A thin line between player and role
It happened to Matthew Bomer one day at the airport.
“I noticed myself at the ticket booth in Houston trying to charm myself into a first-class seat with the girls at the ticket counter,” says the actor, who plays smooth-talking forger Neal Caffrey on USA Network’s “White Collar.” “When you spend 12 to 15 hours a day on a role, a strange symbiosis happens where you influence the character and the character influences your life.”
On some level, it happens to most actors, and no surprise: Spending 70 or more hours a week inhabiting the life of a fictional construct can tend to blur the lines. Perhaps not as blurred as, say, Charlie Sheen — whose “Two and a Half Men” character was largely considered to be a mirror of Sheen’s real life and behavior — but whether a character is specifically created for an actor or the actor happens to flesh out the words on the page to create the character, over time symbiosis can occur.
“The line should be blurred,” says Matt LeBlanc, who currently plays a character named Matt LeBlanc on “Episodes.” “There should not be a definitive departure point — I think that’s part of the game.”
In LeBlanc’s case, the blurring is even more intentional — yes, he’s not literally playing himself; it’s an “arch version” of his real persona in which he riffs on the expectations audiences have of the former Joey Tribbiani from “Friends,” but he enjoys the idea of playing himself on some level.
“Any part I play will have more of me in it than any part that’s played by someone else,” he says. “There’s no standard way to play a character — everyone’s interpretation is different. It’s not like a plumber: This pipe connects to that pipe.”
Emmy nominee Connie Britton agrees. “It’s fun as an actor to pull and glean different parts of yourself and put them into a character,” says Britton, who plays the tough, motherly Tami Taylor on “Friday Night Lights.” “That makes it very real and accessible and true.”
Actors who become one with their characters often end up with a different kind of relationship — with the show’s writers. “Lights,” which just ended a five-season run, was filmed in Austin, Texas, but was written in Los Angeles, which meant the writers often trusted the actors to tweak story and character as they saw fit.
“They told me they trusted that they could write a scene and know the actors would get hold of it and make it good,” says Britton. “They were thankful that we had gotten to the point that they could ask me to ‘Tami it up’ on a given scene. That’s a rare and unusual partnership in television.”
Unusual perhaps, but the longer an actor inhabits a role, the more likely collaboration is to happen. Bomer says whenever he and show creator/show runner Jeff Eastin meet for lunch, “there’s an unspoken game where I’m studying him for insight into the character and he’s studying me for insight into the character. We’re drawing on each others’ experiences and steal shamelessly.”
Yet not all show runners admit to that kind of transparent fusing of fiction and fact. Yes, Gregory House rides a motorcycle and plays the piano because “House” star Hugh Laurie likes to do both, but that’s pretty much where it ends, says creator and show runner David Shore.
“Hugh is incredibly talented in many ways. So it does allow us to add character traits, which blur the line. But the essence of his character isn’t that he’s a motorcycle-riding piano player. There’s much more to the character,” says Shore, who admits his experience in this may be “atypical.”
It’s more likely that the writer-actor melding that goes on happens on a subconscious level. “Mad Men” creator and show runner Matt Weiner says “I am a sponge” when it comes to taking intangible qualities from an actor and working them into the character creation.
“You want to write something that’s already in the actors’ psychological and biological makeup that won’t require too much bending over backwards to bring it to fruition,” he says, which then leads to smoother acting.
And so, if you happen to run into an actor who seems shockingly close in personality to his television character, cut him some slack. It could be the role was written to reflect him — or it could be he’s just forgotten to turn the character off after so much time on set.
Not that the airline staff took that into consideration when faced with the Bomer/Caffrey amalgam: He didn’t get that first-class bump. “Without the help of the writers’ room it was not going to happen,” laughs Bomer. “I was denied. Every once in a while I have to remember that this is the real world … and not the one created in the writers’ room.”
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