I love the story of how Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to play his Titantic character Jack Dawson with a limp (James Cameron…and the studio…eventually told him, “No.”). But his instinct to impose a “limp” on the character is partially what makes DiCaprio so brilliant as an actor. On some level – conscious or unconscious – I believe DiCaprio wanted the character to be more than the typical romantic leading man that his good looks, charisma, youth and fame guaranteed. DiCaprio wanted to move beyond those inherent weapons to bring additional depth to his performance by adding a physical challenge. And even though he ultimately agreed not to play the character that way, I’m sure the idea of that “limp” was integrated into the complexity of the Jack Dawson psyche so that, indeed, when we watched DiCaprio in the film, we felt like we were watching a fully human character, not a matinee idol indulging in his prime.
It sounds simple (and it is). If you possess a big weapon as an actor, there’s a good chance Hollywood will know how to use you. The industry of Hollywood values actors for their strengths. If you can toss off sass as a lovable sidekick, agents and casting directors will notice that and plug you in where needed. If you’re incredibly good-looking and sexy with an ability to flirt, a manager will know exactly how to submit you. If your look is more dangerous and you’ve developed an authentic, grounded quality to your acting, you’ll have gravitas that leads to yet another set of jobs and opportunities.
So it makes sense that when actors begin to suss out their strengths, they get to work….to take their strengths into hyperdrive. I see it all the time. A super sexy guy that knows how to flirt will invest the time to take his six-pack to a twelve-pack. A funny, quirky comedienne will sign up for more improv classes and an actor who already possess gravitas and a grounded sense of truth enrolls in a scene study class where that type of work is highly valued. This makes total sense. After all, if you’re a sexy guy, you are competing (at least largely) on that basis (especially with jobs generating from a studio), so you want to be the sexiest guy in the audition room. Same with funny. Same with gravitas. And on and on.
The business doesn’t really need you to stretch so much. They get variety from the orchestration of all the characters, not from within an individual actor (for the most part). They need you for your weapon. After all, if you’re nice-looking but not smoking hot, pretty funny, and have a slightly above average amount of gravitas, you may actually be very well-rounded as an actor…and a human being. But what is the edge or weapon that will get a studio exec excited to hire you?
DiCaprio wanted to add a limp.
I believe DiCaprio’s instinct there is emblematic of something that separates a fulfilled actor from one merely fulfilling the requirements expected of him. For to truly grow in the craft, I think it’s important to unearth and examine weaknesses – both in the character, in our craft and in ourselves – as well as relying on our strengths.
That begs the question: what sorts of weaknesses can actors possess, even actors who are accomplishing a lot?
Here are just a few I’ve witnessed over the years of being an actor, as well as training and directing them.
- A grounded actor with a highly developed “sense of truth” is afraid to take risks out of this comfort zone of “the truth.”
- Actors adept at being chameleons take on mannerisms and speech patterns of characters extremely well but fail to reveal the humanity underneath those traits.
- Actors who are great in other genres lose their bearing in a comedy. Their good habits somehow go out the window and they start trying to be funny. Or they attempt to ignore altogether that it’s a comedy and seem out of place in the genre.
- Actors who consciously bring themselves to a role and seem to have a great skill with personalization are flummoxed when asked to play a real-life character that forces them into speech patterns or movement patterns completely different than their own.
- Actors with immense power and range on stage are intimidated by the technical skills required of film actors. Even if they make adjustments to hit their marks and cultivate a more still presence for camera and resist “playing to the back of the house” while on set, the intensity of their stage work is gone and now they’re flat.
- Actors whose strength is their body failing to apply their imagination to bring a complex character to life.
- Actors whose strength is their intelligence/imagination failing to ground themselves in their bodies for a role that requires some more primal expression.
And the list goes on and on.
Even if an actor can identify their weakness, what is the point of focusing on that, rather than continuing to build on the strengths they already possess? After all, I truly believe it’s your strengths – rather than not having a big weakness – that gets your hired.
