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David Downs: Staying in Character

Written by: David Downs

David Downs is a professor-emeritus of acting at Northwestern University, where he’s taught for more than 30 years. Over the course of his distinguished career, he’s instructed some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He currently writes about the theater at his blog, David Going On, and we’re proud to feature his content here at CC2K.

In this entry, originally published in June 2010, Downs fields a simple question about acting — and offers an epic response.


The first time I heard a story about an actor staying in character in between takes on a film set, I rolled my eyes. But the first time I performed in a short film, I suddenly saw some sense in the procedure. It was incredibly challenging to summon the intensity to deliver a good take. In theater, you know when you’re going to have to act –curtain to curtain – but on a film set, there’s no telling when they’ll need you in front of the camera.

What do you think about the whole “staying in character at all times” business? Is it overkill? Is it simply necessary for some actors? Is it self-important nonsense? Or is it something else entirely?


The easy response is that I think for some actors it is overkill; for some it is necessary; for some it’s self-important nonsense; and for others, it is something else entirely.

What many (perhaps most) people really mean by “staying in character” — especially when talking about television and film — is “maintaining an emotional state”. And most film and television actors tend to maintain the appropriate emotional state between takes, though at a lower intensity than the scene usually asks for. Depending on what that state is, then, it might mean staying aloof between takes or it might mean staying in off-camera situations compatible with the emotional situation of the take. Of course, if the actor is simply doing his well-honed shtick, then there is no need to stay in any state, because if he’s alive he’s already in character.

But let’s not go for the easy answer. Let’s look at something more interesting.

If by character you mean habitual kinds of behavior not the actor’s own; if you mean ways of responding to environment and situation different from the actor’s; patterns of human action as expressions of deep driving passions determined by biology and circumstance that are not the actor’s, then you’re in the realm of film actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep.

Daniel Day-Lewis

Surely does the “staying in character” thing—some say obsessively so.

My Left Foot

He was always in a wheel chair and had the crew feed him. This makes sense to me: He wanted some muscles and limbs to stay unresponsive and inactive so that he could be free to respond while in scene without concern about them. And in this way, too, he developed habitual and non-conscious ways of responding to people that are Christy Brown’s characteristic responses to others — they are part of Christy Brown’s ‘character’.

In the Name of the Father

He spent three days and nights in a small jail cell without food and water preparing for the interrogation scene. I think I remember reading at the time that he had the director subject him to harsh abusive interrogations as well, but I can’t now find specific references to this.

Whether or not this seems obsessive or whether the ole tale about Olivier’s response to Dustin Hoffman’s running himself to near exhaustion before filming a scene for Marathon Man is apposite, the character of Gerry Conlin is true and complex and detailed. And the interrogation scene is pretty harrowing. 

Helen Mirren

The Queen

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone

I know nothing of Mirren’s creative process, but in these two films alone she creates two utterly different characters and with each, you can’t tell where the actor ends and the character begins. You could easily believe she was type cast in both films.

Meryl Streep

There is no actor working in film today, it seems to me, who has created more characters more definitively than Meryl Streep.

I’m not going to parse her individual characterizations nor compare their relative successes. When she’s good she’s very good; when she’s not, it shows. But of what artist can that not be said? I admire her courage and her reach.

Julie and Julia

Streep is 5’ 6” ish and curvy. We perceive her Julia Child as over 6 feet and angular—it’s a determining part of her character, her way of looking at life, the kinds of decisions she has made, etc., not just the external physical behavioral quirks of a real person. And it was not accomplished simply with wardrobe or by standing on boxes.

To create Julia, Streep says she also channeled her own mother’s love of life.

This Julia is not just a crafty imitation of a real person; she’s an embodiment that gives perspective and meaning to the character of the real person.

It’s an artistic creation.

The Devil Wears Prada

I’m fascinated by what the screenplay expected and what Streep created. If you listen to the screenplay carefully, you sense that the writer intended Miranda Priestly to be a shrill, shrieking harridan, loud and overbearing. (Is that true to the novella? I don’t know, I haven’t read it. Perhaps someone can clarify.)

Streep told David Letterman that all the people in power that she knew never raised their voice because they didn’t have to. Then she added: “Of course, they were all men.”

Miranda Priestly is a character for a purpose. 


Yes, there’s an accent. But it’s not simply external surface mimicry. It’s the vocal expression of a parochial mind, of a person of limited experience.

