Being a record of my journey as I undertake a new role that, unlike many others I have played, fills me with a sense of immense challenge and a promise of growth, both as an actor and a seeker.
“That’s the trajectory,” he says. “That’s how it happens.” He’s talking about the long-term, self-induced, life-threatening weight gain of my character, the 600 pound Charlie, and he is speaking from experience. When I met Ramsey 7 months ago, he was tipping the the scale at 475 pounds, down from 575. Now at 390, he is well on his way to a more complete recovery from the obesity that threatened his life.
As soon as I took on the role of Charlie, I wanted to contact Ramsey to ask if he would spend time with me. Would he speak frankly about the physical and emotional challenges posed by the weight, and what the journey was like getting there? I also wanted time to just observe what it was like for him to move through the world, which feels so different to him, and poses such different challenges for him than for the rest of us. It took me a couple of weeks to work up the courage to make the call. I was worried that the request would be offensive, too personal. But Ramsey is an accomplished actor and stand up. In our social time together in the past I have come to see that he is dedicated to the craft of acting, and so I thought he would take my request in the spirit with which it was intended: I wanted insight, so that I could portray Charlie with honesty and understanding, honoring the challenges he faces. Ramsey, it turns out, was thrilled to be asked, and we quickly set up an appointment to meet.
At lunch, after telling him more about the plot of the play, I got out my black and white marbled composition book. It has “The Whale” written on the cover, and it has been my constant companion for the past few weeks, and will remain so throughout these weeks of preparation, as well as rehearsal and performance. I have a few questions to start us off, beginning with one that arose in the explorations of the movement of obese people with my children, when we watched videos together: Why is the gait somewhat stiff-legged? I hazarded a guess, and Ramsey confirmed it, but then he went on to an incredible description of the emotional realities that accompany the physical. Then the floodgates were opened, and Ramsey spoke on and on, and I was given a sharply focused lens into this world that I had never bothered to take a look at.
I am not going to talk right now about the details of the many things that I learned in my discussion with Ramsey. I will save that for a wrap-up article after our production closes. This is in order to preserve the power of what he shared for use in the show. One of the things that I have learned, and it has been a long, slow lesson for me, is that as you build the internal life of your character, (which simply starts to feel like your own if you are working correctly), it is crucial to keep that internal life private. More experienced actors that I respect told me this many times in the earlier days of developing my craft, but it took me a long time to believe it, and a longer time to start practicing it. The problem is that speaking of the private, unspoken fears and desires of your character diffuses the power of the internal cues, triggers and currents that you discover. It limits their impact upon you as you work. So it is best not to speak of the gems that you uncover in your digging until you don’t need them anymore. This is hard to do in the midst of what is sometimes lonely work, harder to do amidst the camaraderie of rehearsal, when you so often want to shout “Eureka.” Actors in general love to talk about themselves, and their process, as they are working. Train yourself to avoid this.
My time with Ramsey is a welcome relief from the slow, solitary work that I have been doing the past week, continuing to read Moby Dick, Under The Banner of Heaven, and other articles that I have been finding. I was also pointed in an interesting direction by my younger brother, Jed. I was describing to him a moment in the play when I reveal my true appearance to someone with whom I have only had a relationship on-line. He told me about the series Catfish, which runs on MTV, and mentioned an episode where a couple fall in love on-line, concealing their identities from each other, and the subsequent revelations as the deceptions are pierced. I watched it in my office, otherwise known as Starbucks, and I had my own turn to cry in public. You can watch it here: Catfish, Episode 6. Again, inspiration from an unlikely place.
After our long lunch and discussion, Ramsey and I are feeling pretty somber. Tracing the downward emotional and physical spiral that Ramsey went through, and how it is reflected in the story of Charlie, has taken an emotional toll on both of us. We decide to lift our spirits with some mindless entertainment. We catch a showing of an action movie, ‘cause nothing lightens the mood like a comic book of a film with two-dimensional characters, some car chases and explosions. But I’m grateful that I have a friend in Ramsey, and that he is so willing to share his story, his experience, and his heart. He will be a crucial part of bringing Charlie to life.
You can get more information about Ramsey, as well as watch video of his work and stand-up on his website, at ramseymoore.com. For more information about this production of The Whale, visit the the South Coast Rep website, and please be sure to sign up for the my newsletter.