My dad, Abraham Pais, was a famous theoretical physicist who worked with Einstein, Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and all the leading scientists of his day.
When I was a kid I went to quite a few lunches or dinners that were given in my dad’s honor. The table would be full of scientists that looked at my dad like he was Elvis.
My dad didn’t care so much for all the adulation – for him it was more about consuming the food. And when he was hungry he became completely immersed in the act of eating.
More often than not he would do something at the table that both made me want to disappear, and at the same time break out into thunderous laughter and applause.
Here’s an example…
It was a beautiful summer day. All the scientific dignitaries are seated around a long outdoor table with a white table cloth. A weeping willow tree nearby.
A few words, “We’re so honored to have Professor Pais here…” A polite applause and then “Let’s eat.” Family style dishes are passed about.
A colleague passes my dad a bowl of potato salad ( It was the pre-carb-phobia-era).
After serving himself a scoop of mayonnaised potato, my dad lovingly stares at the serving spoon. Oh boy, I know what’s coming next.
He puts the entire serving end of the spoon in his mouth. His eyes close for a moment – oh so heavenly. He then gently places the ‘clean’ spoon back in the bowl and passes it on to the next scientist.
He got so caught up in the act of eating ( FYI my dad was not an overweight man – just passionate), that he had no idea how his actions were being perceived – nor did he care.
Some of the scientists from other countries may have wondered if that was the custom here.
But why do I write about how my dad ate potato salad?
It has to do with some recent clarity I have about creating a character.
So, enough for now about my dad – but I got some great stories.
Like you, I love watching human behavior.
And I love coming in contact with someone who I would deem “a real character.”
You know that person you see on the street or meet in a restaurant, or in the super market. They’re just so completely THEMSELVES. So 3-dimensional.
But what makes them so THEM?
Part of it is an unawareness of how they impact their world.
Many of us overly-therapized, supremely “evolved”, and clearly transformed tend to be in our heads pondering how our actions ARE impacting our surroundings.
But then there’s those “characters” you meet that don’t look back. They don’t seem to be overly concerned with how they impact those around them, and more often than not, they’re very compelling.
You may not want to invite them into your home necessarily, but they are fun to witness.
Being a character actor I am always on the lookout for these creatures.
A new key to defining a character has recently become clear to me…
A key to defining a character you’re creating is to discover in what area does that character have a blind spot. And how does that blind spot impact those around them.
It’s fun to watch a character go into a situation and behave in a way that makes total sense to them – and at the same time radically impacts those around them. That’s what comedy is. That’s also what drama is.
Of course, I am referring to the good drama – that we get paid for. Not the life drama that costs us.
So, when you’re creating your next character, explore what that character is unaware of, and how that unawareness can magnify the story you’re telling.
And if I see you playing a brilliant scientist who has no awareness of his table manners, you get extra points.
Do you have examples of how someone’s unawareness reveals something about their character? Let us know below.
Lisa Robbin Young says
I have a friend in my spiritual group that always lays her cards on the table, so to speak – in any situation, you can count on her to say what’s really on her mind.
Well, one of our group members was getting married and one of the guys in the wedding went by “Tiny”. He was 19, at least 6’7″, but my friend had no problem saying “Hey, why don’t you show us why they call you ‘Tiny’!”.
The poor kid just blushed fifteen shades of pink and offered up a “golly ma’am, I think it’s ’cause I’m so tall” as he tried to find a place to hide in a room full of “spiritual” women. He was such a gentleman about the whole thing, and once she realized he was so young, she held nothing back.
“He’s so cute, he’s gotta get used to being hit on. Hey Tiny! Did you know I haven’t had sex in almost 6 years?”
Um, clearly, there’s a reason for that. 🙂
So wonderfully authentic!
Thanks for this,
Wow! Wow! Wow! This is so timely! In acting class, my teacher recently said, “I know YOU’RE aware of this, but is the character?” So your reference to a character’s blind spot, or their lack or awareness, was like a light bulb, Josh. THANK YOU!