It’s her character. 

Creating a Character That You Can Stay In: Begin with yourself.

First: What’s important to the character?

Then: What stimuli in your own life can activate the “you behavior” that you share with this deepest driving force of the character?

If you’re an actor wanting to animate the Hamlet “you stuff” in you, you may wish to recreate an experience that animates the you that deeply wants life to be good and honorable and rooted in unassailable principles; then smack it right up against the reality that life is a lot dirtier than you hoped, a lot more corrupt than you were led to believe.

Some Americans are having Hamlet moments with the clash between the purity and clarity of the Obama campaign message and his perceived capitulation to the political realities of Washington life.

If you were dancing and singing in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008 because the Cheney/Bush nightmare was over and you believed “Yes We Can”, recreate that elated you and then confront that you with the recent realities of a favorite political situation. Progressives who saw the public option disappear from the health care bill have experienced Hamlet sucker punches. And there are people having Hamlet smack downs over the handling of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal process.

If you are among those who think the Bush White House was salvation from the years of Clinton corruption, then you can go there to animate your own Hamlet self. The world has no shortage of corruption to touch off your “you Hamlet stuff”.

The Gulf oil spill practically literalizes the metaphor of pollution corrupting the world regardless of how true and admirable their leader’s passions may be. There’s something rotten at the heart of Western Civilization. Oil. The very thing that runs our civilization is the source of its greatest corruption. Pure classic tragedy.

And it’s global. It’s almost too theatrically perfect that the BP CEO is British. That the rig was built by a Korean company. That it was licensed in some little island in the Pacific because its regulatory measures are so lax.

It is an unweeded garden. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.

If you care about your country, you can find your way to creating a Hamlet through your responses to today’s political world.

I stress this public aspect of Hamlet because it is routinely short-changed by actors who would rather plunge into Hamlet’s family life (and I suspect their own private emotional pools)—which always threatens to make of him something of a whining adolescent stamping his foot in rage at mom and step-dad (granted, step-dad did kill dad) rather than a young man facing the tragedy of the corruption of culture and society.

Where were we? Oh yes, Begin with Yourself.

Streep and Mirren had to begin with themselves in order to create great characterizations of Julia and Elizabeth. I won’t presume knowledge of their private creative processes, but take a look at Streep’s Emmy acceptance speech for Angels in America, and you get a glimpse of the Streep who loves acting that can be turned into the Julia who loves cooking.

Actors who don’t know themselves and who haven’t learned how to bring the self to character don’t know how to let themselves respond simply, directly, truly. So they act qualities, ideas about a human being, etc. They try to create emotional and behavioral effects that they think will represent the truth their intellects grasp in general conceptual terms.

And so their teachers work hard to get them to understand their “selfs” from the point of view of acting; i.e., in terms of actual direct sensory response to specific stimuli.

All good acting teaching/learning must address this basic concern. At its core, the Meisner repetition exercise aims at getting actors to discover the answer to the question: Who am I in terms of actual behavioral response? Who am I in terms of literal authentic response to what I see/hear/sense directly before me? Who is the essential, fundamental me and what’s it like when I let that me respond freely and honestly?

Most television and film work hardly asks that of actors and rarely ever more than that. Perhaps those actors need never learn more than that, and truth be told that’s a lot to learn.

Perhaps they need not concern themselves with dramatic characterization.

Teachers facing actors who work only for effect and who don’t respond authentically may go so far as to declare that character doesn’t even exist. That seems extreme to me, but the reality is that film and television mostly expect actors to “bring themselves” to the script. If character is suggested, it is rarely with more than the most generalized traits.

In television, when a show has a long run, writers change the character over time by writing to the individual actors’ personalities and performing strengths.
What “character”?

But you aren’t Hamlet and neither is any of those Grant Park revelers.

Streep isn’t Julia or Miranda Priestly.

Mirren isn’t Queen Elizabeth or Mrs. Stone.

The “you stuff” you and they activate is the life stuff that still must be worked into becoming the character.

(This might be an opportunity to mention the moment in Hamlet performance history when Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage because he became convinced that he was talking with the ghost of his own father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis.) 

Life studies can help.

