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Preparing for a role requires a lot of commitment including deep research and imaginative work done independently while at home. But the process of getting into character is not simply a solitary act. Rather, it is a collaborative process that is open-ended, even unpredictable, and requires a healthy dose of flexibility and humility to boot. Here are three acting greats, Viola Davis, Joaquin Phoenix, and Kate Winslet, as they describe the importance of remaining flexible as they reach for and refine their characters.

 

Viola Davis

Tony, Oscar, and Emmy-winning actress Viola Davis is revered for her penetrating performances in films like Fences and Doubt. In a BAFTA Guru interview, Davis says, “One of the things I do when I collaborate is whatever the actor gives me, I use. I don’t go home and prepare a performance and then come to the set and use that performance that I prepared at home.” The 55-year-old actress refuses to be tied to one way of approaching her work, so she allows space for her acting partner to surprise her with something new.

“What has happened in the past, and I see it with other actors, they’ll tell another actor how to act,” she explains. “And the reason why they do that is because they’ve already planned what they want to do, and that other actor—whatever they’re giving them—is interfering with that. That’s not how it works.”

She believes actors can sometimes get it wrong when they prepare and by remaining open and playful, they allow for the real magic to occur. “You gotta say, ‘yes’ to your partner. If they’re giving you a line in a certain way, guess what? You gotta get up off your A-double-snakes and use that. That’s my process of collaboration.” 

Joaquin Phoenix

In a Salon Talks interview, Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix reflects on the mysterious process of getting into character, and what stands out is his dedication to remaining flexible.

“I try not to make rules about the character—kind of like, I don’t like that idea—like, ‘My character would never do that’ because I don’t know what they’d do. You know? Because anything’s possible. There’s things that I do all the time that are out of character. What does that mean to be ‘in character?’” The Joker star ponders.

The character’s development, as he sees it, goes considerably beyond anything he prepares. “It has as much or maybe more so to do with other people than me. The filmmaker, the other actors, people on set, the crews—so many people that you don’t even know about, and they have such a profound impact on the character and the role and how you’re feeling that day. It’s something that, honestly, I don’t fully understand, and I don’t really want to,” he admits.

Over time, whether playing a traumatized veteran, a country music legend, or a troubled comedian, Phoenix has come to realize that his big ideas while preparing often are rendered useless when he gets on set. Joaquin explains:

“You go through the script and you can’t help but come up with ideas, but if I ever go onto set and then consciously try to use one of those ideas that I’ve had, it’s always really bad—like without fail … Sometimes you read a scene and you walk in the door, and you imagine walking in the door, and you walk in kind of positioned like that. And then you get to set and the door opens out. And so you’ve planned this whole thing where I’m gonna walk in and say the line like that, and now it changes everything. And so I’m trying more and more just to really just have these possibilities available but not make any kind of decision until I’m in the experience.”

Kate Winslet

Oscar and Golden Globe winner Kate Winslet is celebrated for her performances in The Reader, Titanic, and Sense and Sensibility. In a BAFTA Guru interview, the British actress describes how she prepares for her roles, mining the relevant book or script for details about her character “almost obsessively actually—it sort of becomes my armor, my friend,” she shares. But once she absorbs the many details about her character, the prolific star leaves plenty of wiggle room to finetune her performance.

“I’ve learned a lot about preparation over the years, and actually it’s so important to let the preparation go because you can get stuck in this little sort of tunnel of your own, beetling away and preparing who you think the character is,” she says. “But the reality is that you have to leave so many sort of blank spaces for other people to fill by way of the director and other actors and the things that they think and also what they are bringing to the project through the roles that they’re playing or what the director has to say.”

Also, the Steve Jobs actress warns actors not to practice in front of the mirror because doing so can make them too attached to one way of doing things and inhibit them from remaining present during the shoot.