It’s a little bit strange, right? You spend all this time in drama school, or on a film set, or on stage, trying desperately to bring fictional characters—figments of some writer’s imagination—to life. You give them histories, wants, needs, objectives and actions, all to make them feel real to an audience, an hour or two at a time. Then … the chance comes along to do something different. This time, you’re playing a real-life person: not some Frankenstein creation, but somebody with actual impact on the world. The audience might know them. They might even still be alive! Sound like a challenge? We hear you.
Playing a real-life person as an actor is challenging, and does require a different mindset/skillset when preparing for the role. However, much of your foundational acting training will be useful in this scenario, and it is important that you still explore the role as you might any other fictional character. Research can be a vitally important tool when playing a real-life person as an actor, but it is only one facet of the task before you. Learn about the historical figure, but don’t forget to discover the ‘human’ as well.
In this article, we’ll be looking at six things you can do to prepare for playing a real-life person as an actor. Some of these tactics might already be central to your acting process—like given circumstances. Others, such as the daunting task of research(!), might be a little more foreign. Just remember that all of these things will aid you in your role prep, and not to mention improve your acting craft overall.
#1 Think About The Historical Figure
Let’s start with some big picture stuff.
Ask yourself “Why this person? Why this story?” Is this person historically significant? Famous? Infamous? What for? If they’re not famous, ask yourself why. What’s kept them out of the history books? And is this the reason you’re telling their story?
Whether they’re famous or not, they’re certainly important. To whom? What did they do with their lives to warrant their story being told? Were they a leader, or a great thinker, an artist, a revolutionary, a tyrant?
Are they still alive? Do they have the same/less/more impact today?
Finally, consider their context in history, in society and in the world. Are they a lauded figure? Controversial? An iconoclast? More often than not, people who aspire to greatness are kept apart from society by their drive, their deeds—the very things that make them extraordinary. What don’t people know or understand about them? How can you address this in your performance?
Keep returning to these questions of “Why this person? Why this story?” In pondering these queries, you can tap into what drives people to know this person—and know them beyond whatever they might read in a textbook or watching a documentary.
#2 Think About The Person
Next, take some time to think about the ‘human’ behind the ‘historical figure’. This is the side of the person you won’t necessarily get in the history books, and it’s the advantage you, as the actor, will have in bringing this person’s story to life. It’s the aspect of the character that your audience is going to connect with—whether they know the person’s story inside out, or are encountering them for the very first time.
Think about the emotions felt by this person, the weight of their (sometimes world-changing) decisions. Did they choose well, or poorly? How did their decisions affect them, or even haunt them? Consider their personality quirks and foibles: the little ‘character’ details that set them apart. I like to use the example of Abraham Lincoln, who far too few people know was a big fan of housecats. Will this play into your portrayal of Honest Abe? Who’s to say it won’t…
Consider their personal relationships: with other historical figures, with the people that supported or inspired or persecuted them. Who can’t you find in a history book or documentary? How did friends and family interact with this person? Were they treated differently in the living room than they were victorious on the battlefield?
At the very least, consider the personal strengths and weaknesses of this character. What are their human flaws? How can an audience relate to these flaws and find some affinity with this person?
In all of your preparation, keep returning to these concepts of ‘historical figure’ and human’. It is your job to strike a balance between these concepts: know both intimately, but don’t rely too heavily on either.
#3 Research Your Role
This is the step that can scare off many an actor—it can feel a bit like you’re back in high school! But research shouldn’t be a scary part of the process; think of it more like detective work, where you’re cracking the case of who this person is.
Below, we’re going to outline some good research methods you might find helpful when preparing a role:
- Wikipedia. A classic for a reason. Wikipedia has long had a reputation for being unreliable (left over from the days when high school English teachers thought the Internet was going to poison young minds); in actual fact, it’s an excellent first stop on your research journey. Look up the person, get a sense of their life and achievements. Tip: if you scroll to the bottom of the page, you can check out the sources for the information on the entry you’re reading: look at this for more detailed reading.
- Documentary/Film/Series. See if there’s a film or series about the person: aim for non-fiction if you can, but don’t shy away from historical drama to get a sense of the person’s life and experience. Just be careful that you don’t end up copying the mannerisms of a performer playing the same person, and beware historical changes due to artistic license. You’d hate to base something in your performance on fabrication rather than fact!
- Interviews/Archival Footage. If the person you’re portraying was ever filmed or recorded, watch these to see how they spoke, interacted and presented themselves. Even better is archival footage, where they’re not necessarily ‘on’ for a camera, but being filmed candidly.
- Books. This can be a tedious option for some, but books are the most reliable: researched, reviewed and with an unmatched density of information. If you have the time, settle down with a good biography of your real person and get lost in their life.
- Articles and Journals. On the more academic side of things, articles and journals online can provide some focused information, usually on one aspect of the real person you’re looking to portray. Not always the most accessible things to read (or find for free), they can still provide some in-depth info.
- Libraries and Museums. If you really want to do a deep-dive, get in touch with your local library/museum and ask them for help with research. If you’re looking into a real person/time period local to where you live, they may even have artefacts like newspapers, letters or other personal effects in storage!
