Yesterday, I went to see my brother on the set of Dead Awake, the indie horror movie he's producing and acting in. A whole hospital wing had been closed off for filming, and Caro--AJ's girlfriend--and I had to wait before a walkie-talkie-brandishing crew member ushered us up the elevator between takes. From there, we were shuffled into a hallway where half a dozen crew members huddled before a small screen, watching the scene that was being filmed ten yards away.
"Quiet on set!" someone called. "Lock it up in the back hallway!"
Caro and I widened our eyes at each other, quieting our whispers as we leaned against a wall to listen and catch what glimpses we could.
In the scene, two young women plead for help from a psychiatrist, played by Lori Petty, of A League of Their Own (my favorite childhood movie), Point Break, and Orange is the New Black fame. I caught a peek of Petty's cropped platinum hair, a glint of her large-framed glasses. She wore a white lab coat, but I suppose the cameras were focused on her face, because her feet were childlike in white ankle socks, no shoes. Caro and I grinned at each other in excitement.
The scene was no longer than two minutes, and in the time we were there, it was filmed about six times; apparently it had been filmed another ten before we arrived. With each take, fine nuances changed: tone and inflection, volume and emphasis. Petty's differing approaches were the most obvious to discern.
"Oh, it attacked you," she said at first, her voice loud and sharp with sarcasm.
"Oh, it . . . attacked you?" Quietly disbelieving.
"Oh--it attacked you." Impatient and harried, as though suspecting a hoax.
Four words, repeated again and again, each time carrying with them a different history, different assumptions and prejudices, different fears. It was fascinating, like watching a tailor measure and stitch and snip until a suit fit just right. I had the sense that even as she was acting, she was trying to find the truth of the character. What a gift, I thought. An art, to be able to empathize enough with another human experience so as to embody it, even when everyone around you knows you are pretending. I would feel utterly self-conscious, utterly absurd.
Later, sitting across a table from each other at a nearby restaurant, Caro said, "I guess we all do it, though--play roles."
Immediately, I thought about when I started working at People magazine right after college. Twenty-one years old and terrified of cold calling people for interviews, I shook for half an hour before and after those conversations. The nervousness continued well into my job with RTC, one of whose primary responsibilities was to interview clients. I love talking to people. I love the intimacy of sharing stories, the way it brings us closer together, closer to shared experience. But something about the formality of "conducting an interview" shook me, made me feel young and inexperienced and exposed. I talked too quickly. My high heartrate made me embarrassingly breathless. Then I remember thinking one day, Just pretend. Pretend you are someone who does not get nervous doing interviews.
It sounds so silly--like, as if this could possibly work--but I created a character for myself. This alternate me was older. She'd traveled widely, she'd backpacked, she wore vintage silver rings and armfuls of colorful bangles. She'd spoken to people all over the world, in hotels and rice paddies and jails. She knew how to make people feel comfortable, because she was comfortable. She didn't feel nervous or afraid to call someone she'd never met; she felt excited and anticipatory, prepared and privileged. I did everything but name her, this other-me.
Oddly, it seemed to work. Not because I think others perceived me as this character, but because I came to believe this story of myself. The more I settled into her skin, I settled into mine. I realized that "she" was not someone I made up as much as she was already a part of me, elevated.
I think about these things--character, roles, versions of self--as I work on developing the characters for my novel. I find it difficult, almost impossible, to dive into writing the book itself without first knowing the people--really knowing them, the way we know ourselves or our husbands, our mothers and fathers and children and friends--so I've spent the last two months exploring them. I say "exploring" rather than "inventing" because, like that other-me, they're already there, fighting for space in my world. I just need to spend time with them.
To do that, one of the pieces of advice I've found most helpful is from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird:
"Look within your own heart, at the different facets of your personality. You may find a con man, an orphan, a nurse, a king, a hooker, a preacher, a loser, a child, a crone. Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives."
This isn't an easy task. In fact, writing this fiction of my own is the most difficult act of writing, thinking, and being I've done in years, because in order to make it true, in order to know the hearts and desires and secrets and shames of my characters, I have to articulate my own. I have to know the roles I play, or have played, or yearn to play. And what I'm finding are dualities:
I am an adventurer and a hermit; a liar and a truth-seeker. I am a student, a teacher, a child, a philosopher, a gypsy, a runaway, a confessional; a scholar and street-corner caricaturist. I am an empty road. A pocket of warmth beneath the ocean.
Acting, role-playing, pretending, fiction . . . These words often conjure the synonym of fakery: something that is not true being passed off as true. But good acting reveals, rather than conceals. That's why we're drawn to it, I think; it's why we do it ourselves. We clothe ourselves in the skin of the people we want to be, the people we think we should be--even, sometimes, the people we abhor--in order to discover what is true, which costumes to keep, which were ours all along.