For viewers of movies, television, and live theater, acting sort of seems like a magic trick. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched an episode of Mad Men and forgotten that this guy Don Draper isn’t actually real, that he’s played by a talented actor who has his own completely separate life.
My brain knows all about it, but when I’m watching, that other reality fades away and I’m left with a pretty vile character trying to stumble his way through life.
Despite the number of behind-the-scenes featurettes I’ve watched about the show, the difference between character and actor holds strong.
This ability to disappear into a role is an easy way to spot a talented actor, but how someone gets to that level of skill is a bit of a mystery.
Don’t tell anyone, but I used to attend acting classes, and I received all kinds of advice about what acting “really means” and how important it is to respond to plot points in the moment, but actually synthesizing all that advice and putting it to good use is a separate skill, and this explains why some folks can work at their craft for years but never quite reach that level where a character transformation feels like pure magic.
Actors and viewers alike have been trying to understand this divide for many years, hence the literally thousands and thousands of books on the subject of acting.
But Vents Magazine had the chance to take a different approach: simply talking to an actor who has proven his skill and mettle across many different roles: Zachary Street.
Street has appeared in many film and live theater productions, including productions for Channel 4, the Glyndebourne Opera House, the Courtyard Theater, as well as playing Piper in 2015’s ‘Fallen Soldiers,’ a horror and mystery film set in wartorn Europe in the early 19th century.
His versatility as an actor has only increased his demand for both comedic and dramatic roles.
Vents had an in-depth conversation with Street in the hopes of reaching a greater understanding of the work that goes into a performance that most people will never see.
Learning the character: clues from the script
There’s a perception that being able to play a character only requires learning a few things about them– their interests, their fears, their profession, and personal history.
This very minimalistic approach just won’t cut it in most situations. Sure, it might work if you’re recording a 10-second radio promo. With feature films, shorts, and live productions, however, it’s in the actor’s best interest to learn as much as possible about the character, regardless of whether that character is fully fictional or based on a historical figure.
Street’s research process begins with hard evidence of the character, most often what’s already in the script, but it doesn’t stop at dialogue and stage directions. Talented actors can extrapolate a lot of information from a script.
“It’s within the dialogue and the setting of the script that you can begin to imagine the other facets that play into who they are. When I begin to delve into the psychological aspects of a role, I gain an even greater understanding. I feel how they cross a room, how they take a bath, how they shave, how they answer the phone. All of these details inform how a character engages with the world around them.”
For a moment, let’s compare a skilled actor to a detective. You’ll never have 100% of the necessary information about a person, and rarely will you know what’s going on inside their heads, but there are subtle clues everywhere. These can be used to build a recreation of that person.
Adhering to the writer’s idea of a character is important, but each actor also needs to own their characters. That way, they can respond more honestly to different events and lines of dialogue.
Speaking with head creatives
Despite the great deal of work that goes into understanding a character before the performance even begins, no performer works in a vacuum.
Filmmaking and theater are inherently collaborative. While fiction has created this cultural image of the egotistical actor who only listens to their own ideas for a performance, reality is quite different.
Even the most well-regarded actors living today know how to listen, especially when talking to other head creatives on a project.
Street always tries to work closely with other creative minds to create something special.
“I’ve been lucky enough to talk to directors and the writers before filming and between scenes. Sometimes our ideas conflict, and sometimes they’re perfectly aligned. But often, it’s the points of contention that have led to a much deeper understanding. The writer has his original text, the director has her visual interpretation of that text, and my duty as an actor is to integrate those visions while bringing as much as I can to the mix.”
The more ingredients you take in, the more flavorful and interesting the end result will be.
This doesn’t mean that every idea is a good one, but working with others to decide which to include and which to leave out has a much higher chance of creating a unique and compelling performance.
Filming ‘Fallen Soldiers’
Street played Piper in ‘Fallen Soldiers,’ released in 2015. The role presented a unique opportunity for Street, and to this day he feels that working on this production was one of the most challenging, and simultaneously rewarding, experiences of his career thus far.
“Since I had a major role in the film, I had to adjust to a set where scripts and lines would change regularly. As actors we don’t always get the opportunity to play the roles we really love, so being in ‘Fallen Soldiers’ was a chance to play a character I connected with, one that was cheeky, brave, and had a great arc.”
Shooting this movie was a chance to take advantage of all the skills he’d been building up over years of hard work and experience.
It was an opportunity to combine just about everything we’ve discussed here, from completing diligent research on a character to collaborating with other creative minds to accessing specific techniques and drawing from personal experiences in his own life.
On top of it all, the experience also provided Street with new lessons and ideas that he carries with him to new projects.
Don’t wait: do
By inhabiting so many different roles and performing across different mediums, Street has gained an interesting perspective on performance as a whole.
Something he’s noticed, something he communicated to us during our conversation, is that many performers, regardless of their specialty, feel the need to limit themselves to performance and leave it at that.
So many spend their time throwing themselves at other people’s projects, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that, but if it prevents those performers from creating something while waiting around, then it can very quickly start to be an issue.
“I think the major thing that’s changed for me recently is embracing that I don’t need to wait on others to perform or create art. So many actors are held back because they are waiting for permission. But you need to give yourself that permission. By writing and creating, my imagination has been sparked. It’s been a revelation knowing there is nothing to stop me from creating my own work.”
This idea has an interesting crossover with the working world as a whole. Specialization is slowly being outmoded, in favor of a more varied approach.
Dedicating yourself to a single pursuit is admirable, but in the more creative professions, this is also a recipe for relative close-mindedness.
One type of creativity can very easily nurture other kinds of creativity, both in action and thought.
Rather than sitting on his hands between projects, Street has found a way to explore his own creativity that results in exciting new projects of his own, as well as collaborations with other artists.
It’s a very proactive method, and it’s one that has been shared by some of recent history’s most creative minds, among them Daniel Day-Lewis, Andy Warhol, and Louise Bourgeois, all of whom find many different ways to be creative.
Different mediums activate different kinds of creativity, just as learning a new language can help you change your outlook, seeing the world in a slightly different way.
When you return to your favorite creative medium, you’ll be far more likely to come up with new ideas, ideas that you just wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
A look behind the curtain
We hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of the creative thought and practice that goes into performances for the stage and screen.
If you’d like to take a closer look at Zachary Street’s past work, you can visit his official website by clicking this link.
We would also encourage you to seek out behind-the-scenes materials for some of your favorite movies and shows. Give a listen to what performers, directors, and other members of the production have to say about both the practical and abstract elements of achieving an artistic vision.
Until next time, let’s bring the curtain down.
by Giorgio Chang