“He’s psychotic. He’s an assassin. He’s not a normal person.”
This is how actor George Newbern describes his character “Charlie” on ABC’s Scandal.
Up until now, Newbern has not exactly been typecast as “psychotic.” Newbern has made a career out of playing nice guys such as the likeable son-in-law Brian MacKenzie in the Father of the Bride movies. In fact, Newbern is so adept at playing good guys that he’s even the voice of Superman in both the Justice League Unlimited and The Batman animated series.
So when he took on the character of psychotic assassin Charlie, Newbern had to find the right approach for understanding and becoming the character. So what did he decide to do?
He became an animal.
To play Charlie, Newbern employed an acting technique called the “animal exercise.” According to The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, the animal exercises “make the actors aware of their body and how to use it in unaccustomed ways through the final portrayal of the animal.”
Newbern described his training in animal exercise as a student at Northwestern University. He told me, “One of the first thing you do in acting classes is you try to observe the behavior of people. And the behavior of people is informed by how they move and how they move through space. And I didn’t understand that until they said, ‘You need to go to the zoo.’ We did this for three months – we’d pick an animal and observe them.”
What impressed Newbern about this exercise was that while some forms of acting focus on understanding the character’s thoughts or emotions – the animal exercise helped Newbern focus on how animals reacted to the behavior of other animals. And this allowed Newbern to understand characters in terms of their most primitive instincts, such as fear and hunger.
“Animals don’t think about stuff, they behave. And they respond to food, sex, sleep, danger, whatever,” Newbern explained. “So all of those elements – you pick a class, you observe the animal and then we came into class and discussed. ‘What does your animal do at feeding time?’ How do they respond to other animals in their pen?’”
Soon it was the students’ turn to portray how animals would behave in the presence of other animals. The instructor “grouped all of the animals together and he’d say, ‘Put the gorilla with the weasel.’ And whoever was the gorilla and the weasel – they’d throw them on stage. You didn’t have any dialogue – you just interacted,” he said.
Ultimately, Newbern learned how to engage in dialogue while maintaining the behavioral movement and reactions of an animal. “We picked a character from a great play or whatever and you applied your animal to a character. And you wanted to see little things that would inform the way you walked, talked, behaved, whatever,” Newbern recalled. “And it was amazing.”
Newbern highlighted how actors such as Spencer Tracy, Kevin Spacey and the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman were skilled at this type of behavioral acting. “Some people are better at it than others. Spencer Tracy was the model for seamless behavioral acting, which means you’re not necessarily paying attention to what they’re saying, you’re watching them behave in ways that you respond to,” he explained.
To be sure, Newbern did not always employ this approach to his characters. In fact, initially, Newbern found that he was cast as characters that were perhaps closer to what he sees as his true nature. He discussed how he approached the character of Bryan Mackenzie in Father of the Bride.
“I do remember one note from the director – the character can have no edges whatsoever. There can be no hint of anything duplicitous in this guy, because then the father would have a reason to hate him. He has to be super perfect,” Newbern explained. “He had to be squeaky clean…and pleasing all the time, trying to do the right thing – because he wanted the approval of the new father in law, because he loved this girl. I was just trying to be the pleasing part of my personality as much as I could. I’m a pleaser by nature, so that wasn’t that hard.”
But Newbern relished the opportunity to play against type for Scandal.
“If it’s just you all the time – and that’s hard for me – essentially they just cast you as you because they just want one quality out of you,” he said. “But if you’re lucky, you get a part where you try to bring in something a little different that makes it fun for you to play and makes it a little different from other characters.”
And so for Charlie, Newbern employed the animal exercise – conceptualizing Charlie as a jungle cat. But interestingly, other than that approach, Newbern does not approach Charlie from an “inside out” perspective – delving into his personality or emotions. Rather, he feels that emptying the character of human qualities and reducing him to a reactive animal best captures a sociopathic character.
“I found an animal for this guy which is sort of like a cat. A jungle cat or a panther or something, where he’s just sort of a slinky guy, and he moves smoothly from one thing to the next. And then after that I really play him as a normal person,” Newbern described. “Because the writing is saying he does these wacky, anti-social, pathological things … and he doesn’t really invest too much in it. So he acts as normally as if he was going to the post office … and he thinks it’s kind of fun … but he doesn’t analyze. He doesn’t have much invested in it other than he’s a mercenary.”
“That’s what makes his evil scary.”
Newbern is looking forward to seeing where the character of Charlie takes him and towards other challenges that allow him to explore new directions. “I strive to find things that I can bring to anything that’s a bit more behavior oriented and less flashy. I don’t know if I succeed or not, but that’s what I try to do,” Newbern said.
Here’s to Newbern’s acting animal and where it takes him next.
Michael A. Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with offices in Manhattan and South Orange, NJ, and is a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Contact Dr. Mike at michaelfriedmanphd.com. Follow Dr. Mike on Twitter @drmikefriedman