5 Tips for When You Can’t Relate to a Role

“What if I can’t relate to my character?” To be honest, it surprises me how little consideration I generally give this question. For me at least, and I think for many of the actors I talk to, we are so driven by habit, training, and necessity to find something in every character to which we can relate, that the process doesn’t get broken down much. But for anyone new to the acting field, and occasionally for the pros, it’s a very valid question. No matter how chameleon-like your abilities, eventually you’ll meet a character that throws you a curveball. So here are a few strategies to keep in your back pocket.

1. Identify Your Roadblocks

It can be both a blessing and a curse to know if there are certain kinds of characters, or certain topics, attitudes or personalities that automatically mean you will have to work a little harder. While the knowledge carries the potential to put one in one’s head, more often I find it allows me to marshal my best strategies. And let’s be realistic—you’ll feel it when it happens. Every now and then a character will come along with a point of view that is just ill at ease in your psyche. It doesn’t mean you can’t play the part. It just means doing a little more homework. For me, it’s often religion. I first realized this when I had to play Isabella from Measure for Measure in a college classical acting course. Having brothers myself, I could easily relate to her relationship with her brother Claudio. But her strong personal connection to her religion (a crucial theme for her character—she’s a nun) was a tough one for me. The scope and rigidity of her belief, enhanced by the absolutism of religion at the time, felt alien to me. While I was able to develop strategies, it took me far longer to relate to that character than I wanted, which at the time was very frustrating. But identifying it set me up for future success. Yesterday I had to audition with a monologue of Joan of Arc’s (Henry VI part I). Unsurprisingly, the text drew heavily on that character’s religious convictions. But because I know that adjusting to that mentality takes a little more work for me, I was able to translate her feelings toward her religion into something that felt real and honest for me, and move on.

2. Use Your Actor’s Imagination

This is, of course, the first and most obvious choice. But sometimes it will be enough to get you there. If your brain works this way, try a “what if” scenario and imagine yourself into the character’s life. Really take your time and let yourself build up the imaginary circumstances. Start with a “seed.” Choose something small that feels like familiar territory, maybe building your character’s family history or childhood home. Choose some action, reaction, situation or attitude in your character with which you can identify. For me, starting with Isabella’s love for her brother was a helpful window into her psyche. It was the fact that she couldn’t bring herself to betray her religion and sleep with Angelo in order to save his life was momentarily baffling. But understanding her familial bond described to me the intensity of her investment in her beliefs. It told me that I had to find in myself a similar conviction, the betrayal of which would feel similarly unimaginable. If you like, you can even use alternate media inspiration to make it feel personal. For example, write out a scene in the character’s life that somehow leads to the choices with which you have trouble identifying. Ease into it. Let yourself live in the parts of the character that feel readily real to you before creating the “what if” that gives you trouble. Then branch out from there.

3. Use the Text

If imagination isn’t doing the trick, try bringing it back to the text. Sit down and give the imagery a second look. Sometimes just saying the words a different way will set you down a new path. If there’s something about this character that is throwing you for a loop, it’s safe to assume you might have to approach the character using methods to which you are unaccustomed. Now is the time to try new things!

4. Get Physical

Maybe you just need to get out of your head. Dust off some old physical acting exercises. Ever try the one where two people hold you back to impose tension and struggle while you have to shout your text? If you’re alone, push against a wall, beat a pillow, or get your heart rate up and alter your breath. It might give you the push you need.

5. Translate

OK, so the usual tricks aren’t working. Time to bust out the big guns. If you still can’t relate, try working backwards. Find something in your own life that creates a parallel strength of emotion. If you can’t, for example, imagine or inspire your way into proper religious fervor, find something that creates in you similar feelings of awe, devotion and passion. For me, Joan’s wonder over God’s miracles took on a more relatable quality when I imagined wonders of nature. Say the text while letting those feelings live in your body, and make the substitution from there. Translating your character’s emotions into relatable territory could give you a launch pad. From there you can magnify as needed.

Bonus: But How Do You Know When You’re Doing it Right??

Because it will feel organic and fully lived like it usually does. Eventually you just have to relax and trust that the work you did is going to inform your performance. You are a professional with all the tools you need to relate honestly to the script. Now let yourself live in the circumstances you’ve imagined and the character you’ve created.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com