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1. Invent a Foundational Story
Just like we are each grounded in our own life story, every character you play needs to be treated like a fully realized human being and rooted in their own solid foundational story. Keep that story clear in your mind when you’re working on a role, rather than your own emotional journey or your ego.
Even if you are character acting, playing a small role, or shaping a nebulous fantasy character, you can still pack them with as much life as possible. All three-dimensional characters have fears, desires, triumphs, failures, and traumas that might not necessarily appear in a script, but can nevertheless provide a rich context from which to draw on while getting into character. If you come up with ideas about your character’s background that affect the way you portray your character, don’t be afraid to share them with the director.
2. Find a Story Within the Story
When Helen takes a role, she finds a secret story for herself within the greater story that the play or film tells. Perhaps it relates to why she chose the role, or what connects her to the role on a deeply personal level. This is her private story—she doesn’t share this with anyone. You’ll probably never learn this in acting classes, but Helen encourages you to let this private story simmer beneath the surface, infusing your unconscious mind.
3. Research, Research, Research
Research is an integral part of Helen’s process. One of her primary types of research is literal research, which encompasses the more concrete aspects of a character: their profession, lifestyle, their historical context. Generally this type of research will expand on things that can be found explicitly in the text. Helen also does “poetic research,” which requires imagination—to think about your character’s world and their place in it.
When you play a character based on a real person, your process must change to encompass concrete biographical research. Depending on the character, you’ll have different types of primary source information about them—video footage, historical accounts from other time periods, and portraits are just a few examples. The less information available about a character—as Helen’s experience with Elizabeth I—the deeper you may have to dig and more creative you may have to get in your approach.
If your character experiences things you haven’t, do your research. Seek out firsthand accounts of that experience, and be willing to go to some dark and perhaps uncomfortable places—this is part of your job. When Helen portrayed Maria Altmann, a mother whose son is in prison during the hunger strikes in Ireland, in Woman in Gold, she thought about what it meant to be a woman living in these historical circumstances, on the front lines of violent conflict. Poetic research often comes after literal research, as you can start thinking about your character in their historical context, and what their choices illuminate about them.
Research will also help you determine where a character holds their power, and you will become closer to them through the research process— consider it another way into their psyche.
Helen encourages you to read history as an actor, not as a historian. When researching seemingly inaccessible royal characters Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II, Helen found that portraits were a helpful reference. Studying portraits allowed her to realize that she, too, was just another artist doing a portrait of the queen, which freed her of some of the intimidation she felt. Video footage of Queen Elizabeth II as a child offered another way into her character, which helped Helen understand her as a whole person—not just a figurehead.
If you are able to access footage of your character, pay close attention to their behaviors, from how the character walks down to the most minute gestures and speech patterns. However, remember that all this research is purely informative— there is no need to ever reference any of it literally while performing. If you’ve done this work, your performance will naturally reflect it.
4. Meet People in the Field
It’s important to go meet people who do the work your character does so you can fully understand the role. Pay close attention to the body language people in your character’s field exhibit, to learn how your character may assert their power. Once you’re working on the role and performing it, you can let go of the literal research you did, and, having internalized it, trust it will inflect your acting.
5. Stay Away From Mirrors
While it can be tempting, never act in front of mirror. What’s happening to you and your character is completely an internal experience. If you’ve done all your prep work, your face will naturally express what’s actually going on in the moment. It should be an organic and fully felt experience.
6. Develop a Ritual
Film sets and theaters can be overwhelming and distracting places. To give your best performance, find a way to shut out the distractions and stay grounded in your own personal process. If you’re feeling lost or anxious, try developing a ritual to drop into your character or the moment in the story—maybe it’s a meditation or single word that you repeat to yourself, or maybe it’s as simple as reminding yourself of your intention before the scene begins. You can also look for inspiration in babies and dogs, as Helen does. They are so simple and so present when they are on camera that they’re always mesmerizing. Look for that state in yourself.
In the end, there are no rules. You will continue to learn as you go, and so much of what you do on set will come with experience. Surrender yourself to that fact, and continue to find the joy in the acting technique you’ve developed and honed.