Maggie Molander, in the midst of her eighth production with Young Actors Theatre, explores the complexities of portraying an unlikable character on stage. What kind of work goes into creating a character, and how do you show all that work when the performance begins?
Not for the first time, I auditioned for an upcoming YAT show. Not for the first time, I was cast as a pretty unlikable character. Her name is Cyan, a soldier in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and she is unnecessarily aggressive. She smashes up things-- and people-- and she’s extremely defensive and protective of herself. It took a lot of work to develop Cyan's character, her mannerisms and her speech, the way she carries herself like a weapon. But my character work didn’t start completely from scratch. I had a base of fear and anger from a former character from a different time: Verona Marie Sinclair.
Verona is a woman I created for a previous YAT production, Before the 19th. In the world of 1904 Indianapolis, she is the head of the high-society Ladies' League of Arts and Culture. She’s bossy, annoying, manipulative-- and, for real, the meanest person I’ve ever met. Verona called the quietest and most innocent girl in her league a creature. Creature. How could anyone ever do that? How could someone be so ignorant, cunning, and careless? I found myself asking these questions in real life. Like, me as a person. Maggie. I became so interested in why people react in certain situations, and I wanted more information. In order to answer these questions, I had to create a full and complete backstory for Verona, like she was a real person. Where was she coming from? Why was the director writing her lines so harshly? And why did I love Verona so much?
Verona in a nutshell: rich family, no friends, too bossy, only child, absent father, deceased mother, no pets; and, one time, a little boy threw a rock at her head because he said girls couldn’t be in charge. So much of Verona was built up from that rock, a whole world of isolation and fear and anger. The catch was that I couldn’t say that entire backstory onstage in hopes the audience would understand why she acts the way she does. They would never be able to learn about her life, so I had to show it through her mannerisms and dialect, which can be an extremely difficult task. As an actor, you have to justify everything. While you might justify it in your head, it has to be shown to the audience as well. I needed to make them understand. Somehow, I had to show that Verona had gotten hit in the head with a rock when she was six by a little boy who challenged her capability to lead. In one hour. In a show. Without ever actually saying anything about it.
“Maggie is nothing like Verona… but it is a really well built character. We totally believe that Verona could walk out of the doors of this theatre and carry on with her life because she’s a real person. It's a hard role because there is not much likable about you, but you make us understand this woman even if we don’t like her, and that’s your job as an actor in a villainous role.”
That was a little speech my director for Before the 19th delivered in the cast's dressing room as she was handing out awards, and it pretty much covers all of the topics in this blog post.
Look, there isn’t some sort of magical guide for an actor on how to justify a villain, and there isn’t a magical guide for the audience on understanding villains. That isn’t the point of this entry. You just have to really dig deep and know your character, then that one incident the character experienced when they were six will shine through. That’s the best advice I can give. Know your character as well as you know yourself.
I love Verona. Still. Three months after closing night. It feels like she’s a friend that moved away to Paris and isn’t coming back. I think the reason I love her so much is because she reminds me of, well, me. Or everyone, I guess. Verona is a physical manifestation of the little black spot of bad on everyone’s heart. That’s Verona, but exaggerated and completely OFF THE CHARTS. I think every character is like that. They’re a physical representation or manifestation of a common characteristic within humanity. Every character has different emotions, but the root of who they are in everyday life can be boiled down to one emotion. Verona is the fear/anger in all of us. She is the wall we build in ourselves when we are so, so hurt. And I think that’s why I still carry her so close to my heart. She was a misunderstood bully, and she was cruel, but I love her because I created her. I think that’s when you know you’ve done your job right. When the least likable character, becomes your best friend.