Fortunately this does not involve cold showers and forced marches. At the weekend I went to see a panel talking on the subject of building a character. This was part of The Words in the Square Literary Festival celebrating 175 years since the founding of The London Library by Thomas Carlyle. They were actors and directors not writers, the usual subject of this blog, but it was interesting to hear what they had to say on the matter. The panel was made up of Simon Russell Beale (SRB) Simon Callow (SC) Harriet Walter (HW) Natascha McElhone (NM) and Nick Hytner (NH) and they were being kept in order by James Runcie.

Preparing for a role:

HW said that she does Shakespeare from the text. She quoted John Barton as saying you do what they do and you say what they say and a character emerges. So the thing was not to impose yourself on it but to allow the character to emerge. Then the character was altered or developed by its interaction with others in rehearsal.

SRB said you start at base level and then build it up like a mosaic piece by piece. The only Shakespearean role he had done outside research for was King Lear, and then he had looked into different forms of dementia. But he said it was rare for him to do that.

Film he finds scary because of its solitary nature. He likes the interactions with others you get in theatre. He’s been cast in a film as Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, and is hoping the director is open to a rehearsal period. He said one way to warm up a part in a long stage run was to listen to others afresh. You also had to trust to your own individuality. To trust that ‘your’ Hamlet would be different to someone else’s. He said that he got the measure of playing Cassius in Julius Caesar when he realised that in every scene Cassius appears in, he threatens to kill himself.

SC said that actors were ‘expert voyeurs’, looking at people, seeing how they behave. That they built up a vast memory bank. He said the trouble was if you had to act a part which you couldn’t find anywhere in your memory bank. That had happened to him doing Richard III on the radio. He felt no connection at all and found there was nothing to draw on. He also found it in Pozzo in Waiting for Godot. He said his bowels did not engage with it in any way! He said that he listened to Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony and that in that he found a noise that was Pozzo and that then because Pozzo comes on leading a man on the end of a rope he thought of themes of Empire and dominance and that brought him to Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and then it began to fall into place.

Rôles they loved or failed at?

NM said she was tormented by the part of Costard, a comic figure, in Love’s Labour’s Lost, that she played in drama school. She said even if the rôles are ones you did in drama school, if they fail they stay with you. She said in the end she borrowed a friend’s pair of dungarees, put on a pair of clogs and listened to Irish reels. When she was in Branagh’s film of Love’s Labour’s Lost she was guiltily relieved to  see Nathan Lane struggling in the same part, as well.

HW said she loved playing Nina in The Seagull and Helena in All’s Well but she was fed up with being cast as 2-dimensional malevolent older women in TV productions.

SRB said the good rôles changed your life and then went on to talk about all the bad ones. He said he’d never got to grips with Edgar in King Lear or Malvolio in Twelfth Night. And he said he was in a terrible production of Jekyll and Hyde with Roger Allam when he (SRB) decided to play Jekyll as an angel and it was obvious from the previews that it ‘was crap’. One of the best ‘notes’ he ever had was from Juliet Stevenson who told him ‘to be less conscious of the effect you’re trying to have.’

NH said that as a director you have to shut up when you see actors’ eyes glaze over.He and SRB have worked together 5 or 6 times and he said it works because they think in a similar way. They have an intellectual approach and the feelings follow the thought but he said some actors act instinctively. He once made the mistake of casting Tom Hardy in a restoration comedy Man of Mode. He said that the play was all about style and language and it was entirely inimical to Hardy’s way of working. He blamed himself for persuading him to appear in it.

SC said that sometimes you know from the first page of a play that you are that rôle. He felt that when he read Tuesday at Tescos translated from the french Le Mardi à Monoprix. It’s about a transgender woman called Pauline and the first line is ‘Everyone stares at me on Tuesdays.’ The day she goes shopping with her elderly father at Tescos.

He told an interesting story about a friend of Flora Robson’s going to see her as Lady Macbeth playing opposite Charles Laughton. He refused to go back stage after the production because he said it was so bad. He told her later it was not her job to be ‘psychological’ but to ‘flick Lady Macbeth through her soul’. Rather a lovely expression.

There’s more  I may put into a Part Two, but to sum up for now, they were lovely this lot – generous with each other and the audience, collaborative and funny. And James Runcie was an  amiable figure focusing the discussion in an elegant way to a happy conclusion.


  1. Great piece and what a great cast! Really interesting to hear how some found the character in music. I think that’s the case in writing, too, when you might have a piece that reminds you of a certain character. More please!


    • Thanks Colin it was a great cast and they were lovely together. I need to do a Part 2 to put in all the jokes! I thought a lot of what they said crossed over to writing. Like you say, especially the music part but also the memory bank bit. Expert voyeurs could apply to writers as well. Mind you it would be a bit worrying if you did have in your memory bank something that linked to Richard III he’s such a rotter. I’m reading your book and absolutely loving it.


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