I’ve Gotta Be Me. And Me. And also Me.
How binge-watching TV’s army of sci-fi doppelgängers made me a better theater actress.
She was prickly and standoffish — and friendly and warm. She wanted the man across the table really badly — but rejected him over and over. She was damaged and strong, over the top and understated. She was dozens of women all at once.
She was also me.
On stage recently, I pulled off the strangest acting assignment I’d ever attempted: playing 40 different versions of the same character within the confines of a 10-minute play.
I’ve been working as an actress for more than 20 years, so I know how to create imaginary people. During the weeks of rehearsal, I’ve got my system for figuring out all the big and small choices that will turn my character into a living, breathing person. I decide everything from how she walks, talks and feels about other characters to what she eats for breakfast.
Normally, the only heartbreak is this: Once I’ve made all those choices, it’s done. I can’t remake them.
Then suddenly last month, I get this crazy opportunity (by which I mean nightmare): I had to create dozens of slightly different versions of this one woman and play them all in a matter of minutes. Even Walt Whitman didn’t contain this level of multitudes.
The one-act play by David Ives, “Sure Thing,” chronicles the first encounter of two strangers who meet in a café. Each time one of them says something that could ruin their chance at falling in love, a bell rings. Then the scene rolls back a few lines and each character has changed slightly. Each has different reactions to things, different feelings and past experiences, different attitudes and different answers to each other’s questions.
My scene partner and I would need to pinball around the entire psychological spectrum, touching on every variable that changes our characters from harsh and unapproachable to wary and worried, and finally to the promised land of funny and friendly. What’s more, we had to do it in mere seconds.
After a few weeks of thinking, stressing, making endless notes on a legal pad and watching copious amounts of television to distract myself, I realized something: The solution to my theatrical dilemma could be found not among the giants of the Broadway stage but among the amnesiac zombies, robot-replaced secret agents, cloned superheroes and other multiverse-dwelling inhabitants I was already binging on for fun.
The answer, it turned out, was inside the beating heart of comic book-inspired sci-fi TV.
Actress Ming-Na Wen spent three seasons refining the specifics of stone-cold S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Melinda May.
Marvel fans grew to know exactly how May would react to everything from kickboxing assassins to irritating coworkers.
Then, this season, Wen had to create a robot version of May so nearly human that even her own team wouldn’t notice she was a decoy (TV viewers were in on the secret switch). And in the season’s final weeks (spoiler alert) she had to give audiences a totally different, even darker May — an agent for S.H.I.E.L.D.’s nemesis, HYDRA, who was haunted not by past killings but by having disastrously spared a single life inside a simulated world.
It wasn’t easy, as she told “Entertainment Tonight.”
“When I first put on the costume with the HYDRA logo, I hated it! I really did. I’m like, ugh, this doesn’t feel right, you know?”
“I always played May where she was guarded in her feelings, but she was always extremely compassionate and always wanted to protect her family … Ultimately, it’s about doing good and protecting the innocent. With HYDRA May, it’s all about vengeance and callousness and coldness.”
Several of her co-stars tackled the same kind of challenge, and I realized it was relevant to my performance, too. I found myself taking mental notes as I saw how deftly Clark Gregg altered the angle of his head and the tone of his voice to create a sweetly awkward, alternate-universe Phil Coulson who opted to teach high school and make soap instead of serving alongside the Avengers.
Not to be outdone by their competition at Marvel, a slew of actors on my favorite D.C. Comics shows have also been rocking altered versions of their characters for the past couple of seasons. On “The Flash,” we’ve seen a slew of alternate timeline and alt-universe takes on Barry, Joe, Iris, Caitlin, Cisco and Harrison Wells.
Tom Cavanagh alone has played enough versions of Wells to field a baseball team. We’ve seen a cold-blooded killer posing as a brilliant scientist. A brilliant scientist who’d rather defuse a bomb than cope with fatherhood. A kaleidoscope of Wellses who appeared in holographic messages (including one who seemed to dwell in the Old West and a terribly proper British variant). And perhaps the most lovable of all — the self-deprecating, novel-writing, coffee-swilling, drumstick-drumming, surprisingly brave Wells known simply as “HR.”
Over in the darker, grittier world of D.C.’s “Gotham,” teenage actor David Mazouz has performed the triple lutz of acting challenges this season. After creating his compelling take on young Bruce Wayne (again, spoilers ahead, if you’ve been stockpiling old episodes), he’s also played a tragic Bruce-clone raised in the bowels of a mind-control facility and then played the clone as he’s completed training to behave so much like Bruce that he nearly fooled Alfred the butler. Finally, Mazouz wound up the season playing a brainwashed, murderous version of the real Bruce.
That’s effectively four versions of a character in a single television season.
I realized that Mazouz’s changes were less about his body and more about the fear in his eyes. He has slowly been building the strength that would make us believe his teenage Bruce could really become the rock-solid Batman we know and admire. So he differentiated clone-Bruce by coping with a powerful undercurrent of fear that the clone has battled.
Each of these actors’ performances brought me a step closer to figuring out how to approach my own: Some I would differentiate with different physicality, and others I’d make unique through the emotional hurdles I’d jump.
