Help. I seem to be having that age-old actor's dilemma: how do you play a character you don't like? Or perhaps more accurately: one you don't want to be? I'm in rehearsals this week for a workshop/reading of I Am Jim Thompson, a new musical based on the true story of an American spy-turned-businessman credited for revitalizing the Thai silk industry. I've done this show before, playing a different role -- that of the good friend, the trusted confidante who wants to marry the man but knows she never will... but also knows she knows him better than anyone else on earth. The fabulously witty partner in crime, holding court at a party, who may live a life of unrequited love, but that's probably some of her doing, too. She might have her walls up, but she's his equal, and more than, and she knows it. And anyway, the audience loves her, and knows it too.
But now I'm playing the wife, the dutiful wife, the wife he cheats on, the wife he leaves, the wife who never really understands what else he might want in the world. The wife he eventually looks back on, and misses, but never goes back to. The wife the audience might sympathize with; the wife who does get those few fleeting moments of blissful love; but who can't let go, and eventually, she's the wife we mostly just feel sorry for.
She's the woman I never want to be. The woman who can't see what's in front of her face, who only wants to believe in fairytale endings, who won't loosen her death-grip on her relationship to let some fresh air in before it asphyxiates. Back when I was playing Ms. Fabulous, I completely understood why she was the woman he left.
But now I have to get into her skin, and I don't want to, because the real issue is that she's the woman I once was. I know what it's like to be cheated on, to want the Perfect Ending so badly I was willing to put up with anything and everything if it meant we would stay together. I know what it's like to ignore my intuition for months, years, to turn a blind eye to all the signs I didn't want to see. Because we did have those few fleeting moments of love, didn't we? But I've worked so hard to purge myself of that needy, frightened, Self-less girl that I don't want to believe there's anything left in me that knows how to play this role. I see this character in movies and scoff, identifying only with the boyfriend, the husband who wants out. Can't she see she's suffocating him? No. She can't. Not til it's too late.
But this is what we sign up for as actors, isn't it? Not just to be the star of the show, the grand dame, the leading debonair gentleman; but to breathe pathos into the underdog, the misrepresented, the poor bastard stepchildren and overly needy wives, the Edmunds of the world. To put ourselves into shoes we wish didn't fit us so well. To leave untouched just enough of all the things we don't like about ourselves, because you never know when you might need them again.