Whenever an actor takes up a new character, the job is to understand the character. According to me, an actor must not only understand it but know it inside out. The script will often provide most of the details and for others, the actor will have to invent. For this prepping process, Uta Hagen’s 9 questions strategy or tool or technique whatever you call it, is perfect.
Uta Hagen was a legendary actress and coach who had acting roots in the famous Group Theater. She taught at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio. Popular students she taught included Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Mathew Broderick. She also wrote two books on acting:
Most of her techniques were based on Konstantin Stanislavski and Yevgeny Vakhtangov. Most notable was a series of object exercises that she taught to her students. These questions answered all the questions that the actor asks or he must ask in order to prepare for the role. These questions not only familiarize the actor with the role but gives all the necessary ammunition needed during the performance. After these answering, these questions actor will not have to think about how his character will react when in certain situations. Everything will be there in these 9 questions.
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So, what are the 9 questions?
1st: Who am I?
This is an obvious question but what answer you seek as an actor is important. It must answer the character’s name, age, education, physical traits, fears, ethics, beliefs, likes dislikes, relatives or enemies.
Let’s go through them one by one:
Name: First thing you must learn is the character’s name. The name of a person always tells you where he belongs, and what his family is. Often in some parts of the world names tell the class or business of a person. Hence, note those small details associated with the name.
Physical traits: Analyze the script for any physical disabilities or qualities that stand out for the character. Like in My left foot, Christy brown suffers from cerebral palsy. Only his left foot is functional and the rest of his body is paralyzed. Daniel day Lewis had to design his character around this physical trait. All characters will have some or other physical trait. It won’t be as proficient as the Christy brown but there will be some. Even the superpower of the character must come under physical traits.
Relationship with other characters: Make a list of other characters and note how your character is affected by the relationship with them. Few of them will be his friends, few will be his family and few will be his enemy. Relationships with other characters will define the character’s behavior while interacting with them during the scene.
Education: Find out what kind of education a character has. If the character is highly qualified, it will reflect in his/her body language and how he or she converses with other characters. Often education will tell you the skills of the character. Knowing the skills of the character is beneficial if you do some research and learn them. Your performance will be more believable.
Beliefs: our own personal beliefs make us what we are, how we think, and how we handle certain situations. In the same way, a character will have his or her own personal opinions. For me, this is one of the most important aspects of any character to analyze. It will help you answer very specific questions like what the character will react or what actions a character must take in givens situations.
The best way to learn a character’s personal opinion is to ask the writer of the script because sometimes the script doesn’t convey the internal make of a character.
Fears: another important aspect to learn about characters in his or her fears. List out the fears in the front page of the script. As the story goes along character will try to address his fears. Either he will succeed or fail but he or she will address his or her fears.
Keeping this in mind, you will get to know the character you are going to play.
2nd: What time is it?
The significance of time plays a key role in any story. What it does is, gives you its set of rules that you cannot break. Learn in which century or decade the story take place. Do some research on that era of the story. Look for how people dressed, how they speak, what was in trend, and technology. Familiarize yourself with that time.
And time also includes which season it is, is it fall, is it autumn, or summer. Take a note of that. Even knowing the time of the day is also crucial. I often cringe when people handle the early morning or very late-night scene with a normal voice or with energy. This is the time when your body’s energy is to its lowest. If you play with groggy voice, and little moody way, the audience will relate to the scene more effectively.
3rd: Where am I?
The question who am I, is the most important of all 9 questions because the place in which the story takes place affects the character the most. The feel and emotions of the story come from the world it takes place. I believe the place itself acts as a character in a story.
Everyone loves the sitcom friends. The actors of the series believed that the apartment of Monica Gellar was another character for them.
So, if your story is limited to a city, town, or even a house, study it thoroughly. If possible spend a few days in that place to get a feel of that place.
4th: What surrounds me?
If you are acting for the camera it’s a great practice to spend a few minutes just exploring the set or the location. Note the animate or inanimate objects. Play with them. Feel the furniture if it’s an interior scene. Feel the weather if it’s an exterior scene.
Most of the just by exploring you will be hit with unique ideas for playing the scene. What the surrounding does is give the triggers for the small actions that could make the scene interesting.