Doppelgängers are nothing new on television, of course. Long before the Stussy brothers came to “Fargo” and numerous Agent Coopers populated the return of “Twin Peaks,” soap opera fans reveled in the sudden appearance of a character’s evil twin or duplicitous lookalike (looking at you, Grant Andrews and Grant Putnam from the 1980s glory days of “General Hospital”).
As far back as the 1960s, the original “Star Trek” series played with unusual takes on the show’s core characters. You can see the joy in Leonard Nimoy’s eyes while playing Spock’s bearded, alternate-universe doppelgänger in “Mirror, Mirror.” William Shatner seemed to have just as much fun playing an android Captain Kirk and dueling Kirks split in two by the transporter.
More recently, sci-fi fans like me got five whole years of multiverse versions of our favorite “Fringe” characters. Anna Torv played the “Faux-livia” versi0n of Olivia Dunham as more joyful and risk-loving, and at times even her soulmate Peter Bishop wasn’t sure which was which (or which he preferred). And John Noble brilliantly chewed scenery as Walter Bishop and his doppelgänger nemesis, often referred to as “Walternate.”
Those old performances and the flood of interesting new ones gave me food for thought. And yet each of these actors, impressive as their altered characterizations have been, probably had the luxury of going days or even weeks between playing one variation on their character and another. I can note how they used their bodies and voices and emotional reactions to differentiate one from another, but that didn’t tell me how an actor can pull off this trick within a single scene.
For that I needed a different kind of food for thought: brains.
For three seasons on “iZombie,” we’ve seen our heroine Liv Moore morph into an uncomfortable cross between herself and the unfortunate murder victim whose brain she’s just eaten. In this particular fictional world, you take on the traits and memories of someone whose brain you’ve just eaten. For days afterward, you remain a little bit you and a little bit them.
That helps Liv solve murders, which is good. But it’s really inconvenient for her personal life.
“God,” Liv said in a recent episode, “I’m tired of having other people in my head, you know?”
I do! That’s exactly how I felt working on this play! My scene partner would say a line and three different responses (uttered at different moments in the play by different versions of my character) would pop into my head simultaneously. So I watched Rose McIver’s performance as Liv with great care, and I went researching to find out how she feels about this unique acting experience. Here’s some of what I found, from her talk with undertheradarmag.com last year :
“I think part of the challenge is maintaining Liv each week, and her integrity. … So I try to find different ways to incorporate the characteristics of each person whose brain is eaten by Liv, but still have the audience invested in Liv as a character.”
That was the final piece of my answer.
Beyond strategic physical changes and a few carefully chosen emotional shifts, I needed to find some central threads that are always the same in every incarnation of my character. Each character needed that consistent base, shaped with a little dose of something else.
I had to ask myself: What always stays the same? What is her true north, her never-changing core?
This character, Betty, is out on a Friday night reading a book and sipping coffee in a public place. The reasons she’s there and the people she is or isn’t waiting for shift with every ring of the bell. But in the end she’s always a person who opted to be out in the world alone and not hibernating at home with her slightly dog-eared copy of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury.”
There’s something hopeful and strong about choosing to be out in the flow of humanity. There’s something solid about being able to be yourself, alone, awash in the busy, crazy world.
Maybe Betty isn’t solving murders or eating brains. Maybe she isn’t vanquishing supervillains or running faster than the speed of light. But all those sci-fi characters led me to find her strength — even the heroism embedded in putting herself out there, talking to a stranger and seeking true love against the odds.
That understanding of her core gave me the freedom to spin off 40 distinct versions of this one fictional woman in that 10-minute span.
Like the rest of us, she’s consistent and yet changeable. Solid yet open to evolution. She may have multiple identities, but on some level don’t we all?
Some things never change at the core of a character, at the core of each of us. Maybe audiences love doppelgänger stories so much, and we’re seeing them popping up all over the TV landscape lately, because we’d love to know who we’d be if we’d grown up under slightly altered circumstances. How would you be changed if something — even something little — had been different?
It’s comforting to believe that something inside is constant, some core that makes us us. And I think it’s true. Discovering how actors tease that out — how Tom Cavanagh expertly makes sure that HR and Harrison Wells have enough overlap to be the same person despite the different circumstances behind them — that’s what I needed to understand as an actor to do this part.
Along the way, it helped me figure out a piece of why I love the shows I do and why so many millions of others feel the same. It lets me say to myself: What if? And it lets me begin to answer.
- Where There’s Smoke. When we divorced, my ex-husband took a match to my childhood photos. Now I’m learning to follow the breadcrumbs that lead me back to my own history.
- You Go First. If a working mother waits until it’s a good time to take a trip purely for herself, she will never go. Go anyway.
- Welcome to the Pool Party. Tween life on Instagram is getting weirder and weirder.
Melissa Rayworth is a writer and editor who uses journalism to help people understand their personal lives. For the past two decades she has explored pieces of daily life — the homes we live in, the ways we pursue our relationships and raise our children, the ways we balance work and home, and the impact of pop culture and marketing on women’s lives — to shed light on the complexities of modern life. She currently does her storytelling from Bangkok, Pittsburgh and New York. Find a collection of her stories here. She tweets at @mrayworth.
©2017, Melissa Rayworth