Updated: Mar 16
By Faith Hibbs-Clark, CMFA Founder
One of the most challenging—and rewarding—things an actor can do is portray a real-life historical character in a film. It's a chance to bring someone from the past to life and help audiences understand that person in a new way. But it's also a lot of pressure, as you must ensure your portrayal is accurate and believable. So, how do you prepare for such a role? Here are some tips.
1) Do the research. When you're first cast in the historical character role, read everything you can about the person you'll be playing. Watch any documentaries or movies about them, and read any biographies or autobiographies that exist. The more you know about their life, the better prepared you'll be to step into their shoes.
2) Pay attention to body language. Once you have a good understanding of who this person was, start looking at their body language. How did they walk? What kind of facial expressions did they make when they were happy, sad, angry, etc.? What quirks did they have? If there is not enough information about them to draw upon, then you can make logical behavioral science conclusions. For example, if you know your character was wealthy, you might use body language such as erect posture and open and expansive hand gestures. The more you mimic their physicality, the more believable your portrayal will be.
3) Pay attention to their voice. The first step is to identify the characteristics of the voice you want to mimic. Is it high-pitched or low? Is it nasal or throaty? Does your character have an accent? Once you have identified the key characteristics of the voice, it is time to start practicing. A great way to do this is to find a clip of this person's voice and play it to yourself using headphones while recording yourself speaking. As you hear the actual person's voice in your ears, try to make the sound of your own voice match.
4) Find the heart of the person. It's one thing to look and sound like the person you're playing, but it's another thing entirely to capture their essence. To do that, you need to understand what makes them tick. What motivated them? What did they care about? Answering these questions will help you find the emotional core of your performance and make your portrayal even more three-dimensional.
Take, for example, Meryl Streep's portrayal of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the movie "Iron Lady." Streep did not just mimic Thatcher's body language and voice; she also showed the audience what this woman cared about and what made her tick. Streep accessed emotions that most people never tap into. Streep has said that she draws on personal experiences to connect with her characters emotionally. This allows her to create characters that feel real and three-dimensional on screen.
Portraying a real-life historical character in film or television is both a great opportunity and a great responsibility for an actor. By doing your research, paying attention to details like body language and voice, and finding the emotional core of your character, you can give audiences a believable and accurate portrayal that they'll never forget.
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