Last night I had a dream that I played a minor character in the first season of The Office. And I was terrible. Not funny at all. In the dream, the roles of the characters in the office mostly relied on improvisations, and I just could not think of anything amusing to say or do. I was constantly wrecking scenes with my dull character. He was named Mike, a poor choice when the main character in the show is named Michael, and he had big hair and at first glance could sometimes be confused for Jim, another main character. That’s another bad sign.
I just hadn’t put in the time to think about what my character’s chief characteristic would be, I realized (in the dream) as I looked back a couple of years later as I reflected on my failed role, I think while I was looking at a magazine with a “whatever happened to…?” sidebar about my Office stint. I hadn’t done the homework before each scene shoot– I’d just gone in blindly and produced nothing of value on the spot. You can sum up each minor character in one or two words: Stanley is grouchy. Meredith is boozy and inappropriate. Kevin is lecherous and slow. Granted, in the real season 1 (in the non-dream, real world), these characteristics only gradually emerged and weren’t apparent in the first few episodes. But in the dream season 1, pretty much everyone had a sense of their character but me, and my lack of preparation was the cause.
Things did not end well for “Mike,” the original intern character. He had a flash of humor once or twice, like the scene in which Michael gave him a haircut, but still struggled to find an identity, and in the beginning of the second season he was killed by a bus.
Even in the dream, the fact that I’d had even a minor role for a few episodes on a national TV show seemed vaguely incredible, so I kept looking for proof that it had happened. The magazine helped. I remembered in the dream that I went to college with one of the actors/writers for the show (which is true), so it ultimately seemed plausible.
I am indeed a pretty bad actor in the non-dream world. I’m not nearly expressive enough in my main role as Jeff Deck, sometimes to the point of monotone. I’ve had a few notable roles, though, which helped me almost cross that canyon to a different, more demonstrative person. There was the singing, dancing evil priest in my friend’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar senior year at college. There were my dual roles in Winnie the Pooh, as the Narrator and the Owl (the latter played with a hammy British accent inspired by imitating one of my professors). And one of the most important roles: the semi-autobiographical part of the Brave Tailor in my friend Dana’s wedding play (for real!).
In those roles, I did feel myself approaching a different mental state, a stepping outside myself to inhabit another body– not unlike the feeling during fiction writing, but in a physically enabled sense. It’s like occupying a different dimension in which you are allowed a wholly different set of thoughts. Then, if you can take those thoughts with you when you return to your actual life… why, I wonder if acting can be complementary for writing.
Certainly it’s given me a thrill during the few fortunate circumstances so far when I’ve been able to witness someone acting based on a character I’ve written. The character comes alive in a way that was barely possible before and suggests new directions and dimensions. Returning back to The Office, I think they do incorporate a certain amount of improvisation into each show (though I might be wrong), and that must come from the actors already knowing their characters intimately, perhaps glimpsing those extra dimensions from the inside.