Over the years, playing a performer has been a reliable attention-getter come awards season.
This is an especially rich year for such roles, with Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles, Kevin Spacey taking a turn as Bobby Darin, Billy Crudup cross-dressing as 17th century topliner Ned Kynaston in “Stage Beauty” and Annette Bening donning her diva hat as Julia Lambert in “Being Julia.”
But playing these roles is tricky business. Do a strict imitation, and you come off like an impressionist. Stray too far from the original, and you alienate the pic’s core fans. And you’d better put on a pretty dynamic show — or young auds that don’t remember the original performer won’t know why they should even care.
Kevin Spacey faced all these problems and more as Darin in “Beyond the Sea.” Darin’s not as familiar to younger auds but he still has devoted fans.
“You just don’t want to feel like you have to do some sort of slavish imitation,” explains Spacey, “because I just think after a while it wouldn’t feel alive. It would be like a sketch.”
Instead, he set out to capture the essence of Darin and his distinctive singing style.
Unlike Foxx in “Ray,” who was able to lip-synch to Charles’ original tracks, Spacey had to sing all the songs himself, partly because the film’s extended musical numbers didn’t conform to any recordings.
So Spacey spent about five years learning to sing like a pro.
“(Darin) had an unbelievable range. It was very difficult. … There were many times in that process when I didn’t know if I could do this.”
He became polished enough, though, that Darin’s family sent him the singer’s original music charts.
“That was an incredible gift,” says Spacey, “and it also gave us the opportunity to be phenomenally accurate in the arrangements.”
“Ray’s” Regina King had a different challenge. As she set out to play Margie Hendricks, Ray Charles’ lover, onetime Raelette and the female voice on “Hit the Road, Jack,” she discovered she had very few primary sources. There was little information on Hendricks, few photos and only two pieces of film: a “Dinah Shore Show” performance and a short movie scene.
“She has one line, and I rewound that line probably 60-70 times, to get her tone when she wasn’t singing,” King recalls.
One of the original Raelettes came in to coach King and the other onscreen Raelettes on the group’s original movement style, which was very limited. But King never met Charles or anyone else who’d known Hendricks, so she immersed herself in the records.
“I think voices are so telling. I looked for certain things, like did I hear any extra sadness? Did I hear nodes on her vocal cords because she was doing drugs and not using her voice properly? I listened to all those little nuances, and that helped me find my way,” she says.
Only after film was complete did she meet someone who had known Hendricks, music mogul Ahmet Ertegan.
“(He) was the first person I met who knew her, and he said I was dead on and that my performance was wonderful,” says King. “I hope some day I’ll run into her sister who’ll say ‘You know, you nailed her.’ ”
Then there’s Crudup, playing a character who really existed, 17th century thesp Ned Kynaston, but whose performance style is lost to history. Kynaston was a female impersonator on the English stage, a man who began his career in an era when no women were allowed to tread the boards and ended it after actresses had been accepted.
Crudup had to essentially start from scratch, while trying to create an acting style that made historical sense.
“It was a great exercise in imagination,” he says.
Crudup has classical acting training but still had to prepare his voice to speak in a higher register. He studied Greek sculpture, figuring that Kynaston would have drawn on their look to form his own idealized image of womanhood. He also worked with a choreographer to develop Kynastson’s very formal performance style.
“Every single gesture and expression was developed and executed. There was no sense of inspiration.”
They choreographed Desdemona’s death scene in “Othello” so completely that it was basically a dance.
But for Crudup, the biggest hurdle was learning Kynaston’s unorthodox acting style.
“To be ineffectual as an artist, that was what was required of me at the beginning of the movie,” he says. “It was hard to play someone who doesn’t use the same kind of vocabulary. And it was hard not to send up myself in drag. There’s a real risk if you make an earnest attempt to inhabit the character of a woman that you’ll look silly if you miss it, so you have a temptation to send it up to protect yourself.”