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Jason Reitman + Casting
10.05.14

I went to a screening of "Men, Women & Children" at Landmark last night where Jason Reitman (and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson) spoke afterwards about the film. One of the questions asked to him was with respect to casting -- and Reitman said something that I thought was pretty interesting. I'm paraphrasing here (and hopefully not butchering it too much; Landmark typically posts these Q&As in their podcast so you can check it out in a week or so if you're interested) -- but he basically said that he doesn't look to cast actors who can transform into someone else. He looks to cast actors that can -- not necessarily play themselves -- but can find that 5 or 10% of the character that is like them, and build the remaining connective tissue into that character and express it.

I thought this was a really interesting comment for two reasons. The first is because of how I think most people think of acting -- which is essentially the ability to be / act like someone else. And often, who we consider our finest actors (e.g. Daniel Day-Lewis, Meryl Streep, etc.) are the ones who do this particularly well. The second is because certainly among actors I know -- this is a topic that is discussed with some frequency, particularly with respect to auditions. What to do when the character is quite different from you -- do you go in as something close to you (i.e. the best version of you that's a reasonable approximation to the character / text) or do you go in as something potentially rabidly different than you? (but maybe more accurate)

I think one of the tricky things about characters that are very different than you (or different than characters that you have a lot of experience portraying) is that you simply don't have a lot of practice expresing that character (or being that character). I seem to remember an interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman where in response to a question re: staying in character on set -- he basically said that when he's playing a character, he doesn't have a lot of experience with that character. How the character exists -- interacts with people + situations, etc. So he stays in character to get that practice. That's it.

That's the tricky thing about auditions -- we're often pretty time constrained (<24 hours notice) -- and even if you spend all the time from when you get the audition to the audition working on a character, if the character is very different from you, I just think it's very difficult for the mind to properly ingest all that information (even if you know what you want to do and that's pre-supposing a lot). You just need more time to prepare. Ideally you would have a lot of time (I love when I get roles and have weeks to prepare) -- but even a few days, I think there's something about your mind that even a little time, letting it roll around in your mind, and for it to play with it unconsciously, that it starts to feel more natural, subtle, fluid, and also allows you to exist a bit more in it -- which then allows you to explore more of the world as the character. I like to take my characters in the real world and interact that way -- but to be frank, I like my characters to be reasonably developed before I do that. Not that I can't explore in the real world, but I need enough where I can have actual human interactions with both the world and conversations / people before I feel comfortable doing that and exploring.

But back to Jason's comment -- I do think there's something particularly tricky and unusual about what he's talking about. Particularly with difficult / unsympathetic / etc. characters. And he spoke about this in an earlier comment with respect to the younger actors in this movie -- that he was looking for actors who could honestly express the lines written but also without any judgement. And I think that's something that's often oddly difficult -- the complete lack of judgement. Perhaps because acting is so personal an art (it's YOU up there after all; YOU behaving / talking / walking / etc.) -- that when the character is someone who you don't like / does bad things / etc. -- there's almost this silent winking sometimes where the actor wants to say, "It's me -- BUT, see, I don't really agree with what's happening.") But that's the skill. Either not having the judgement at all, or being able to find the empathy, or just flat out being able to execute it a way where you encapsulate the character. Even if you're not transforming into someone else. You're fully expressing yourself under those circumstances. And allowing a camera, and hence the world, to capture that. 

The first time my sister-in-law saw me act, she said something that I've always remembered -- she noted how odd it was for her because, "It's you and at the same time, it's not you." Frankly, I'd love to be able to transform into someone else -- I'd love to see what that feels like. But in many ways, when I play a character -- I do feel like I'm someone else. Someone the other night came up to me because she just saw "Catherine" and wanted to chat about it. As I was talking about it, I was relating a story about how Jenny Slate mentioned that she wasn't expecting any of the potential actors to be able to do what she and Dean wrote and was so surprised when she saw the audition tapes. And this woman (Emily) was asking me if I knew what to do when I got this audition. And I did. I'm not really sure why and that's not always the case -- but I read the text and thought, "I think it's like this." And then I did a little of the character for her and Emily started laughing (presumably because it was what she just watched). But beyond the ability to drop in and do that -- when I play a character like Richard, I personally feel that's someone different than me. It's not that I'm transforming into someone else -- but the set of thoughts / emotions / opinions / interactions / etc. that make up that person, it's different. And I experience the world differently.

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