Where is the Hamlet in President Obama? Take a look at the 2005 convention speech. Look at the bright gleam of possibility in Obama’s eyes. Listen to the forward-looking power of his voice. Now take a look at recent photos. What do the eyes reveal? Listen to the recent press conference about the gulf oil spill. What do you hear in his voice?

He believed Hamlet-like that he could change Washington, bring transparency to politics, create a climate of bipartisanship aimed at improving America—all worthy Hamlet-like goals.

But there’s something rotten in the District of Columbia.

An actor with true empathy can absorb Obama behavior and it will deepen his understanding/creation of his own Hamlet. 

For Queen Elizabeth and Julia Child, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep had life studies indeed to help turn their own “life stuff” into Julia and Elizabeth. Their major task as artists in this regard was to select only the most revelatory behavior and to incorporate it into their characterizations.

When it works, life model behavior becomes absorbed by muscles and senses with true comprehension; when it doesn’t work, it is at best mimicry of external behavior without understanding.
In the examples of Queen Elizabeth and Julia Child, it works indeed.

And I love that Streep added her mother’s joy in living. And for Miranda Priestly, there were those men in power.

Note: Streep perceived, absorbed, stored up experiential images of her mother and the men in power throughout her life–perhaps largely unconsciously. And then when she needed those stored-up experiences to create with, they were there.

What does the actor create with?


Metaphor can clarify and help you to create with objectivity.

Hamlet: Become a young eagle who has learned to use the muscles of his expansive wings to mount into the skies. Spot a rabbit and dive with accuracy; grasp it with sharp strong talons. Soar, ride the wind currents high above your domain. Sense freedom and power in your entire body.

Then: You’re caught in a net, you’re thrown into a darkened room. Try to walk, to fly. Bump into a wall. Stumble into–what is that? Try to find a way out. Try to lift your wings. To find the light.

What’s an eagle to do?

Note: You’re still you. The eagle images help you to become you if you were the young eagle Hamlet caught in a mad maze of traps.


There’s something of a fish out of water about Julia Child in the kitchen. Or a bony walrus standing upright and miraculously doing a graceful ballet with pots and pans and knives and spoons. Bon appetit! Why is it anomalous for Julia Child to triumph in the kitchen? What should a walrus be doing?


You try this one. 

Photos and paintings and novels and biographies:

Hamlet is an Elizabethan Prince. He’s a poet; he’s a scholar; a fencer. He wears clothes that create behavior different from what clothes have asked of the Western male body for the past hundred years or so. What does any actor today do to incorporate these elements? Besides avoiding them by playing the play in contemporary clothes.

Julia is a woman who emerged from a certain time and place in America. Give specific examples to illustrate. What would Mirren have to do to be able to create that American woman besides work with a dialect coach?

Elizabeth is contemporary British royalty. What would Streep have to do to be able to embody this with true understanding in her human totality? 

It’s true that good casting does most of the director’s work. Especially in television and film, cast an actor with the essential qualities needed for the role and much of the actor’s creative work is done.

In his last years, Jimmy Stewart said that his first question to a director who wanted to cast him was Why do you want Jimmy Stewart?

Why couldn’t you use any other old actor? What makes this a Jimmy Stewart role? If the part didn’t need Jimmy Stewart, if the director wanted him only because of his name, then Stewart declined.

Jimmy Stewart wasn’t asked to create a character; he was asked to bring the recognizable Jimmy Stewart brand to the role. (Yes, even for Vertigo.)

Most television and film actors aren’t asked to create characters; they are asked to play their recognizable characterization affect in various situations.

We expect certain things from such actors as, for example, George Clooney or Julia Roberts. Character creation is not one of them.

Test it: You can interchange characterizations among the films. Clooney in this film for Clooney in that one. Roberts in this one for Roberts in that one. What accounts for any difference in “character“ is a difference in the emotional or attitudinal state of the Clooney and Roberts brand.

But you can’t imagine Miranda Priestly singing on a Greek island with Pierce Brosnan or Queen Elizabeth undressing in an automobile to have sex with a young gigolo.

All of which is not to judge either kind of actor as more or less valid or worthy. Their work situations are just utterly different with utterly different expectations of what the actor’s role should be.

And it does suggest something about how deceptively simple the phrase “staying in character” actually is.

Post Script:

I wanted to write about this–and perhaps way too loosely–because I’m hoping readers will post comments, anecdotes, side bars, etc. This topic can be expanded and altered in many ways. So how about trying it?