I've never played a person who is still alive. One might think, "Oh, well it must easier then?"
But, no, quite the contrary.
In fact, I'd rate the difficulty of "character-playing" as this:
1.) Fictional: EASY. You can do whatever you want (depending on the director), as long as it aids in the story (depending on the director).
2.) Non-Fictional/Historical, but deceased: TRICKY. If they passed long enough ago that anyone who knew them, or remembered them has also passed, its not too difficult. But if they are still alive in your audience's common memory, you will have some work cut out for you.
3.) Non-Fictional/Historical, alive: HARD. Why? Because how in God’s name am I supposed to play someone who is still alive, who a good deal of my audience knows personally, and who is also coming to see the show about him where my character is him?
William Connell, Michael Mastro, and Jamie Wyeth.
I mean, this person — let’s call him... Jamie — is a living, breathing, famous painter.
I am not a painter. I can't even draw.
Over Breakfast at our first meeting, my director Michael said, "Don't worry about 'being Wyeth.' As far as I'm concerned, you are Wyeth. And besides, you look kind of like him."
Well, I guess at the very least, I look kind of like him. But then what? Who is this man?
For my audition I did the usual mad-cap fact-grabbing one does when given an appointment about a historical figure. Every proper noun, place, and object has some deeper meaning that will have to be filled and given context. PHYLLIS. CHADDS FORD. CHRISTINA'S WORLD. What are these and what do they mean to the speaker?
Thank God for Google and YouTube.
But what about Jamie?
I know the Wyeths are very private people, and being an artist I understand and honor that. But what then? If the man I am to play (that I look kind of like), is not available for 'research' what do I do? Do I just do a 90-minute, YouTube inspired Jamie Wyeth impression? Should Bill just do a Rudolf Nureyev impression?
No. Instead, we read the play—again, and again, and again. We figure out how it works. We discover and then shape the story of a deep friendship between two great artists. We attack it with our humanity and our souls. We tear it apart like stranded and starved pirates, so that when we put it back together again, we will know it better than anyone else. It will be us, we will be it. We hope that in making our discoveries, and in performing our interpretation of this script and these people, we will touch that pool of universal human truths that are unmistakable, overshadowing any shortcomings in how 'life-like' we are to our characters.
Which is why not meeting him before opening the show at George Street Playhouse was perhaps a blessing in disguise. If I met him, and had lunch with him, and we chatted and got along great, would I not then be even more fanatical about trying to get him "right?" Of course I would! I'd dissect him, not the play about him. My acting choices wouldn't be grounded in the play, and it might just end up turning into that 90-minute impression no one would pay for.
So, when I rounded the corner into the living room of a party last week, something pleasantly unexpected happened. There was the man, the Jamie Wyeth. Instantly, all the built up anxiety of playing him — of knowing that everything I was building would soon be seen by him and all his friends — evaporated with his smile, his warm handshake, and a laugh. I had no questions for him. I just wanted to talk, and if something came up, I'd ask. That’s how he made me feel: at ease and welcome.
Which, funnily enough, just reconfirmed my instinct about him from the start.
He still hasn't seen our production yet, but when he does, I'll be excited to show him what I've made. I’m looking forward to what he thinks of my 'Jamie.'