Just look at this scene below. This is the clip from the movie, On the waterfront. Observe here how Marlon Brando uses the glove of Eva Marrie Saint. The scene wasn’t planned that way. The glove fell accidentally, and Marlon instinctively picked up the gloves and made it an interesting action it. Just look for yourself:
You don’t have to plan anything but be aware of what surrounds you.
5th: What are my circumstances?
Before going into a scene, you must know three things:
- What was your previous circumstance?
- What is your present circumstance?
- What your future circumstance will be?
Always enter into the scene with the previous circumstances. For example, if you had a big fight, you were angry, it must reflect on your current circumstance. You must still be angry and upset. And as the scene continues, your circumstance will change as you move towards achieving the scene objective.
This is necessary because as humans we take time shifting from one emotion to other. Anything bad or good happening sticks with us for a long time and it affects our daily routine. Effects last until another big event occurs.
So, while working on any script, right in front of the scene write where you are coming from and what was your mood. If it is a new start or there is a leap of days, months, or years, imagine the circumstance that might have occurred before the current circumstance your character is facing.
Note: It’s all about creating a timeline of happening for your character.
6th: What are my relationships?
When you talk about relationships in terms of acting it doesn’t mean an only relationships with other people but it also means relationships with objects and events.
Relationship with people is a basic thing to learn about any character. But it is also important to learn what is your relationship with objects or events. Like in the movie Patriots Day, how the Boston bombing event played a big role in how the character of Mark Walberg behaved. Another example I think of is The Fastest Indian where Anthony Hopkins shared an emotional relationship with his high-speed motorcycle.
Yes, the examples I used are those in which objects and events play key roles in defining circumstances the characters face. But if you look closer every story will have that one object or event the character will be affected by. You will have to test and try to find which works best. Sometimes objects or events are the biggest triggers for some emotions that you seek during the performance.
7th: What Do I want?
You must understand this question is the most important out of all Uta Hagen’s 9 questions. Even if you don’t go through the whole 9 question process and just answer this one, you will do a decent job as an actor.
This question has two parts:
- Scene objective
- Overall objective
The objective in acting important term. If you take any method acting book, you will come across the term objective. No matter which acting system you follow, everyone speaks heavily about the objective of the character in the story.
Let’s look at the two parts:
Scene objective: When you do a cold reading, you must find out what your character is after in this scene. Is he trying to convince his girlfriend to stay, or is he trying to convince the police is not the murderer? Whatever may be, find that objective.
The best practice is to write a scene objectives adjacent to every scene. If you are confused, try few different things. Eventually, you will find the best objective.
Overall objective: Once you have read the whole script. You must be able to write in one line what your character wants. One thing to keep in mind is to keep the objective emotional. It could be romantic relationship, it could be revenge, or winning someone trust back.
8th: What’s in my way?
This question must answer what are the obstacles that your character face? Usually, a story lays out series of obstacles during the story. You will have to list the all the obstacles in series. Best way to go about is to answer this question with objective. When you are looking for the scene objectives, you should also ask what are obstacles that stop your character from achieving that goal.
And if you think, story is all about characters getting over obstacles and achieving their objectives.
9th: How do I get what I want?
This question is almost summarizing all 9 questions as it gives an actor an action to do. Performance is all about doing something and to reach that step, you will have to understand the character, the place he or she is in, circumstance, then what he or she must achieve and what is stopping him or her form achieving. After comprehending all the information, character will have an solid action to take. Like if the boyfriend is suppose to stop his girlfriend from leaving, if must hold her hand pull her closer to him, tell his lines that must compel the girlfriend to stay back.
To answer this question, go scene by scene and list the action required for that scene. But don’t just write down the physical movement, it must a one line with emotional aspect. Because emotional aspect will organically extract an natural physical action out of you.
So, here are the Uta Hagen’s questions that you must answer as part of preparing for any character. My advice is to use pencil and write everything on the script. Why pencil, because you can change it easily. First attempt wont land you with all the right answer as there no blueprint to making a character but testing and trying will help you build a believable character.
Always use directors and writers help while answering these questions.
Buy Uta Hagen Books:
Respect for Acting (Get it on Amazon)
A challenge for the actor (Get it on Amazon)
Want To Learn Other Types Of Acting Techniques? – Read This Post
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