In episode 11 of Casting Frontier’s Bring It! series, casting veteran James Levine and actor and session director Charles Carpenter reveal … the secret—that is, the practice of creating a secret aspect of a character’s internal life to enrich a performance and engage audiences more deeply.

Levine says, “The secret, for me, is: Have a secret. It means give the character something that no one else knows about them.”

Hiding a secret is an acting tool that’s been used by acting greats such as Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

The iconic actress Meryl Streep once said: “You gotta imagine and see people’s work because people’s work is where you’ll find whether they can do this thing, can open you up to the hidden world of a character—to the stuff that is never explained but always layers your appreciation of the story, because that’s why we’re here is to serve this entire story.”

And in a New York Times article from the 1980s, Jack Nicholson revealed he always has his characters conceal a secret. Specifically, he hides ”some inner emotional dynamic, a prop, a piece of business, that captures for him the essence of his character’s nature,” the article states.

Nicholson said, “The secret to ‘[One Flew Over the] Cuckoo’s Nest’—and it’s not in the book—my secret design for it was that this guy’s a scamp who knows he’s irresistible to women, and in reality, he expects Nurse Ratched to be seduced by him. This is his tragic flaw. This is why he ultimately fails. I discussed this with [costar] Louise [Fletcher, who portrayed Nurse Ratched]. That’s what I felt was actually happening with that character—it was one long, unsuccessful seduction which the guy was so pathologically sure of.” Indeed, both Nicholson and Louise Fletcher took home Oscars for Best Actor and Actress in the acclaimed film.

In the 1970s film Five Easy Pieces, Nicholson secretly based his monologue on his own experiences as an actor up till that point. I was playing [the scene] as an allegory of my own career is the secret there: ‘Auspicious beginnings,'” he said. In turn, the scene is described as raw and relatable.

But there are some dos and don’ts when it comes to character secrets. Levine says, “Any choice you make, keep it productive. It drives the story. It explains sometimes why the character does what they do.” After all, the storyline needs to remain intact; the secret is just an added layer. Maybe you imagine your character’s bank account is down to 67 cents or you suspect another character committed a heinous crime. Whatever it is, it’s important the secret only enhances your performance and does not interfere with it. So use it only as needed. Secrets make a character appear a little mysterious and read as authentic, and thus, captivate audiences.

In the video, Carpenter assigns talent some homework on the topic of creating secrets, asking actors to incorporate one element of their personal life into a character.

Additionally, Levine recommends talent conceal a secret during personality interviews. People’s curiosity will get the better of them when they sense you’re concealing something. Keep the intrigue going!

Determined to help actors cut through the mystery associated with the casting process, James Levine authored an enlightening book entitled Bring It! along with Charles Carpenter and Jim Martyka, which will be released digitally in the near future. In the book, Levine shares helpful audition information from the vantage point of a casting director as it relates to commercial, film and television acting. The book’s chapters correspond to the Bring It! series.

Casting Frontier’s YouTube channel publishes weekly video tips, tricks, best practices, interviews with industry professionals and more.

 

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