Thursday, March 01, 2007

Being the Queen

Yesterday in the Guardian Kira Cochrane rued the fact that, since playing The Queen in the film of that name, Helen Mirren has spoilt her previous anti-monarchist credentials by paying schmaltzy obeisance to her Majesty in her award acceptance speeches.

Well, it is a bit much, I agree, but the clue to this odd behaviour is in the final quote Cochrane (sardonically) offers from Mirren: 'Having played an essence of the Queen I've lost that chip on my shoulder.' The point is that as an actor you simply can't play any character - however suspect - without identifying with them. To play even the coldest and most evil character you have to find the humanity within them, the thing which makes them 'tick', even if you have to make it up and apply it artificially. It is something of this that is allowed for when directors tell writers that actors mustn't be told about their characters, but must 'find it for themselves'.

In this respect comedy is easier, because you retain a certain ironic distance from the character (and part of the comedy for the audience, whether or not they are conscious of it, is quite often this very gap between character and actor). However, you still have to find a very personal 'connection' with the character, and this necessity for a double-act is what in other ways makes comedy harder. In a recent comedy I played a very stupid woman, the kind of woman I would die rather than identify with in real life, but I could never have done it, never have got the body language, the tone of voice, the rapport with my opposite, if I hadn't crossed that barrier.

There was one time, though, when it took a lot of crossing for an actor in one of my radio plays. The play was not exactly a comedy, but was, like many of my radio plays, pretty ironic, and the main character, played by this actor, was a spectacularly self-deluding woman and a bad mother. In any radio production the writer, director and crew sit in a sound-proofed booth and the director speaks to the actors in the studio through a mic which can be switched on for the purpose. One afternoon the actor, clearly not knowing the mic was switched on, gave a great sigh which filled our booth, followed by her heavy moan to her fellow actor: 'God, I hate this woman!'

Which made me realise why she 'd been so cool: she'd already let it slip that she thought the character was me.

Tricky, all these elisions between fact and fiction, actor and character, reality and fantasy. If you're sensible you cross back again at the edge of the stage or at the studio door. I guess a particular problem for Helen Mirren, though, is that she wasn't just playing a character, but a real, living woman.

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