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.
Just what I wanted to hear. It’s December 20th, a couple of days after I take on the role of Charlie in The Whale. I have stopped by the office of Martin Bensen, one of the founding artistic directors of SCR. Martin will be helming our ship as we navigate this play.
I am not averse to growing a beard for a role. I had to grow one several years ago, to portray Matt Friedman in Talley’s Folly, and as I look at this photofrom the production I actually think I looked pretty good with it. But I also realize that Charlie, the character I am preparing to play now, doesn’t really care about his appearance, so that means no trimming or edging. I’ll just have to let it grow ragged, particularly down my neck, which it seems will be the most difficult part to deal with when trying to make me look extremely overweight. So I just have to start letting myself look like crap and keep it going for the next few months. Great.
Aside from the facial hair, Martin and I discuss the prosthetics that will be used to put another 425 pounds on my frame. This prosthetic suit has a common name in industry parlance, but I will refrain from using it here. It strikes me as disrespectful not only to those who suffer from this condition, but to the character I am to be playing as well, and I think it is of paramount importance to always come to our characters with respect, kindness, and even love, if we can muster it.
Some have advised me to ask that the prosthetic suit be made as light as possible, but I am of a different mindset. As I tell my students, I don’t want to have to do a lot of acting when I am on stage. If we do our work correctly, then at the time of actual performance, we don’t have to do any work at all. The better our preparation, the more we are able to walk out on stage and simply “be.” To that end, the suit will help me with the physicality of the role, not merely in terms of how I look in it, but in how it restricts and affects my movement. The good news from Martin is that ice packs will be incorporated into the suit. That should help, as I’m told it can get pretty toasty in there. Finally, Martin lets me know that we’ll be dying my hair, and probably my beard as well, as it is coming in almost completely white now, despite my tender years.
Aside from the physical realities that have to be planned for well ahead of time, there is a mountain of source material with which I have to start acquainting myself. To that end, Martin and I stroll over to the office of my old friend Kelly Miller, the Literary Manager at SCR, who will be dramaturg for this production. Kelly has compiled a list of source materials for me, including interviews and articles on the playwright and his own influences. She also suggests Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer, an examination of the origins and evolution of the Mormon Church. For my part, I have already started to read Moby Dick, which figures prominently in Charlie’s interior world, diverting myself along the way with The Book of Jonah and 1 Kings 16-22, which deals with the biblical Ahab. I’m also working my way through The Book of Job, as well as putting some time in with The Book of Mormon. All of this reading will put me in touch with the history, references, knowledge, and themes that work their way through Charlie’s mind, both consciously and subconsciously.
In addition to connecting myself to Charlie’s inner life, I have to figure out how to approach the physicality of the role. I can’t simply say that the prosthetic suit will do all of the work on that front. It will certainly affect how I move, but it will not, I am sure, do the job of making me move exactly like a man suffering from the challenges that Charlie is facing. It will make me move like a man wearing a heavy, binding prosthetic device. I have to start learning about obesity and congestive heart failure, as well as attendant side effects. How will I move? How does it feel to breath? To eat? I’m trolling the internet for information and video (Kelly already sent me some links to a show called “My 600 Pound Life,” on TBS), and reading up on information from the CDC and other sites.
These weeks of research are for me among the most exciting of a new role. They are one of the reasons I chose the profession. The luxury of having a job that requires the exploration of new topics, new fields, the ever changing landscape of our work as we go from role to role, that is one of the greatest rewards of this career. And right now I have the joy of being in the thick of it.
The Whale will be performed at South Coast Repertory from March 10th through March 31st, 2013. Information and tickets are can be found following this link.