An actor’s journey into character

Tomorrow, this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards will be presented. The nominees for best actor and best actress talk about the roles they play

Nominee: Simon Callow, nominated for The Man Jesus, written by Matthew Hurt and directed by Joseph Alford for the Lyric Theatre. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

The actor’s journey to inhabiting another character with their body can take some weird and wonderful detours. Some say it’s when they first put on a character’s shoes; for others it’s getting the gait or the voice, or their centre of gravity.

Identification techniques can be as wide ranging as using the elements, or animals. From method immersion to a focus on the lines, ultimately each actor’s preparation is as unique as the character they’re portraying and as individual as they are.

We asked the nominees in the Best Actor and Best Actress categories of this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards how they accessed the characters, and how they prepared for the performances we were finally treated to.

Simon Callow
Nominated for The Man Jesus, written by Matthew Hurt
and directed by Joseph Alford for the Lyric Theatre
It's almost impossible to approach the actual figure of Jesus.We wanted to come at it from the people who knew him. The job for me was to find exactly what was different between each of these characters. We were very aware of the division between Judea and Galilee. We decided the Judeans had Scottish accents and the Galileans had northern accents.


“I looked at their stories. I looked at the Gospel and studied some commentary and came to terms with what the writer had imagined them to be. The greatest of his imaginings is Mary. That’s quite something: for a 65-year-old actor to enter into the mind of a pregnant 16-year-old girl.

“ It’s an act of imaginative identification. I found a way for her to speak, stand and sit, and I let that guide and take me over. When I connected to the sensation of being Mary, the character played herself.

"Doing a one-man show is different from any other kind of acting. You have to be in a very alert state. There's a celebration too, in that you're talking to the audience. Sometimes I feel, in my dressing room, as if I were going on a date."

Orla Fitzgerald
For Clare in Digging for Fire, written by Declan Hughes and directed by Matt Torney for Rough Magic Theatre Company
"Clare is someone who is disillusioned with her life. She is going through what could be classed as a breakdown. I didn't do major research; most of it was already in the script.

“There was an awful scene to do every night, a domestic argument, and even though I loved playing her – she’s a spirited character – it was a challenge. I put myself in Clare’s shoes; what would have happened had I not married the right person or chosen a career in which I was happy? She’s a smart, intelligent, witty woman who is deeply unsatisfied as a teacher. She wanted to be a writer, so her ambitions weren’t fulfilled.

“My warm-up is really brief. I like to go through one or two scenes beforehand, depending on the play. I try not to get into any major routines, because I’ve learned you can get a bit superstitious – if you had a good night and you [had eaten] a particular type of food before it, or something. I try to avoid that. I just think about Clare and where she’s at every night.”

Olwen Fouéré
For Riverrun, written by James Joyce, adapted by Olwen Fouéré and directed by Olwen Fouéré and Kellie Hughes for the Emergency Room and Galway Arts Festival
"It's not a character. It's a force of constant renewal, and it's basically the energy of life. The Irish spelling of the River Liffey is Life. I imagine it's a cell travelling with a whole cluster of other cells through a sleeping body. It's an energy of arising and waking up, shedding the past and going forward into the future; it's one of the most positive things I've ever done in terms of the energy it carried.

“It was an intuitive and visceral idea which comes into your body; I knew it was the next thing I was going to be working on.

"For people watching it, they sometimes think I'm embodying many voices and characters, but for me it's really just the constantly changing particle of the life force. Riverrun is a four-hour preparation for an hour-long show. I have to be in the space, or nearby, at four o'clock. I start to work physically, do yoga, sometimes sleep. It's about getting into the zone. Then at a certain point I eat something light, like berries and yogurt. I'm in the audience's space when they come in. I'm one of them, really.

"It's an extraordinary piece. Sometimes I feel it has nothing to do with me. It's like a gift that I knew how to open."

Ryan McParland
For Isaac in Summertime, written by David Ireland
and directed by Michael Duke for Tinderbox Theatre Company
"Isaac was someone who genuinely believed he was possessed by the devil. How do you go about that? You make a set of circumstances within the play that make it realistic and convincing.

“It’s by far the most challenging part I’ve played – and I’ve played sociopaths and psychopaths before. I almost dreaded going on stage, because I knew what lay ahead.

