Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Craft of Acting

Every year, awards are given out for the best actors and actresses of film, stage, and television. For some, this is merely a popularity contest. For others, it is a recognition of who can project the most gravitas. In too many cases, I fear, awards are given for the favorite characters of the year. Yet there is a craft to acting, an art. Those deft in this craft can convey not only majesty and gravitas, not only dramatic characters, but different personalities, different situations, different emotions. Acting craft can overcome storytelling challenges and expand the art of acting beyond the everyday into the fantastic.

Which is why I think genre actors in speculative fiction are cruelly under appreciated. Consider, for example, Stargate SG-1, Season 7 Episode 3 "Fragile Balance". In this episode, Air Force Colonel Jack O'Neil wakes up with the body of a fourteen year old boy. The bulk of the episode deals with him convincing his team and superiors of what happened to him, trying to be taken seriously as an adult, and finding out what happened to him and undoing it. A not unheard of speculative fiction trope, and executed fairly well.

To do this, the show brought in a little known actor, Michael Welch, to play the young Jack O'Neil. In order to pull of the role, Welch had to imitate Richard Dean Anderson's portrayal. Of course, it's up to the writers to keep the character's lines and catch phrases consistent with what we've already seen in six years of Jack. But Welch needs to deliver those lines with a similar emphasis, cadence, and vocal style to Anderson. He needs to use facial expression and body language to carry that he is, in fact, an adult air force colonel in a teenager's body. I think that Welch does it well, and the episode is entertaining.
However, what I'd like to point out is that this is an acting challenge pretty uncommon among the more serious and dramatic works that normally win awards. Actors are recognized for how effectively they convey a character, and for how effectively they invoke the character's emotions and evoke a response in the audience. But how many Oscar and Emmy winners have ever had to not just sell their interpretation of a character, but sell another actor's interpretation of that character.

Ewan McGregor faced a similar challenge in Star Wars Episodes I - III. He not only had to play the role of a Jedi Knight, but had to do so with the understanding that his portrayal should evolve in such a way that his characterization of Obi Wan Kenobi should believably mesh with the characterization of the same person in Episode IV. Played by Alec frickin' Guiness. Not the easiest thing to expect from an actor.

As another example, take the Stargate: Atlantis Season 2 episode 4 "Duet". Dr. Rodney McKay (David Hewlett) winds up sharing his body with the mind of a woman, air force lieutenant Laura Cadman. Again, not an uncommon trope in speculative fiction, but done all right here. Men taking women's roles is an old, old tradition in theater. Even when men weren't doing women's roles out of tradition and local law, the number of cross-dressing character in Shakespeare is staggering.

Still, here in this episode, Hewlett has to show us when he is in control of his body, when she is in control, and when they are in conflict. He has to convince us that he is acting like a woman: a seperate set of gestures, body movements, vocal styling, and so on. This can't all be solved with good writing and voice overs: he has to act it out, too. I think he does reasonably well, but my point here is how common this kind of thing is in speculative fiction. Had this been a mainstream television show or movie, the acting challenge presented might have been considered 'daring' or 'unconventional', but here it's just another week on the set.

There are plenty of additional examples. Body switching, age progression or regression, mental illness and breakdowns, alternate realities, hallucinations that aren't... the list is nearly endless. Each trope invoked requires a level of acting ambition and craftwork that would win acclaim and applause in mainstream genres, but here is just another week on the set. So, let's remember to appreciate what these actors are doing for us, and remember that the West Wing wouldn't dare.


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