Conflict is the essence of drama. Conflict is generated by status, as characters scramble over one another to reach the top of their food chain. Status is everywhere in storytelling. In every scene or relationship, the characters present are always trying to preserve their status or change it. This status of the character can be quite simple for the actor to identify, but to embrace and play that status poses a new challenge. Often, actors will push into the realm of farce or caricature when trying to effectively represent status, and remaining truthful can be a difficult thing to do. In this article we’re going to be discussing everything to do with playing status as an actor. We’ll define it, analyse it, compare it, and look at one of the most brilliant examples of acted status we have as reference to figure out how we can play it well in our next role.
What is Status?
When I say the word Status, I am not referring to the position (physical, political, economical ect) of the character. I am referring to the character’s perceived and given amount of power in their relationships.
Status always exists between two entities, which is an important point to note. In isolation, with nothing to bounce off, a character cannot have status. But wait, without status, we lose conflict and therefore drama, right? Right. So how can solitary characters retain dramatic tension? By finding the status between themselves and something else. Shakespeare demonstrates this frequently and brilliantly to us. Characters will often stride the stage alone, but there is always conflict and a struggle for status between them and something else, whether it be the world they are in, their perception of God or the audience themselves.
Status is the power dynamic between two characters, two entities. We typically simplify the idea of status by breaking it into two categories: high status and low status. In simple terms, High status characters have the power in the dynamic. Low characters, therefore, do not.
Before we break into the specifics of what constitutes high and low status, I want you to watch something for me, (which will most likely do a lot of the work for me!)
The following scene is a famous excerpt from The Silence of the Lambs, Starring Jodie Foster and Antony Hopkins. It features exceptional performances, and is a brilliant example of two actors contending for status. Enjoy.
Right, shake off those chills and finish your glass of chianti, we’re back on. Silence of the Lambs is 30 years old as of 2021, and it still sends shivers down my spine. If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry – that scene doesn’t contain any spoilers. For a little bit of context however, (which will be useful to know in this conversation about status) Jodie Foster is a young FBI trainee who is hunting a serial killer named “Buffalo Bill” – a deranged psychopath who treats his victims in a truly sadistic way. Having exhausted all other options, Foster’s character, named Clarice Starling, seeks the advice and counsel of Dr Hannibal Lector (Antony Hopkins) a convicted cannibal and murderer, in how to catch “Buffalo Bill”. Really light and cheery stuff, huh? Yeah, it’s not. Watch the movie, if you haven’t already.
So, why have I subjected you to this chilling scene? Well, I think it’s going to be a great reference point for us in analysing the crucial elements of playing status so that we’re all on the same page, rather than me assuming you’ve seen the films and characters I’m using as examples.
Let’s begin by talking more about High Status characters, and how to play them.
How to Play High Status
A high status character is a character who has, or perceives they have the power in a relationship or dynamic. Note my use of the word perceives; a character who is literally standing at the gallows or lying at the feet of an oppressor may still have the higher status in a scene. In the example from Silence of the Lambs, Dr Lector is the one with the higher status, though he is locked in a glass-walled prison with no windows. Foster’s character is the one who is free, able to leave this dungeon at any point she chooses, yet she is the lower status character in this relationship.
So what can give a character power and therefore high status? Well, many things can, just as many things can in the real world. Education, wealth, heritage, physicality and information are some of the many factors which contribute to one’s status or power. Having all of these factors can make your power near-infinite, but it only takes one of these factors which the other character does not possess to generate a higher status. In the case of Dr Lecter and Agent Starling, though starling has it all: freedom, agency, morality, ect, she does not have the thing she needs from Lecter – understanding. She does not understand how the mind of a psychopath works. Dr Lecter however, prides himself in his understanding of this very thing. This crucial need Agent Starling has for this understanding gives Dr Lecter the higher status in this scene.
Now that we’ve identified who has the higher status and why, now we need to analyse how to play this status effectively and truthfully. I think this can be done effectively and concisely by discussing two things: Need and Trust.
There’s an inherent risk with knowing that your character has the higher status in a scene. Knowing this can weaken the stakes of a scene for us: what we stand to gain or lose from the scene. Losing stakes, losing our objective in a scene lessens the conflict in a scene, and as we’ve established already, without conflict we have no drama.
The foundation of playing High status, (as it will be with Low status too, as we’ll see later) is Need. Our character has to need something from the other character, and they must use tactics derived from their status to get what they need. I am using the word Need here as it is most energising for me, you may prefer to use the term ‘want’ or ‘objective’ in its place if it suits you better. For Dr Lecter, his need is for Clarice herself, and for the fact that she is seeking his advice. Her need for his information and understanding validates him and makes him feel powerful – he is a narcissist, and narcissists need to be constantly reminded of their own supremacy.
