Friday, October 18, 2013

Character Development

At FaffCon6 I broke tradition and decided to talk about how I develop characters. I've been a character actor for several years on stage and in the vocal booth. Covering everything from Santa to soldiers, cowboys to reindeer!

And I want to give a huge thanks again to the amazing Peter O'Connell, who helped out with the session. The man knows how to run a room.

Who is this Character?

First off, I don't do impersonations. However the voices I hear do INFLUENCE the voices I use.

Let me use an example, right now as of this writing, I'm in a production on-stage playing the roll of Lawrence Garfinkle, aka "Larry the Liquidator" in the show Other People's Money. The book states that Lawrence "Larry" is a third generation guy from the Bronx. Not to be played too heavy on the accent.

Ok. So here's a guy, he's in his 40's, overweight, and pretty well off. He dresses well but is not highly read, his sentence structure is still that of his youth on the streets of the Bronx. "You doing your job good." for example.

He's street smart, and is good at his game. That's the surface.

Lawrence Garfinkle and Kate Sullivan
as played by Monk and Colleen Lovett

Peel The Onion

There's more to him and here is where I go deeper into figuring out this guy. He says in the show that he used to be skinny, well, skinny-er.  I see him as the fat kid in school that was bullied. Little Lawrence Garfinkle was never "Larry" in grade school. He was teased, he was pushed around and then he grew up. And he turned into a bully himself. That kid that once knocked his books out of his hands in the hallway, was just let go from the factory that "Larry the Liquidator" bought and shut down. I can almost see Piggy from Lord of the Flies.

So he's got power and money. When he dates women, he doesn't go for prom queens or cheerleader types. He dates the waitress or the secretary from the office pool. Someone he can control and impress. But it's shallow and he'll never marry them because of his own dim view of his self.

All the bluster of a bully, and all the self loathing of a fat little kid in grade school.

Voices of Inspiration

As I mentioned, I don't do impersonations, BUT I hear and picture people that can add a facet or piece to this character. For Lawrence I picture a couple of people. The late great James Gandolfini for his physicality and ability to be light on his feet. Lawrence is heavy, but after a lifetime of heavy, he's strong enough to hold himself up and move. The other image in my head is Robert DeNiro. DeNiro has one character, he does it well and even makes fun of it in some movies, but it's always the same. I sum it up with the phrase, "You...."

Say it while pointing.  "You... all of you.." It's an attitude. He is commanding the room, looking at each person in the eye and making a promise, not a threat.


Lawrence Garfinkle is from the Bronx. Now I'll admit, I have a slight handicap here as my family is from South Boston. Good old Fackin Southy. A Bronx accent and a South Boston accent are different in many ways, and similar in others. For the longest time I thought that Archie Bunker was from Southy.

The subtleties are in vowels, Southy is Cah, Dawla, Cahfee.  Bronx is Caw. Smawt. Dahlah. Cawfee.

Not over the top, it has to sound natural. But if you say Cah, when you should have said Caw, that audience member from Flatbush is going to catch it and call you on it later. Work on it. Get someone to listen to you and call you on it. It helps that I have a lot of New York friends to call on.


For me, I have to get a character into my bones, into my muscle memory. A troll for example is top heavy and generally needs something to lean on. A police sergeant is chest out, hand on the butt of a nightstick or barton, head up and jaw set.

Lawrence I see in some ways as a boxer. After growing up fat, he took some boxing lessons because he read an add in the back of a comic book, you know the one, some guy kicking sand in his face, so he goes and gets buff. Only Lawrence never changed his eating habits, he still consumes way to many donuts. But he stands balanced, never really resting on his heels and never caught with both hands in his pockets. If he relaxes for a second or two, he may put his left hand in a pocket, but only for a moment. I think Lawrence could throw a few mean punches, and in reality would throw you down a set of stairs and keep hitting you once you passed out. Again, the anger of being bullied as a kid.

Now mind you, NONE of this is in the script. It's all backstory that I create to develop a character. Which brings me to the next point...

Make it Your Own

I don't imitate, I get inspired by others. And I even go so far as to NOT see someone else's version of a character. If I know of a show or movie of the show I'm doing. I DO NOT go see it till afterward. The reward is hearing, "I liked your take on the character." or "You made it your own."

When you imitate you get drawn into someone else's choices. And you run the risk of getting compared to that persons work and character creation. It may happen, I have heard that I remind people of Jackie Gleason or once "A young Nathan Lane." (Comparisons I can live with!) But you don't want to get stuck doing something that a director or person has heard a hundred times before.

Give the character dimension in your own mind, it's all make believe, but don't give it a short shrift, know who this troll/elf/cowboy/office worker/tailgunner is. It works for me.


So I visualize, write down details, create a history, and get physically into a character. When Lawrence Garfinkle walks out on stage, he is the sum of his past and the people I know. He wants to be attractive, but damn, donuts taste so freakin good. Want one?

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