More Than Looks: An Investigation Into Capturing A Person’s Essence

Victoria Mileson

In light of Kristen Stewart playing the late Princess Diana in the upcoming film, Spencer, Victoria Mileson looks at what goes into playing a real-life person. Although the first thing we notice about a character is often their appearance, an authentic performance relies on so much more than looks.  

Portraying real-life people is very common across the biopic genre; a biographical film that somewhat dramatizes the life of a non-fictional person. There will be things that can’t be recreated, and knowing where to draw the line is part of the magic. But the fascination we have with the lives of real people, in particular the Royal Family, means actors are learning and taking more risks for their interpretations.

an authentic performance needs work all around

The case for looks…

How an actor looks is a fundamental first step to them being a recognisable character. There is an aspect of looking vaguely like the person, but a lot can be done to change their appearance. For example, many of us would have never considered the star of Twilight, Kristen Stewart, to play Princess Diana without the power of hair and makeup to get Bella Swan out of our heads.

That being said, an authentic performance needs a lot more work all around. Otherwise, anyone with a good Halloween costume would be able to waltz into an audition and land a role. 

Setting the bar on capturing a person’s essence

Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have set the bar for depicting real people. In preparation for Lincoln, Day-Lewis set aside a year to study Abraham Lincoln’s letters. When filming The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he taught himself Czech, despite the film being in English. He may be an extreme example, but his hard work pays off, and he won his third Best Actor Oscar for his role in Lincoln

Living the life of the character makes you realise how much lifestyle impacts experience, and no doubt helped him understand his characters better. 

Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana: a role with a lot to live up to

Coming to cinemas on 5th November this year, Spencer is a “poetic interpretation” of Princess Diana’s life. It is an imagination of the end of Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, set during the family Christmas at Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham estate. It isn’t strictly tied to history and depicts the three days in which she decided her marriage wasn’t working.

Kristen Stewart had to do a lot of dancing for the film to create a dance montage that reflects her moods. The actress says she learnt from Diana to no longer be afraid to dance in public. This shows that capturing the essence of a person is not just about learning to be them but also about learning from them.

In conversation with The Guardian, Stewart said “[Diana] felt so alive to me when I was making this movie, even if it’s all between the ears and it was just a fantasy of mine. But there were moments where my body and mind would forget she was dead.”

Kristen Stewart said that Princess Diana’s notable voice was one of the many things she had to adjust to. “The accent is intimidating as all hell because people know that voice, and it’s so, so distinct and particular,” she said.

Portraying the adored yet hounded Princess Diana is no easy feat by any means, but Kristen Stewart has already received praise from critics about her role in Spencer. The New York Times described her casting as a “meta stroke of genius”, while The Telegraph gave her performance five stars.

What makes a person? Research is key

looking for their character in a neutral state can be an actor’s most challenging task

Research is a fundamental part of playing a role. It’s important to understand the emotional reactions behind a script so that the actor can work out how to behave. Although interviews may seem like the place to start, they are in the public eye, so it’s still a performance. Looking for their character in a neutral state can be an actor’s most challenging task. However, finding the root of their behaviours separates a masterpiece from an imitation. 

Preparation is part of the job, but it’s also the key to a memorable performance. While in fiction, the character can, to an extent, be invented as their life unfolds, to play a non-fictional character is about finding out everything that’s already true. From how they move to how they engage with others; it’s about becoming an expert on that specific person.

Understanding the context of the film helps an actor get into their character’s head. Uncovering why they would feel nervous in certain situations means an actor can apply rather than guess. 

how a person speaks goes beyond a script.

The script must reflect this too, but the overall interpretation is down to the actor. How a person speaks goes beyond a script. For example, do they have a stammer? Do they speak particularly quickly? What accent do they have? Actors commonly work with dialect coaches to perfect small details and habits that their character might have.

An authentic performance

Without these steps towards change, the whole performance would be unrecognisable. Any acting relies on being believable, but with biopics, actors need to make it clear who they are from the minute they enter the frame. Being authentic to the real-life person means not twisting the public perception, so it’s important to understand the character completely.

Fictional characters come with some creative license. Playing real-life characters comes with a lot of research, immersion and talent. 

Victoria Mileson

Featured Image courtesy of Thom Sanders via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article trailer 1 for Lincoln courtesy of Movieclips Trailers via @youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article trailer 2 for Spencer courtesy of Movieclips Trailers via @youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

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