Amazing how actors can inhabit their roles, isn’t it? Take Ralph Fiennes, who’s probably best known for his thoroughly evil turn as Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter movies. A veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, our boy Ralph has recently won rave reviews for his film portrayal of Gustave, a rakish concierge, in The Grand Budapest Hotel. In a recent interview, he talked about what attracts him to a project and how small details help him get into the head of a character. As a master actor, he has some insights that we can use as writers to improve our own craft:
Unlikely heroes are Appealing: According to Ralph, “I love unlikely heroes, surprising heroes who stand up for something. It moves me.”
Character counts: Creating lively, engaging characters can be our biggest challenge, but also our biggest asset. True-to-life characters with strong voices have powerful appeal: Ralph says of the role of Gustave, “I loved the part on the page. The part came from my own center and not a sense of affected personage….There’s something in his voice — I felt close to him…I felt I knew him.”
Words Matter: For Ralph, the words on the page of a script give him the foundation to explore a character. As he puts it, “For me, it’s the text, The more I say it, the more I inhabit it—I like to ask myself questions…And then you get into a room and start to play.”
Details help create character: Clothes, shoes, a specific way of walking or speaking: the details that skilled writers build into their scripts or stories can be tremendously valuable in defining what a character is like and how he or she behaves. As Ralph observed: “Sometimes clothes help. I had to be light on my feet. The shoes had to fit perfectly. If the shoes are right, you can be light.”
Just reflecting on how an actor comes to play a role can tell us a lot about what makes dramatic writing work. In the end, it’s pretty basic: unlikely heroes who take a stand; characters that seem real, distinctive, and vulnerable; vivid voices; image-building details. Sounds pretty doable, doesn’t it? Just think of the possibilities — and write on!