“To prepare, I tried not to break character as much as possible and had a strict routine before the show and in rehearsal. There was a bar in Belfast in which I had the same meal every evening, learning my lines in the bar. I kept myself to myself and was on my own a whole pile, which was depressing and made me unhappy, but it was the only way I felt I could play this character.

"I don't generally have a lot of questions for a playwright, but I asked David Ireland, 'Do you think he could be the devil?' He said it wasn't something he wanted to rule out. When I read the script I didn't phone Mick [Duke] for three days. I thought, If I'm not the right man for the job I'll be hung out to dry. The hook for me in my head was that there was no small percentage with this character: I had to go all out."

Owen Roe
For Lear in King Lear, written by William Shakespeare
and directed by Selina Cartmell for the Abbey Theatre
"Selina and I had long conversations 12 months before we even set foot in a rehearsal room. Lear's journey is based on my own mother's dementia and the arc of her illness. It might sound exploitative, but I wanted to root it in something. Audiences are far savvier about the details of someone's illness. You can't just play someone mad any more; it doesn't work. You always bring some element of yourself to it. I'm a sucker for making an audience laugh, because I think they need it, and it's a part of life as much as anything else.

"I'm not a great one for working on what a character had for breakfast. I work mainly off my instincts. I like to work it on the floor and see if it works theatrically . . . The audience won't see the research you do; you have to be in the moment. Once the show is over, I don't have any baggage after that."

Joanne Ryan
For Bridgie Cleary in What Happened Bridgie Cleary, written by Tom MacIntyre and directed by John Murphy for Bottom Dog Theatre Company
"The fact it was based on real events meant I had access to a character's back story. I never had [that] before. There were several books about the subject, documentaries, news coverage from the time and trial notes. The circumstances are of course awful and tragic – Bridgie is murdered by her husband – but it was a source of inspiration to me when creating the character.

“The story is so compelling that everyone wants to talk about it. There was lots of informal research that took place in cafes and bars, themes and questions about violence against women, but more generally how we fear and punish those who are different.

“It’s a very intense piece, physically and emotionally demanding. You have to be on your game every night for it. My whole day revolved around the performance. During the run I had a bad cold. Although it cleared up halfway through the run, in a bizarre fit of superstition I kept taking all the cold and flu meds anyway. Bonkers.”

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor
Howie the Rookie, written and directed by Mark O'Rowe for Landmark Productions
"Mark's idea was that we would never try to convince or pretend I was two people. It was finding how the Howie and the Rookie would dovetail and counterpoint at different times.

“In a normal rehearsal process you have a seven-hour day, but when it’s just you on your own it can be exhausting for both director and actor. We went hell for leather for four weeks. It needed that kind of commitment.

"I was very lucky he put his faith in me with the idea of one actor exploring both sides and both characters of the play. We got to be brave . . . The nature of how we rehearsed it and played it meant everything was up for grabs. It was about a certain degree of honesty, saying this is one actor and these are two parts and here we are. It's not called Howie and the Rookie , it's Howie the Rookie : they bleed into each other. That's what was exciting.

“The strange thing is it becomes part of your fabric afterwards. You overhear a turn of phrase, and it triggers something in you, and you realise you’re doing the play in your head and think, What am I doing? But that’s just being an actor.”

Lia Williams
or Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire , written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Ethan McSweeny for the Gate Theatre
"I was so excited to play Blanche, I took a trip to New Orleans to visit where Tennessee Williams lived. I hired a car and went up the Mississippi to Clarksdale to see the house he lived in with his grandfather. The closer I got to Williams, the more I understood Blanche, because I felt so much of him was in that character.

“The incredible colours of his personality, his insecurities, his generosity, his anxiety about getting older, his drinking, his emotional openness and his courage were blazing in front of my eyes. He wore his insides on the outside, and I realised that was the way in.

“There’s only so much you can prepare apart from the research. It’s like jumping off a diving board and hoping someone might catch you. In terms of getting into character, it tends to be different every time. There is a point in rehearsal when it cracks into the right place, and I have to trust that will happen. Preparation is everything.

“It’s only really now I feel properly myself again. There’s a bit of Blanche that will never leave me, as I’ve never loved playing a character as much.”

The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards, at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham tomorrow, feature on The Works , on RTÉ One , at 8.30pm next Friday