ND/NF: Character Acting, Or the Art of the Eccentric

Posted by on 3.21.2014


Richard Ayoade’s The Double.

At the top of his autobiographical show Character Man, now running off-Broadway, Jim Brochu defines the title figure as an actor who exhibits “unusual characteristics or peculiarities.” That could mean a reedy voice, a triple chin, or some ineffable strangeness of bearing that brands him as “other.” We tend to conflate character and supporting roles, but character acting can’t be measured in screen time or plot function. Mostly it serves to add sugar and spice, not stock, to the soup; character actors can be desultory and weird, unshackled as they are from the hero’s innate linearity. This should not be confused with personality acting, the inclination to “play oneself,” nor do tics and shtick a character actor make: Christopher Walken is a personality character actor; Adam Sandler is a personality leading man.

For a profitable survey of character acting, in all the term’s elasticity, one is referred to New Directors/New Films. A number of movies in the series regard eccentricity of mien through social and dramaturgic lenses, examining both how character actors create assumptions by their very presence and how these assumptions demarcate character from conventional performance.

Such slippage is exemplified in Richard Ayoade’s jet-black comedy The Double. Channeling Dostoevsky’s novel through a prism of Gilliam-esque absurdity, Ayoade’s film follows office milquetoast Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) through his daily rounds of shame and rejection, eventually pitting him against a doppelgänger (also played by Eisenberg) who brims with the very confidence Simon lacks. But before we meet the brash facsimile, we’re embedded in Simon’s drab, dismal world, overpopulated with disapproving forces. The first on the scene is his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), a balding, pugnacious little man who strides through the catacombs of the workplace barking directives (“Put on your coat, son! This isn’t a brothel!”). [See the full article free on Film Comment online.]

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