This weekend a colleague sent me a story he wants to turn into a short film and cast me as the lead. The story, in a three-page document not yet in script format, moved me so much that I felt compelled to create and explore an early interpretation of the character. What came next is a 16-minute video showing the results.
Without going into details about the story here, I will simply say I sensed the man would have a strong desire to make money. I don’t see him as someone who would steal it but he definitely feels like an opportunistic fellow.
I made some distinct character choices quickly.
Wardrobe: I put on a stained sweater and ripped jeans.
Hair & Makeup: I darkened my eyebrows and messed up my hair to create a disheveled look.
A habit: I made him a smoker.
A setting: I found a spot by a worn-out fence.
All the steps above took less than 15 minutes as I threw myself into the exercise without a great deal of thought.
The next decision involved how the scene would play out. Since I was alone, I let him open up to the camera, as if he was being interviewed. As the scene moved forward, I would continue to address the unseen interviewer/audience while looking at the camera a lot less.
Once I started recording one long continuous scene, I never broke character. A couple of times, my phone fell so I had to start where I left off. The first two takes lasted roughly 3-4 minutes. The third and final take lasted almost 14 minutes. There was no change in shots in between.
I responded to real-life situations happening around me, such as a chattering squirrel and the sunlight breaking through the clouds.
Visualizing the setting beyond the frame allowed me to do a couple of things. I introduced another character who is sitting nearby, although you won’t see or hear him. I also reference a convenience store where my character spends a lot of time.
Once I finished the third take, I went inside to start editing the 21 minutes of footage. Since it’s unscripted and moments had plenty of breathing room, I felt the need to tighten it up. As I reviewed it, very specific character choices communicated through dialogue began to stand out so I found places to make cuts.
After making all of the edits I wanted, I had the idea to create titles for every scene. These are simple 2-3 second titles to introduce what’s coming next and work as a transition in the story.
I watched the finished product, and felt it came together nicely. Although it’s rough in many ways (ambient noise is noticeable, for example), it’s merely an exercise in giving life to a character quickly.
When you get the opportunity to play a character you feel this strongly about instantly, I encourage you to explore him or her in a similar way. Get in front of a camera with a sense of adventure and see what goes through your mind and comes out of your mouth. It just might lead you to some amazing discoveries as an actor.