggest tool as an actress.” 


Are you an actor? How do you get into character? Share your tips below! 

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Image by Zombie Normal, on a Creative Commons license.

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