So, you’ve built a character for the project you’re working on. (Or if you haven’t, perhaps you’d like to head here to: 24 Ways to Build a Character to check out our thoughts on this process). You’re happy with where the character is at and how they feel in performance, but now it’s showtime – regardless of whether you are ready or not, or whether you are in the mood for it or not, you’re now required to get into that character. Sometimes this is a simple process, and sometimes our characters can feel really foreign and distant. What are the steps we need to take to slip back into the shoes of the character and easily inhabit the role? Here are some methods you might like to use to assist this process, and then some thoughts to follow on how different scenarios may impact your process for getting into character.
Methods for Getting Into Character:
- Should You Be ‘Getting into Character’?
- Getting into Character for Film & TV
- Getting into Character for Theatre
- Getting into Character on Short Notice
#1 The Warm Up
As actors, we are simultaneously the instrument and the musician in the orchestra. This duality means we need to double down in preparation, ensuring that the instrument is tuned and ready and our minds are switched on and in the right headspace to perform. This process ideally begins as early as possible on the day of the performance. Whether you are on set at 4.30am or walking into the theatre at 6pm, we need to prioritise our runway into the role as much as possible. Hugh Jackman speaks regularly about how important the day is leading up to his shows in the evening. Even though he might not be ‘warming up’ necessarily, he is taking care of his energy expenditure, diet and mindfulness all throughout the day before he needs to perform. This process is like cleaning the canvas for the actor – freeing the space for the character to emerge, rather than trying to squeeze the character on top of all the other ‘life stuff’ we’ve got going on.
Once we’re actually into the zone of performance, either on set or in theatre, we now need to take care of our instrument. Doing an effective vocal and physical warm up serves a similar purpose to the mental preparation we’ve just spoken of. We want to free ourselves up from the tension and holding patterns we’ve established throughout the day due to our habits and concerns. Just like a violin becoming out of tune in its case, so too have we loosened or tightened since we last stepped into the role of our character. We have plenty of resources for you to check out if you’re at a loss for how to physically or vocally warm up, like this article here: Vocal Warm Ups.
What’s essential in any warm up is that you clear the space and time to be able to warm up effectively. This can be difficult, as performative environments are usually busy and highly charged with anticipation. Do what you need to do, whether it is getting up/ arriving earlier or finding a quiet space to prioritise your own process. 15-20 minutes is all that it takes, but the difference between doing 15-20 minutes of prep and 0 minutes of prep is drastic. When it comes to your warm ups, regardless of the exercises you do, I believe the goal should be about achieving both energy and freedom. We must energise to reach a certain performative level, but also allow for freedom within that. Without the balance between these two we can end up being too tense or under energised.
Finally, and most importantly for getting into character, it’s worth including a walk through of some of your key moments as the character before you actually need to perform them. I remember auditing the rehearsals for a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a few years back, and what was striking for me was the rigorous and detailed preparation of the lead actor playing Maggie (The Cat). Once she had completed her physical and vocal warm ups, she would spend time on the stage going through the motions of some of her scenes. She wouldn’t even necessarily be speaking out loud, but she would instead be reminding herself of the space and the rollercoaster ride of her character. This process seemed essential for her to get into her character, and the brilliance of her performance was testament to the success of that process.
#2 Character Paraphernalie
Even in the most minimalist of productions, you will usually have props or costume pieces which will make up the external world of your character. Each one of these objects is useful for us in the process of getting into character. Just like in our real life, every object we’re surrounded by carries a certain history and personal connection to us, no matter how material or trivial it is. Spend time in your process building a character to come to know and understand these objects. This process is often known as endowment: the process of providing something with a quality or personal connection. This process can be as simple as spending time with the particular object and coming to know it intimately. Know the shape and texture of it, but also imagine the way your character attained that object, the first time they used/ wore it. Perhaps you could attach a particular memory or experience to that object, like the person who gave that object to your character or the time your character lost it for a while. What feelings and thoughts arose in that moment? All of these imaginative triggers are going to charge these otherwise meaningless objects with a significance which can assist us with getting into character. With these objects charged, we may be able to simply pick them up or touch them to be able to get a step closer to our character.
