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Character Actor Stephen Tobolowsky on Characterization

Unfortunately for my writing workday, yesterday was errand day. But it wasn't a total washout because it gave me an excuse to listen to veteran character actor Stephen Tobolowski's interview on the wonderful NPR show Fresh Air. Tobolowski was there hawking what sounds like an entertaining new book, The Dangerous Animals Club, which I plan to pick up, since I found this "everyman" actor so engaging. But what impressed me most was this bit about creating "small roles," which struck me as so analogous to the novelist's job in creating minor characters.

From the show's transcript (with thanks to NPR!):

DAVIES (Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies):Is it harder to get a script where you've got a small part and figure out the character? TOBOLOWSKY: Oh, it's one of the real challenges. It's what people don't expect as a difficulty of being a character actor. When you go back to the roles that have two names - Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, those guys - everything they do is in the script, their entire day. You see them drinking coffee, you see them taking a shower sometimes. Their entire throughline is in the script. If you play their buddy, or worse the plumber of their buddy, you have a day, too, and you have a throughline to your day, too, but you have to do that work outside of the script. If - I know a lot of actors listen to this show, and I want to bring this up. One of the quick ways I use as a character actor to get into any part is I ask two questions: What is my greatest hope? What is my greatest fear? And usually you don't have a lot of time as an actor to study your part, but if you can answer those two questions, they will form a tightrope upon which almost any other question in the script can be answered, and those are the two I go for. Yeah, that is the work of being a character actor, doing that work off-camera.

I've added italics to show the spot that particularly struck me. Have you asked these two important questions of every character in your story? If not, give it a try and bring your manuscript's secondary characters to life!


Kay Hudson said…
I hate to admit how many books on my TBR shelf are there as the result of an interview on NPR.
You say that like it's a bad thing, Kay! ;)

(I know what you mean!)
Lark Howard said…
Simple questions that get to the heart of the character. Thanks, Colleen!
Isn't it cool how the simplest things can sometime resonate most deeply? Thanks, Lark!
Barbara Sissel said…
This sure does nail it, Colleen, in a way I hadn't thought of it before. So glad you shared. Thanks!
Glad you stopped by, Barbara! I loved it, too, and it's such a simple way to frame a character.
Anonymous said…
Oh, I like the way this is stated. An elegant solution.

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