Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Creating in Action

It is one of the more fascinating characteristics of series television that the actors who play the regular cast of characters become powerfully involved in creating not just their own roles but the series itself. The power of the major stars to get the producers’ attention is not the only reason. The actors become the caretakers of their characters and ultimately of the series because they are the ones who are always there.

It’s since become expected that writers will adapt to what the actors have done with their characters, and even use elements of an actor’s own biography in the stories. But Star Trek’s actors were among the pioneers of this process. As the ones being seen, they see themselves as the most accountable and responsible. Star Trek was blessed with actors who cared deeply about their work and the integrity of Star Trek, and their contributions went far beyond saying the lines.

As it turned out, they were aided in this by their theatre training. Good theatre training involves not only the intricacies of acting but awareness of the elements of production and storytelling. It gives actors the means to analyze stories and their roles—not only for the good of their characters but for the good of the show. This is crucial in the chaos of television drama, and also in the series form, when the actors are often in the best position to see both the patterns and possibilities of character arcs and interactions, as well as the flow and pattern of the stories they are required to bring to life.

The relative power of ego versus art is debatable in the long run, but clearly both William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy thought a great deal about their characters and how the stories they were making could best be told. Shatner knew that Roddenberry had conceived of Captain Kirk as a Horatio Hornblower hero —a man of action but with flaws, and with a touch of Hamlet’s complex morality and self-doubt. He saw his function as the hero of Greek drama who is the center of the story, and therefore a focus for the audience: through identifying with him, they experience the story.

Shatner projected Captain Kirk’s exuberance and wonder, and his swagger and fa├žade of self-confidence. From the beginning, Shatner’s performance had great energy, assurance and humor. He would say later that some other aspects of Kirk, including his occasionally odd way of speaking, were the result of fatigue.

While Shatner was a physical actor, Leonard Nimoy was more deliberative in his process, which was also most appropriate for his character. With only a few models to guide him physically (he admired the way the singer Harry Belefonte could hold an audience with his stillness, and small gestures that became significant by contrast) he thought deeply about a character that had no precedent. He had long discussions with Roddenberry about Spock (as did Nichelle Nichols about Uhura.) He toned down his portrayal in response to Shatner’s faster energy. He came up with both the Vulcan greeting and Vulcan neck pinch, as well as some key moments in defining Spock.

Shatner insisted on a table near the set where the actors could discuss that day's work, which whatever its practical value, showed a commitment to the strength of the stories. Nimoy also thought beyond his own character to the stories themselves. “Battling for dramatic integrity,” Herb Solow later wrote, “did not necessarily ingratiate him with those who were constantly rewriting scripts while fighting budgets, costs, delivery schedules, and studio policies. But Leonard performed a positive service, not only for his own character, but for the relationships of all the characters. He was the unbilled guardian of dramaturgy.”

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