Thesps quest for dramatic truth

Real-life figures pose unique acting challenge

When Ben Affleck was cast to portray George Reeves in Allen Coulter’s “Hollywoodland,” he had to learn much more about the actor than what he had seen of Superman on the small screen.

And even though audiences weren’t familiar with Reeves’ offscreen persona, Affleck had to make sure he was dead-on accurate in re-enacting Reeves’ personal life — in addition, of course, to what viewers already knew from watching “The Adventures of Superman.”

“You have to get it right, because that’s what the audience knows and knows well,” says Affleck. “If you key in on what the audience is most familiar with, hopefully, they’ll go along from there.”

Actors who portray real-life figures are not only challenged to create a rich, believable character, but also to bring out the true qualities of the individual — both known and private. And the portrayal has to go beyond pure mimicry to be a success.

“I’ve got to try and make the audience comfortable, that they believe I am this person,” says Michael Sheen, who plays Prime Minister Tony Blair in “The Queen.” “You have to do enough to let them not worry about that, but if you do too much, it can keep the audience on the outside. I want them to go on the journey with me.”

Such portrayals require an immense amount of research. “I surround myself with the character,” Sheen says. For Blair, the actor viewed countless hours of videotape of his subject, to learn all he could about the prime minister.

“It’s not to try and copy what they do or mimic them, but it’s a way for me to make an imaginative connection with them. Once I’ve made that connection, I suddenly find myself on the inside looking out.”

Affleck, too, watched as much footage of Reeves as possible, viewing every episode of “Superman,” along with all of the actor’s films.

“I was lucky enough that the guy I played was an actor,” Affleck adds. “He had a lot of work I could study, and even though he was performing, he still has a voice, still has his movement, his carriage.”

Everything down to the knowing wink Reeves gave young viewers was important to master. “He made you feel, as a kid, that you and he were in on the secret, and all the other adults didn’t get it.”

Affleck also gained weight to fit Reeves’ larger physique. “In the ’50s, barrel-chested kind of passed for heroic,” he laughs. Facial and hair appliances helped round out the appearance.

But, as Sheen pointed out, copying the subject’s outward movement and image only goes so far. More important, the actors note, is to get inside the person’s psyche, to get at the source of their outward behavior.

While books may offer some explanation of an individual’s life, Affleck notes, actual acquaintances can offer an actor an entirely different experience.

“One person who was really helpful to me was Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the original series,” he says. “He remembered the guy as a joker and a prankster, something you won’t get by watching the TV show. And Jack was close friends with (Reeves’ girlfriend) Toni Mannix, so he was privy to a lot of things about Reeves no on else knew. So by spending time talking to him, you can let yourself imagine them as if they’re still alive, rather than as a distant figure in a black-and-white TV show.”

Better still, of course, is spending time with the individual, if they are living, as actor Michael Pena was able to do with Port Authority police officer Will Jimeno for Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”

The actor spent a week living with Jimeno and his family, allowing the World Trade Center survivor’s positive attitude to spill over to him. “The best thing I did was spend time with him, and spend time in the city,” Pena says.

“I’d pick up some mannerisms, but also the way he would respond to the environment around him — his head with his nose slightly up, almost smelling the environment. When I do that, it makes me feel like that character.”

Pena interviewed acquaintances, as well, “to mainly learn how they perceived him.” He asked Jimeno plenty of questions, too, even things that had nothing to do with the film’s subject matter.

“I just wanted to see how he saw things — half full or half empty, and, regardless, he always saw it half full.” The Latino Chicago prep school graduate also had to develop an authentic New York accent, something he knew he’d finally landed when he ordered a bagel with a “schmear” without getting any funny looks.

Not all actors have the benefit of personal connections or ample research materials. Such was the case for Adam Beach, who portrayed Iwo Jima flag-raiser Ira Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.” Beach, a Salteaux Indian from Winnipeg, Canada, was aware of Hayes, a Pima Indian, from childhood studies in school. But very little was known about Hayes personally, prior to the book by James Bradley, the son of another flag-raising veteran — a book that Beach avoided reading.

Beach instead opted for a full-on method acting approach.

“The most honest emotion I could bring was to try to visualize the horrors of war, the images and stories of how bad it was,” he says. “That was my 9-to-5. I’d wake up in the morning, and I’d think about it,” to the point where it affected the actor’s sleep. “I was just trying to find out how much baggage I could carry,” to convey the deep hurt and grief Hayes felt after his service.

The actor also drew on his own experience as an Indian for inspiration. “Ira had a deeper patriotic sense. He was not only fighting for his country, but fighting for his ancestral lands.”

Beach also shared a similar experience with his character in a scene where Hayes isn’t allowed into a bar because of his race. “When I was 17 or 18, I wasn’t allowed into a wedding party because I was Indian, and I ended up fighting the guy,” as Hayes does in the film.

While it is typically critics who are first to judge whether such portrayals are accurate, the actors sometimes receive more meaningful feedback. At the “World Trade Center” premiere, Pena recalls, policemen on duty that evening gave the actor the nod.

“One guy just came up and gave me a hug and said, ‘Hey, you did right by us.’ That meant a lot.”

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