Many actors’ success at playing real-life characters has much to do with a passion for homework. By all possible means, they aim to achieve communion with the actual human being they propose to impersonate.
Andrew Garfield says he “obsessed over” all possible evidence of Medal of Honor winner and pacifist Desmond Doss for “Hacksaw Ridge” in order to “capture his external qualities … but maybe, most importantly, to attempt to know his essence, his insides, that deepest part of himself.” The goal was to “do justice and honor to this amazing man that walked humbly among us.”
Thesps usually turn first to whatever images they can get their hands on. Garfield and David Oyelowo — playing Ugandan humanitarian Robert Katende in “Queen of Katwe” — studied 12-minute documentaries on their subjects. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga had the full-length “The Loving Story,” plus outtakes, to use in absorbing details about Richard and Mildred Loving, the persecuted interracial couple of “Loving.”
“It was an actor’s handbook,” Negga says. “A 360-degree look at Mildred, so helpful to create body language and dialect. And most importantly, that space between them, the relationship between people.” Edgerton professes to be “terrified” about an out-of-place accent, but “there it was, all perfectly laid out for me.” Candid snapshots brought insight into the couple’s relaxed intimacy when newsreel cameras weren’t turning.
A rich visual trove was available for “Jackie.” Natalie Portman, portraying first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, studied the televised 1962 White House tour led by Kennedy “hundreds of times, to get the voice, the rhythms and the pauses.” Millions have a clear sense of Kennedy, and those who don’t can readily check out the real thing. Portman’s convinced “you have to have a threshold of believability that’s more specific. The accent, the movement, the gestures — all of that becomes very exact.”
First-hand interviews are eagerly sought. For “Hidden Figures,” Taraji P. Henson sped to Virginia for quality time with the woman she portrays, Katherine Johnson, who’s now 97. Henson found her “poised and lovely and an amazing conversationalist” talking about her years as a NASA “computer.” Dev Patel attended an Australian family barbecue with Saroo Brierley, whose quest to find his Indian birth mother is dramatized in “Lion.”
Oyelowo, who clocked his man on Kampala streets, chuckles, “You’re having to do a bit of an acting job. Yes, you’re interested in what he’s saying, but you’re also watching what he does and how he says it, looking for clues to tell the truth of the character in a nuanced, interesting way.”
And clues do emerge. Henson notes that Johnson “never used the word ‘I.’ It was always ‘we,’ and she thinks of her contributions as a shared endeavor.” Watching this “team player” who “doesn’t easily call attention to herself” informed Henson’s steely modesty in the role.
Patel remembers a scary ride with Brierley at the wheel. “‘He’s a total Aussie’ was the first thing I thought of. I was searching for the Indian inside him, but there’s something so confident and Australian about him.” Then again, “you’ve really got to sit down with Saroo and peel the onion to get down to his sensitive place. We needed that too.” The actor’s ultimate impression? “Such an impressive human being. I said to myself I’ve really got to step this up a gear, because I don’t want to let this man down.”
Every source is critical when time or circumstance places obstacles to research. Few recall St. Clair Bayfield, the husband of dotty diva “Florence Foster Jenkins,” and records are scanty. So Hugh Grant hunkered down in a Lincoln Center reading room to pore over Bayfield’s diaries and letters.
“He was this lost soul, the illegitimate grandson of a British aristocrat, who loved acting but wasn’t very brilliant at it. To me that was the amusing and tragic heart of the character. Underneath his polished exterior, he was just a failed and not very talented actor.” At the same time, the documents revealed Bayfield’s feelings for Florence as “very, very profound, and heartbreaking. On the day she dies, he writes something like, ‘The heavens wept’ and, ‘My darling is gone.’ Honestly, it brought a tear to my eye.”
Visits to actual story locales promise what Patel calls “real memories to draw upon, to create these big beats of emotion.” Henson was only one of several who found their way to Virginia, home of the Lovings as well as of Cpl. Doss, whose old stomping grounds brought Garfield “a deeper connection with Desmond’s spirit than I could have imagined. His energy was left profoundly on the place.”
Negga and Edgerton visited the authentic jailhouse and courthouse, winding up at the Lovings’ side-by-side gravesite. “Incredibly moving,” Negga recalls, and “incredibly useful.”
Watching his co-star’s grief, Edgerton says, “I could totally see how Richard could fall in love with Mildred. She was a princess, shy but incredibly eloquent, and willing to take steps because, as she said, it was going to help a lot of people.”
Eventually, research ends and the actor assumes the role in full. Does one work from the outside in (the right nose or walk) or inside out (the old Method thing)?
“It’s both,” Portman says. “You’re looking at the way the character moves and speaks. But she was so concerned with presentation, how she presented herself to the world, it was sort of a preoccupation with her. So that’s key to the inside as well.”
Sometimes, Negga points out, “the way they move or speak can crack a character and it opens up, while sometimes it’s a reference to your emotional self that you just turn the volume up on.” Edgerton warns of the danger of focusing too much on appearance. “Energetically, it’s really got to come alive. Otherwise it’s just a costume and a walk — just trickery.”
While trickery is to be avoided in the search for authenticity, nevertheless “you’re looking for magic,” according to Oyelowo.
“There is something alchemic that goes on that is pretty difficult to express. It’s a combination of the work you’ve done, the place itself, and the likelihood that there are people who have experienced what you’re experiencing, or whose parents have.” Even with cameras in your eyeline and a crew looking on, “you can’t help but feel you’re somehow being held by something more than your ability, when you have all those things working for you at the same time.”