Have you ever watched someone who is a master of what they do demonstrate their skills? A world-record holding athlete winning a race? Usain Bolt is first to come to mind for me. He does what I consider to be humanly impossible like it’s no big deal. His ability and his confidence in his own ability is a great real-world representation of high status which is useful for us as actors. Though he is a competitor and stood to lose his records and reputation time and time again, he never needed to prove to anyone he was the best by doing anything other than winning. If we look at him getting ready on the starting line of a race, he is always the calmest athlete present. He needs to win, and he knows he will. All his status is generated from this.
When we act high status, there is a temptation which lies before us to ‘prove’ to everyone around us (the characters and the audience) we truly hold the higher status. Particularly if we feel we do not have high status in our everyday lives, we may feel the need to push for proof that we indeed possess the status our character has. This risk brings into focus the need for us to have trust.
We must place our trust in the given circumstances and our understanding of the character and story. This trust generates an ease in our performance, a quality which naturally aids an image of higher status.
Dr Lector does not need to prove to Clarice that he has the higher status, he just does. To attempt to prove this fact would actually take away from his status and power. Dr Lector, trusting in his status in this scene, presents as calm and within control. He takes his time. He speaks deliberately and as he wishes. He smirks and sustains unblinking eye-contact with Clarice. All these physical traits are hallmarks of his high status in this scene.
This trust Dr Lecter possesses does not mean he does not fight to retain his status, however. Status and conflict are interwoven, remember. Status does not exist in isolation There is always a fight to stay on top, the struggle never settles. Agent Starling confronts Lector in a brazen move to take the higher status in this scene by attempting to plant a seed of doubt in Lector’s mind. She tries to turn the mirror onto Lector by asking him, “Are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself?” This is an effective strategy, as it forces Lecter to fight to retain his status. He is forced to threaten Starling and play his tactics of psychological manipulation, the threat of violence and finally by disengaging with the conversation and robbing Starling of the answers she seeks to preserve his status.
Status and Physicality
In the beginning of this article, I originally intended to write at length about how status affects our physicality as people and how we can use physicality to shift our status when acting a character. Through the process of writing this article, however, I have come to the conclusion that I will refrain from doing this. I will of course point out (As I have already done so in the case of Hannibal Lector) points of evidence of a character’s physicality as manifestation of status, but I think it’s actually reductive to brand either end of status with rules of physical behaviour. For instance, we could say that all high status characters stand tall, and all low status characters hence or try to make themselves small. This may be true for many if not most examples of performed status, but it is not a universal truth. As we’ve already identified, status exists for many reasons, not just a character’s physicality.
The more I seek to understand the craft of acting, the more I realise that physicality is only the surface level of playing status. Our work becomes far more sophisticated when we go deeper than this, when we embrace opposites and contradictions, when we seek the truths of status far beyond what’s obvious to us.
To harp on about this point just for a little bit longer, allow me to demonstrate by debunking my own example. Let’s take a statement such as “High status characters stand tall, whereas low status characters make themselves small”. For many scenes, this may be true. But I can think of several scenes in films and tv shows where this is not the case. I’ve just finished watching season one of Westworld (and it has BLOWN MY MIND – watch it) and there’s a scene in that show where the opposite of my statement is demonstrated. A seemingly ‘high status’ character is exerting their dominance over a seemingly low status character. The high status character is beating up the low and standing on their feet looking down. The low status character is grovelling in the dirt nursing their wounds. Just when we think the high status character is going to finish off their victim, the low status character reveals that they have information the high status character needs, which flips the status dynamic on its head. Though they are literally in the dirt and as small as they can be, they have seized the power by possessing something the other character needs.
Status can be ‘demonstrated’ by actors through physicality. We can stand all when playing a monarch or play a hunch back when we’re the fool. All are justifiable choices, but to rest with that choice as “job done”, we miss an opportunity to understand the intricacies of status more deeply.
How to Play Low Status
We’ve looked at the Doctor, let’s now turn our attention to the FBI Agent: Clarice Starling. Clarice is a really useful example for us to talk about Low Status. Clarice is intimidated by Lector. She needs information from him but otherwise would love to never see him again. She is repulsed by him. She doesn’t understand him and is afraid of him. All factors which contribute to her lower status in this scene.
How do we learn from this performance to be able to play low status ourselves? What are some key points for us to put into practise? As before, I’ll attempt to keep this as concise and practical as possible. I believe that Need and Trust are important factors to consider for the low status character too, but with a few additions. The next few words I’m going to add into the mix are Fight, Respect and Stakes.
Before we go on, a quick note on Need one last time. Need is a crucial point to remember when playing high status, as we are quick to forget that our character does in fact need something. When we forget that fact we rob our character of drama. For low status characters, Need is their foundation. Low status characters need something so desperately their power is robbed from them whilst they are without it. For agent Starling, though she would give anything to avoid this avenue, she Needs the assistance of Dr Lecter. Without his input she may never stop “Buffalo Bill”, which will result in the deaths of countless other innocent people – a result agent Starling cannot allow. There is a void which Agent Starling has to fill, and until she does she will never be whole.
