When you put on high heels you’re bound to walk differently than if you go, say, bare boot. Usually when I start to get to know a new character, I start with the way they move. I ask myself things like: how do they stand, walk and hold their hands?
A physical approach to acting can be especially useful if you’re playing identical twins and have to switch from one to another in a matter of seconds, like I did in Chemical Imbalance. Regardless of the fast-paced changes, the audience has to be able to tell which of the twins is the good one and which is the bad one. So: enter the physical cues.
How would a good Edwardian girl called Calliope behave physically? “No slouching,” her nanny probably would have told her from an early age, so she stands up straight, keeps her knees together and holds her head up high (but not too high to appear stuck-up). No lady would stride, so she walks taking small steps at a time. Her hands are composedly in a lady-like manner or wrapped around a wholesome object like a bible.
What about the bad twin Penelope then? She would defy her nanny and crouch all she likes. As an overactive girl she is never solemn but alert, twitching and turning constantly. Both twins wear ballerina flats, which can be innocent and girly on Calliope, but allow Penelope to move in leaps and bounces.
The twins are kind of quirky characters, but what if the character is just a very homely person caught in extraordinary circumstances, like my character Woman in A Call of the Revolution? Playing her in a very physically exaggerated way would make her feel like a caricature rather than like a real person.
Building the character of Woman is almost exclusively about the inner monologue; thinking what she is thinking and, through that, feeling what she is feeling. The aspect of physicality is still there though, just in a much more subtle way in the way she stands and reaches or the way she squeezes her hands. She’s on stage bare foot, which also makes the character feel genuine and bare.
This is not to say that physical acting and inner monologue don’t go hand in hand, because they do. No matter how physically distinct the character is, the inner monologue needs to be there. Otherwise the character is nothing under the outer extravaganza. It’s just that when there are no physical traits to rely on, the inner monologue becomes much more visible.
To begin with I always want to know what kind of footwear my characters will be wearing. That will affect how the character moves, and through the movement I start to get to know the character from outside in. It’s like when you meet a new person: (usually) you first get to know how they look and act. Only after learning the outer elements is it time to learn what they think and feel.
Erna Bodström is an incurable thespian and a member of Thespians Anonymous since 2009. The first time she ever wore high heels was as a character in a play.
This is the third entry in a series of blog posts entitled “My Approach to Acting”. In the series, members of Thespians Anonymous write about their individual approaches to acting and creating characters.