When it comes to getting into character, creating a ritual is one of the most important parts of this process. I want to separate the concepts of warming up and ritual in this list, for though they may be similar there are some key differences. We’ve spoken about the aims of an effective warm up. A ritual by contrast has aims which only you may define. Your ritual is your specifically defined pathway for immersing yourself in your character. Unlike your warm up, your ritual may not release tension or energise you necessarily, but instead it will take you back to the imaginative landscape which is optimal for your character. Your ritual is what you make it, and it can come whenever you need it. In theatre, perhaps there’s a moment before a particular scene where you use your ritual to drop into character. On film, it could be something you do before each take. It can be as long or as short as you need it. It might involve listening to a particular song, imagining a particular memory or experience, or feeling a particular sensory experience, like watching, touching or smelling something.
Whatever your ritual, what is most important is that you defend it proudly. A ritual can only exist if it is honoured and respected and used ritualistically. A ritual is powerful because it gathers energy and significance each time we use it, meaning it will become a more and more powerful tool the more we use it.
#4 Checking in
Getting into character can be a pretty lonely and isolating process. We can feel that because no-one else can play the character for us or that no-one understands the character like we do that we are alone in the process of getting into the character. This is simply not the case. Storytelling requires many voices, and we will usually be surrounded by many people we can connect with to assist us in getting into character. Perhaps there are other actors playing characters your character has a relationship with. Is there a practise or ritual the two of you can come up with to energise that relationship before performing? Sometimes something as simple as some kind of physical connection – a handshake or a hug (depending on the relationship) can trigger the beginnings of your character immersion.
Don’t shy away from the people around you during this process. Certainly do what you need to do to get in the zone, but know that the people around you are trying to do the same thing, and it can be really useful to turn this process into a collaboration.
#5 Ignition of Objective or Need
Whatever vocabulary you choose to use to describe the driving force of your character, (the need/ objective/ want/ desire ect) it’s worth tapping into this force before you’re in performance. Use the time beforehand to remind yourself of what is driving your character, where that drive comes from and what they stand to gain or lose by pursuing that thing. This force becomes the fuel for your character and your immersion in them. Here’s some guidelines from up on identifying your character’s objective, if this concept is foreign to you: How to Find Your Character’s Objective.
Should You Be ‘Getting into Character’?
Let’s zoom out for a moment to talk more broadly about the concept of “getting into character” to assess the benefits and potential risks of this process.
The potential benefits of “getting in” to your character are quite clear: we feel connected to the role we have to play which can alleviate us of feelings of doubt or ‘watching ourselves’ whilst we act. The aim and the result should be to be able to see through the eyes of the character and remain present whilst we are playing them, as opposed to being overly conscious of the ‘make believe’ of acting.
What we risk in pursuing the task of getting in to our character is that we become too insular: we have gone inside the character and have restricted ourselves from letting the character out. Performance and storytelling is about prioritising the audience and their experience, so whatever we do to prepare needs to honour this goal. If the process we go through traps us in our minds or reserves the energy and experience of the character for ourselves, then we have missed the mark. If we disregard the process of getting into character altogether, we risk generalising our performance by playing emotional states and unclear actions and objectives.
As with everything in life, we need to find a balance in this process. We need to get into our character in a way that will not only energise ourselves and our connection to them, but also energise the space between them and the other characters, and them and the audience.
To speak metaphorically, the process of getting into our character should not be about digging a hole in the ground to bury ourselves in, but rather to strap ourselves into the pilot seat of our vehicle which we will go on to drive through the world of the character. We get into character so we can share that character – this needs to be a foundational element of our individual process.
Getting into Character for Film & TV
While most of the process for getting into your character can be transplanted between the worlds of screen acting and theatre, there are some distinctions to make between the two mediums.
In the process of telling stories on screen, we are required to remain ‘in character’ for extended periods of time on a day to day basis (or incredibly irregularly, which is another challenge to overcome), and also play scenes and moments on repeat and out of logical order. All these variables can be turbulent for our process and ability to step into character, and we need to adjust our process as such.
All of the methods I’ve outlined above may be useful for this process. What’s more, it’s worth being extra detailed and specific with your process and recording that process down for your future reference. A friend of mind recently spent four months on a feature film project. During that four month period, they were only on set for roughly fourteen days. Instead of trying to keep their character ‘alive’ for the entirety of that four months, my friend prioritised the steps he needed to take to remind himself of the character and how it should feel.