The primary risk when playing low status is that we play the victim. We embrace our lower status and release any attempt to change the character’s situation. This is death to drama. In life, our entire being is designed to survive by whatever means necessary. If we feel we are dying, we fight to stay alive. If we feel we are oppressed, we fight for freedom. If we feel we are misunderstood, we fight for understanding. We never play the victim in real life, nor should we when acting.
When playing low status characters, we must always fight to become higher status. Resignation of the fact that we may never get there robs the story of conflict and drama.
Though Agent Starling is (and knows she is) lower status in this scene, this does not mean she becomes a victim. She does not give Dr Lecter an indication she is afraid of him – she holds his eye contact, and she presses him directly with her questions. She fights. She even goes so far as to smile at him when she attempts to belittle Lecter’s character.
All the factors contributing to the given circumstances of the story and the elements of how it is told contribute to Agent Starling’s low status in this scene, she does not need to demonstrate this to the audience. The camera looks down at her. She is sitting uncomfortably on a solitary wooden chair in a brick-lain dungeon. She is all alone. Foster can trust all these elements and how they contribute to the audience’s perception of her status. All Foster can do is to fight Dr Lector through Clarice. Clarice must survive. She needs to play to win. She must fight.
A useful thing for us to think about when playing low status is Respect. It’s useful for us to understand the respect our character has for another character’s higher status. In this scene, it’s fair to say that Clarice respects Lector, though she does not admire him. She respects his intelligence and his understanding which she does not have. She respects his position as someone who has agreed to help her. This respect, this penitence or ‘bowing down’ to another character, automatically reduces our status without further proof or effort being required.
When playing period drama, respect is always in question when it comes to status. Lower status characters are commonly seen lowering themselves to higher status characters, consistently demonstrating respect for their position.
Have a think about what your character respects about the person they are lower than, and how that assists you in your pursuit of playing lower status.
Understanding the stakes of a scene is crucial for acting, especially when it comes to playing low status. A useful breakdown of the word Stakes from Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and the Target is the following question: “What do I stand to gain and what do I stand to lose?”
Asking this question of your character can reveal a lot. When lower status in particular, there is usually a lot to gain and/ or a lot to lose. For Agent Starling, failure to gain this information from Dr Lector will result in the deaths of people she pledged to serve and protect. For a servant in Downton Abbey, for example, failure to do your job correctly or pay respect to the Lords and Ladies of the house may see you cast out onto the street or into prison. Attaining what’s at stake to gain however can see these characters catapulted to dizzy heights they could never have dreamed of.
All characters are bound to the stakes of a scene, and low status characters in particular stand to gain or lose more than most. Identify what’s at stake and feel the reality of those stakes acutely in your portrayal of the character.
So, where have we got to? I’ve robbed you of a dot point “hallmarks of status” list, spoon feeding you how characters of different status physically present themselves. Sorry about that. Instead, what I’ve attempted to do is to encourage you to think deeply about the building blocks of status. The elements of the given circumstances present which result in the power dynamic between two people.
We spoke about Dr Hannibal Lector and his higher status, and reminded ourselves of the importance of understanding what higher status characters need. We must not assume they have everything they want simply because they have power. “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown” as Shakespeare tells us; there is a cost and a burden which comes with being ordained with power. As well as this, high status characters must trust that they are indeed high status. They do not need to prove this to the other character or the audience. To do so would be contrary to the power they possess.
Lower status characters we examined through Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling. We spoke of the importance for us to not ‘play the victim’ but instead to always be fighting to regain the power in a situation, though we may never get it. We also spoke about respect and stakes, and how identifying those elements of the scene can allow us to effortlessly slip into the status our characters need to possess.
A Final Note: The Audience’s Helping Hands
I’d like to wrap up this discussion with a final point on the role the audience plays when it comes to the topic of status. The audience holds a great power when watching a story: the power of projection. They will project onto a scene, character or relationship their interpretation, based on their own lived experience. This turns the actor into a blank canvas which is filled with the audience’s perception. This can be really useful for us to remember as it allows us to trust our work and encourage the audience to ‘come to us’ rather than feeling we need to push to ‘go to them’.
The same is true when it comes to status. An audience will take into account all the information of the story – the given circumstances, the setting, the costumes, the music and the characters and project onto it what they see the power dynamic to be. This is why Jodie Foster and Antony Hopkins are able to be really specific and minimal with their work, both of them have a fairly neutral expression for the majority of the scene, but we as the audience are acutely aware of the power dynamic shifting and changing with the scene.
What this comes down to is the fact that you can trust the scene. If you have done the work of an actor, then ‘playing status’ becomes an organic part of the scene. We tread into dangerous territory when we feel we have something to prove and feel the need to ‘show’ the audience our status.
Trust the work you’ve done and allow status to emerge through it!