For the answer, I have to go to my intuition, rather than logic. But I believe that actors that face their weaknesses head-on are actually tackling repressed fears that – once addressed – can free up their work and even enhance their original strengths. Facing a weakness as a performer – even if it’s technical skills – requires an actor to be uncomfortable. That discomfort plunges you further into the churning vulnerability of being human, rather than into the potential ego rush from being awesome at something. As an actor, discomfort is the unwritten part of the job description, even if audiences and studio execs think all they’re seeing is “awesome.” That discomfort can eventually yield results even when you return to the strike-zone. After all, if a sexy guy has a moment of incredible vulnerability that feels personal in an otherwise string of solid charm attacks, we like him more. Focusing on developing that weakness of vulnerability may bring only one deepened moment, but in a game of inches, that may be what separates great from, “There’s just something about that guy that I love.”
This topic is not something we consciously discuss much because it’s awkward to talk about the weaknesses and shortcomings of luminaries in the field, whose brilliance is apparent even when they are mainly trafficking in their strike-zone. And candor about the soft spots in our acting games and those of our colleagues can be even more perilous. Dostoyevsky wrote in Crime and Punishment, “There is nothing in the world more difficult than candor, and nothing easier than flattery.”
It’s easy to note your own strength…and the strengths of those around you. Harder to identify and rectify weaknesses. And it’s not even really possible to completely rectify a weakness. After all, your skills exist on a sort of spectrum. I realize the self-help movement is immensely focused on positivity right now. But, in reality, no matter how good you are, there will always be something about your craft as an actor that is less good or more difficult for you. There will never be a day when you have only strengths and no weaknesses. That makes it harder still to face them…and work on them.
And yet…just the act of facing and addressing a weakness is more than worthwhile. It’s like the decision to stand up to a bully. Even just making up your mind to go up against something bigger than you feels empowering. And once you begin, real progress can be made rather quickly. Think of it this way. If something is a weakness, it’s possible to make more strides forward…and at a faster pace. With your strengths, you’re already there. You’re working at the margins. But if you’ve ignored comedy work for a decade, relying on other strengths, you may fairly quickly acquire some basics once you dedicate the time and energy to it, for example. You might surprise yourself and realize it was your fear of comedy that was pre-dominant, not a lack of skill or talent. That’s the other thing about facing weaknesses – it provides room for discovery. And making discoveries, even if you are making them on the job in front of the crew, can be more powerful for the audience than an actor strutting around in his or her wheelhouse.
There’s a reason why Charlize Theron was so rewarded for her performance in Monster, that required her to sacrifice her beauty. Or why Robin Williams was acknowledged with the Academy Award not for a comedy, but for Good Will Hunting. Don’t get me wrong – audiences love to see Robin Williams in his breakneck humor and no one is going to be able to look away when Charlize Theron accepts a role that makes use of the striking way that she looks. Clearly, the teenagers of his day appreciated Leonardo DiCaprio in full heartthrob mode for Titanic. But it’s removing the beauty, digging into the pain underneath the rapid-fire wit and the instinct for a limp in an otherwise standard romantic hero that makes these performers transcend from the zone of “you nailed it” to, “I never knew you had that in you.”
Because – like actors – every character now being drawn up by a writer – holds something that we never knew they possessed. If only the actors who play them dare to search for it…
So consider requesting a comedic scene if your strike-zone is drama. Or convince a film student to go shoot the scene from the award-winning play you did and make the necessary adjustments for it to work on camera. If you’re one of those actors who religiously guards your sense of truth but may be overly cautious, as an exercise, do a run-through that’s an experiment with overacting – shout, fake cry, speak rapid-fire in an imposed way – and then let it go and return to your work.
By diving into the discomfort outside your strike-zone, you might just discover a hidden strength in you…or your character.
Hunter Lee Hughes, founder of Fatelink and StoryAtlas, is an actor-director whose award-winning directorial feature Guys Reading Poems will be released across platforms in January, 2018. The upcoming cycle of his acting studio – Overcoming Your Acting Weakness – starts Sunday, October 15th.