Whilst on set, getting into character is a process of resetting time and time again. In film, I’d say that ritual is the number one priority for the actor hoping to get into character. Their morning ritual before arriving on set, their ritual whilst they are getting makeup and costume ready, and their ritual before each take. This ritual may only take 5 seconds: It could be as simple as imagining a particular image in your mind, or telling yourself a particular mantra. Whatever your process and ritual is, it’s your responsibility to do what you need to do to effectively do your job.
Finally, it’s worth acknowledging what is possible for us when it comes to ‘getting into’ and ‘staying in’ character. Some actors of the ‘method’ persuasion will insist on the importance of striving to stay in character 100% of the time. We all know the risks associated with this approach. I think what is more sustainable is having an effective process for getting into character, and then maintaining a certain energetic and emotional state for the intermediate time between scenes or takes. This might mean you stick headphones in your ears and listen to music whilst the crew is bustling around you, maybe it just means you operate slowly and mindfully, protecting the delicate line of connection between you and the character. For me it’s too unsustainable to seek to go completely in and out of character multiple times on a single shooting day, but I also want to be a good person to work with.
Getting into Character for Theatre
There is a technical ‘instrumental’ requirement for the medium of theatre. This is why warm ups are so essential for us. We could be doing the performance of a lifetime, but if no-one can hear what we are saying then there’s a problem. Audience is the priority, remember?
As well as prioritising our warm ups, what’s also useful and essential in theatre is reconnection with the world of the play. If possible, getting on stage to warm up and reconnect with the space is crucial. This is a process of holistic endowment. We need to ignite our connection to each of the objects we encounter and the world our character is in, as well as the connection with the auditorium. Spend time absorbing the space in your process for getting into character and this may see you achieving a deeper level of sophistication in your performance and the connection with your character.
Getting into Character on Short Notice
Sometimes, for whatever reason, we’re thrust into performance mode on short notice. Maybe the traffic was bad on the way to the theatre. Maybe the shooting schedule has changed suddenly and our big scene has been bumped from tomorrow’s shoot to this morning’s. Uh oh! This is unfortunately quite a common occurrence and hurdle for the actor to overcome and embrace.
Attention needs to be paid to this possibility in our preparation for the role. Whilst we are building the character, the clearer we can be about our triggers and connection to the character will make the process of getting into character simpler. Whilst we are developing our process for getting into character, it can be useful for us to identify the single most important element of that process. Perhaps it’s your character’s need. Perhaps it’s a connection with a person or object. Whatever it is, this priority number one element becomes our saving grace when we are thrown into the deep end and required to perform on short notice.
Stress and deadlines can cause us tension and angst, so our connection to our breath is essential to remember. As much as we can, we must strive to remain free, even whilst under duress. One of the greatest challenges for the actor is putting aside the stress and manic energy of the set which is running behind schedule, and owning the time when the camera’s rolling like it is our own. It’s also worth remembering that whilst you may be being pushed to perform right this second, you are in charge of your process. You are the subject matter expert. Within reason, you can take control of time and bring the focus back in for yourself. You might do this by asking for 30 seconds of the director. You might do this simply by taking 5 breaths.
When you’re thrown into the deep end, remember these two points: 1. What’s most important for your character? 2. Remember to breathe. These two points can actually be more than enough to immerse yourself in the character and scene – and might even cause you to simplify your process for getting into character when time isn’t an issue!
Getting into character is a process which is specified by and unique to you. It’s your process, which you should prioritise and be proud of. Many elements of the process of storytelling will try to pull you away from this process, whether it is the sound operator needing to adjust your microphone, or the other actor who wants to rehearse your fight scene “just one more time”. Anticipate these distractions and plan accordingly. Wake up earlier, or arrive earlier to do what you need to do. It’s no-one else’s responsibility but yours to get into character, so tackle this challenge professionally.
We have many tools we may use for this process, such as an effective warm up routine, a pre-performance ritual of our own, triggers laid into our connection with the objects belonging to the character, the other actors around us and our character’s driving force. All these factors exist outside the character, so even though the phrase is “how do we get in to our character”, what we are really trying to do is see through our character.
I hope this helps you with your process! We have plenty of other resources on character building and immersion, so use this article as a launchpad for further exploration if it has made you curious!