- People. If you are very lucky, you may be able to interview people that knew your subject—perhaps even the person themselves!
#4 Voice, Accent and Physicalisation
Once you have some research under your belt, you can start to think about how this character will physically appear on screen or stage.
A lot of actors will jump straight to accent, and that is an important part of the process! But it’s not the only thing to consider. Start with accent, for sure: research where they came from and how people sound in that part of the world. If you can find a recording of them, fantastic! If not, you might need to look up a person from the same locale, or hear how an historian thinks this person/people might have sounded. Your discovery may surprise you—like this video of linguists performing Shakespeare in original pronunciation.
How is their voice beyond their accent? Low? High? Strained? Are they hoarse from bellowing in parliament all day? Is their voice strong from their training as an opera singer? Have years of smoking given them a thin sound, along with the occasional cough? General George S. Patton was brought to life by George C. Scott in an Oscar-winning performance; many people are shocked to learn that the real George Patton had a tenor voice, totally lacking Scott’s distinct gravelly drawl.
Physicalisation is another important thing to consider: how does this person walk? How is their posture, their gait? Do they move gracefully, awkwardly, aggressively? And, like Patton’s high-pitched speeching, does their physicalisation support or subvert what we know about this person’s personality/reputation/historical standing?
And don’t forget about costume…
We all know about the transformative power of putting on your costume for the first time: how, suddenly, your character is just sorta there. This can be an invaluable tool for portraying a real person as well—sliding into their shoes, allowing them to exist within you.
Take a look at this short clip of Cameron Britton from Netflix’s Mindhunter, where he talks about getting into character of the serial killer Ed Kemper:
#5 Script Analysis
Script analysis is one of the greatest secret weapons an actor can deploy when preparing for a role. When playing a real-life person, it’s doubly important: not only does it help you understand the character and text, it allows you to see what changes have been made in the telling of the story that might deviate from the truth. What has the writer changed? Which bits have been added, modified or left out? And why might this be the case?
We cover script analysis pretty comprehensively on this site, but here are a few important points we go over in the main article with particular significance to our topic:
- Textual Analysis. Analyse every word, phrase, punctuation mark. Think about what the writer intended to convey with the words on the page. Consider style and structure as well. For historical/real-life material, ask yourself what the writer is doing to bring truth to this character’s portrayal: what clues can you pick up on about characterisation and performance?
- Facts and Questions. Write yourself a list of ‘facts‘: irrefutable statements that can be supported by words on the page. “It is daytime.” “There is a character named Abraham Lincoln.” “Lincoln plays with a housecat.” At the same time, begin a list of ‘questions‘, that speak to everything from assumptions to subtext to things, as yet, unknown to you without reading the rest of the script. “What is the cat’s name?” “Does Lincoln love cats?” “Does his stovepipe hat have a lot of cat hair on it?” Facts and questions will help you work out the writer’s intentions, as well as where you might be able to take artistic license or support the story with your own research: “From research, I know that Lincoln loves cats. This will surely help me determine my playing of this scene.“
- Objective and Actions. Simply put, what does your character want (objective) and how do they go about getting it (actions)? Tie your actions to the scene, to your scene partner, and not to any larger understanding of the character’s goals or achievements. In our above example, Lincoln doesn’t want to end the Civil War (even though he is famously big on this topic). He wants to make the cat purr! Objective and action plotting will help you to bring that ‘human’ side of the character: the wants and needs that the audience can identify with.
After this foundational work is complete, you can begin to map out beats, blocking—all the other things you might do to prepare a scene for rehearsal or performance. But with your dramaturgical homework done, you will always be able to bring a greater sense of understanding and truth to the scene.
#6 Given Circumstances
Our final topic of discussion for playing a real-life person is an acting classic. Keep aware of your given circumstances—those all-important questions that keep you present and grounded in a scene. This will prevent you from getting ‘caught up’ in the bigger picture of the character you’re playing.
As with script analysis, we cover given circumstances in greater detail elsewhere on the site. There are also different sets of questions taught by different practitioners, used by different actors. Here’s a basic set to remind you just the same:
- Who am I? Identity, personality, upbringing, past, aspirations, relationships.
- When am I? What time period, what age, what time of year, month, day, hour?
- Where am I? Location, setting, world.
- Where have I come from? What has led to this particular moment? Why am I here (on camera/on stage)? Why is this the only outcome?
- Where am I going? What happens next? If I win, what will transpire? If I lose, what is my next move? IS there a next move?
- What do I want? Particularly in this scene, and from the scene partner? (This is your objective.)
- How do I get it? The tactics you play to get what you want. (This/these are your action/s.)
Getting History ‘Right’
So, why all this effort? Why bother? If you’re a talented actor capable of making compelling choices, why should you let the truth get in the way of a good story? The answer is that playing real-life people allows us to get history ‘right’: to tell stories unknown, or criminally under-known. We can set records straight, put people on trial who escaped judgement and give the world hope based on some very real stories.
As an actor, you have a debt to truth. Whether a character is real or completely fictional, it’s up to you to present them to the audience in a way that is believable—allowing that important artist-audience connection to be made. We won’t pretend that it’s easy, but it’s certainly rewarding. And before that: it’s one terrific challenge.