Habits. Everyone has them. Some are good habits, like flossing, and some are bad habits. I don’t need to list those. There are annoying ones, silly ones, endearing ones. They are natural and necessary. A lot of actors go one way or another with habits- they either eliminate theirs altogether when playing a character, or they unconsciously keep theirs throughout a character. Neither approach serves a character very well. Let’s look at how habits can work for you.
Habits, as I just explained, are necessary to have when developing a character. Why? Because, as I also just said, everyone has them. Habits can help add another level of realism to your character. Habits can say a lot about a person, and you will need to develop habits for your character based on what you want the audience, or the other characters, to know about you that you don’t tell them with words. The habits you choose for your character will tell the audience when your character is worried, tired, excited, or in love. Or a million other things. But the first thing you have to do before you can choose habits for your character is to become aware of your own.
Earlier in the book, I talked about your bag of tricks. Your habits are similar in that you are, for the most part, not aware of when and why you do them. Sometimes you don’t even know that you DO them, until you are married and your spouse finally tell you how they can tell when you’re hungry or how incredibly annoying habit xyz is to them. For your purposes, you can’t wait that long, and wouldn’t it be great to avoid that particular future conversation? Yeah. Here’s how you begin:
- Identify your habits. Just like the bag of tricks exercise, ask some people you trust about what your habits are and when you do them. Watch and listen with an open mind and don’t get defensive. This is going to help you. Pay special attention to how you stand when you are standing still, and to anything you do with your hands.
- Just like the bag of tricks, pick three habits (at a time, if there are more than three), and work with just those three all the way through this exercise.
- Stand in front of a mirror, and do these three things all in a row ten times. You may feel a little silly, so make sure there are no siblings around to walk in on you. Exaggerate these habits so they are HUGE.
- Still in front of the mirror, pick a monologue you know or a speech you have memorized, like the Preamble or the Gettysburg Address. If you don’t know either of those, shame on you. Learn them. Deliver the monologue while continuing the habits 1,2,3,1,2,3 all the way through.
- Deliver the speech again, this time choosing specific places for each habit. Do this until you can do those habits any time you plan within the speech, and you are not doing them when you did not plan to.
Congratulations. You have now gained control of those habits. Just like the bag of tricks, your habits are now in your box of tools. However, you will use them differently than you did the tricks that became tools. Read on.
Approach your character as if you are their friend. BE SPECIFIC. Look at places in the script where a habit might be useful, such as during a card game, an impending argument, or a spot where your character is obviously tired or nervous. Think of all the habits you’ve watched on others, and include the ones you have of your own. Try out a habit or two. Maybe this person twists her hair whenever she’s nervous. Maybe he strokes his chin when he lies. She pulls at her necklace when she’s angry but can’t speak. He shifts his weight from side to side when he’s excited. Pick several, and try them out at different points. See what feels natural, and what doesn’t distract from the action.
A few rules of thumb while you are exploring habits for your character:
- Start with habits that take place above the waist. Near or about the face is a good place to start.
- Don’t be distracting. When you find a habit that you like, work with the director to choose the when, where, why and how big.
- At first, don’t use any of your own habits. Even if you are in control of them, when you are first experimenting they can slip back into your unconscious and out of your control. What you can do is try your own habit but a mirror image. For example, if you chew your lip on the right side, try it on the left for your character.
This habit thing is a really great tool, and one I particularly love to keep handy for auditions. At a cold reading, give your character a habit right away- anything will do in that situation- and you have just created a person that is visually interesting and human, and different from what everyone else is doing. The other place a character habit is very useful is in any onstage situation where your character is to be imitated by another. It gives them something very solid to work with right away that the audience will recognize as you, and makes it easier to tell the story. Which, by the way, is what we are all there to do, right? Right.