I was shooting a television episode of an hour long drama this week. As a guest star, you are lucky if there is an arc to your character. What happens if you’ve been hired as a recurring character, especially a series regular? Many actors find it challenging, if not frightening, to keep track of a character’s back story. During a break I had a chance to discuss acting process with a couple of the series regulars. It was interesting to see how these two actors dealt with this same issue.
One of the regulars had just been added to the cast and it was her first series regular job, and her biggest acting responsibility to date. She had recently butted heads with the writers on an earlier episode because she felt some of her dialogue did not match her already established character. “My character wouldn’t say that,” she told them. She shared that she immediately regretted saying that because they just looked at her with not too kind expressions on their faces. Eventually she said the lines and felt frustrated because she struggled to make it “work” for her and her character. After 8 weeks she said it just kept getting harder. Many actors work this way. It must be very hard indeed.
The other actor said that she used to struggle with the same thing (She had been a series regular on another show prior to this one). And then she realized that if she just said the lines the people watching would believe it. At first she thought she was being lazy, but then she realized the futility in having an elaborate back story and keeping track of all these character traits. I said to her, “So, what you are saying is ‘Just play the scene.'” She said, “Exactly!” And I smiled.
Television characters change slightly from show to show. Those changes can be more pronounced over a season. If it has a long life, you can bet a character will evolve or devolve in ways you never prepared for. Play the scene. You don’t get to control your character – that’s the writer’s job. Be prepared for anything.