Gotta love NPR and their theater interviews. Frank Langella gives insight into the challenges and benefits of playing characters with a serious lack of redeeming qualities, and provides a careers worth of advice in only three succinct phrases.
I’m happy I ran into this article at this particular point because of the examinations of Antigone we’ve been having in class (not to mention my own personal challenges). Both the original version (regardless of translation) and the various adaptations have had some truly unsavory roles. In particular, I was having trouble with the Governor from Tegonni. The man is written as an absolute monster, and I couldn’t help thinking over and over how daunting it would be to direct or act such a part. In playing the villain in the past, it’s been my own tendency to downplay the evil, turning the part into comedy as a way to defend myself from my fear of the character itself. What Langella has to say on this matter was helpful:
“I have to see it all from his point of view,” Langella says. “I can’t judge him. I can’t say, ‘Oh, how terrible of him to do this, wink wink, let me find a way to soften what he’s doing.’ ‘Cause when you’re inside yourself, no matter what you are, you believe in what you’re doing. You don’t say, ‘I just screwed somebody over in business. … I’m a really mean person.’ You lie to yourself and tell yourself all the reasons why it’s OK for you to do what you do.”
It’s a fascinating look into human nature and an important lesson for any aspiring actor. Maybe it’s something I’ve known subconsciously all along, but to see it in such simple terms did a lot to clarify the concept. To play at being evil is one thing, but it is something else entirely to internally justify the evil actions one’s character takes. From the villain’s point of view, he or she is not the villain, but the hero of their own story.
Listen to the interview and remember:
The cathartic possibility of the theater needs nothing more than the actor and the stage.
Leap empty-handed into the void.