Playing Roles Opposite of Yourself

June 14, 2013

Christopher Walken in A Late Quartet

When you think of Christopher Walken‘s repertoire of characters do visions of quirky, haunted, or psychotic miscreants come to mind? With such a prolific career portraying such convincing characters, one might jump to the conclusion that Christopher Walken, the man, shares some of these attributes. Ironically, according to Walken himself, he is not like the madman roles he plays. “Well, my life is really quite conservative. I’ve been married nearly 50 years. I don’t have hobbies or children. I don’t much care to travel. I’ve never had a big social life. I really just stay home, except when I go to work. So in that sense, I suppose I’m a regular guy,” Walken reflects. When asked why he believes he was consistently asked to portray roles so unlike himself, Walken explains, “Well, movies are so expensive to make that if something works you get asked to do it again. And when I started, I did well with these eccentric people. Troubled. Often villains. And that’s fine.” Walken expresses gratitude for this acting career which started in early childhood. “I can’t imagine anything else I could have done that would have given me such a nice life.” Breaking the pattern of his type-cast past, Walken was glad to be given the opportunity to star in A Late Quartet in which he portrays a gentle cellist with Parkinson’s disease. “Yes, it was different for me,” he says. “I don’t usually get to play fathers or grandfathers or uncles. Now that I’m older, maybe I can play people closer to myself. I’d like that.”

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Similarly, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest actress, Louise Fletcher–who so convincingly played the merciless Nurse Ratched character–is now 78 years old. With the passing of time, she finds she can no longer bear to watch this performance anymore as she finds the character too cruel–even though she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the performance back in the 1970s. Indeed, Nurse Ratched has become the stereotype of a formidably aggressive woman, as well as a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power and authority that can occur in various institutions–mental and otherwise. But the superintendent of the hospital used on the set, Dr. Dean Brooks, has described Louise Fletcher as being nothing like Nurse Ratched in real life. In fact, Brooks insists, “I have found her to be angelic.” According to Brooks, Fletcher, whose parents are deaf, took time out from filming to visit students at the Oregon School for the Deaf. Also, she was devoted to her parents, tending to them lovingly as they aged, and when her friend was dying in London, Fletcher dropped everything to be there for this friend. Not exactly the ruthless qualities we immediately associate with Fletcher’s performance!

One might argue that actors should be able to portray characters unlike their true selves; that’s what acting is, after all. But, to pull them off so convincingly especially when you’re so unlike the characters is a true feat! Have you ever been asked to perform a role completely unlike yourself? If so, was it more difficult or was it liberating perhaps to be released of your true nature?