I remembered reading a story several years ago about the great silent film actor, Lon Chaney, Sr. It seems that when he first came to Hollywood to break into the movies, this well-trained stage actor could not find a role as a "leading man" or even as a main character. He was constantly being cast as a background actor or a lesser ensemble member. Feeling frustrated with this, Mr. Chaney, Sr. started doing something that transformed himself into a household name. . .
More about that in just a moment because I want to explain something that most of us who act may have forgotten or set aside and it is just that word--TRANSFORM. According to Merriam-Webster, "transform" means "to change (something [or one's self]) completely and usually in a good way"; "to change in composition or structure"; "to change the outward form or appearance of"; or "to change in character or condition". Transformation is like what happens to a caterpillar who wraps itself in its chrysalis or cocoon--the body breaks down into a slimy, slushy form that becomes a butterfly or moth. . .a completely different creature. When you are transformed, you become something so different that you can NEVER go back to what you were before like the butterfly or moth can never become a caterpillar again. Now, back to Mr. Chaney, Sr.
Lon started using stage make-up and prosthetic body parts like noses, ears, etc., that allowed him to look like a completely different person or character. He literally became known as the man of a thousand faces. He played a pirate in the original silent film Treasure Island as well as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the movie by the same name, the Phantom in the original Phantom of the Opera, an oriental bad guy, a clown, a cowboy, and even Fagin in Oliver Twist. In more than 160 different films, he became the character that he allowed himself to be transformed into, never playing the same person twice.
I stand to learn a GREAT lesson from this original superstar of the Silver Screen and that is to be transformed into the character that I want to be. As I prepare for auditions and the roles that I do, I have learned to do a personal biography and character study of the person I will be portraying--making it up for me when there is no background for that person. I choose to wear clothing that they would wear. Cut, brush or shave my hair to look like what I believe that character would wear. Accessorize as if that person were accessorizing--watches, cuff links, necklace, hat, gloves, or whatever they may wear. Add a mustache with spirit gum if I don't have time to grow one out. Practice speaking like they would speak. Capture their "essence" and be transformed into them.
In the end, your transformation can lead you to success like it did for Mr. Chaney. Honestly, when you can transform yourself into your character (without losing your true persona in the process) you become a better, more believable actor. It is my hope to continue to be an actor like Lon Chaney, Sr. who greatly affected the entire movie industry--even to this day--with his iconic make-up and transformed acting style. It was said of him by his adopted daughter, Stella, "(Lon) was a man of great integrity and joy, who worked hard, loved his family, and did what he loved most of all in his life--he made movies."
Cheers to you and your transformation!
Jeffrey Loewen is a recent actor in self-exile who has decided to return to the stage after nearly 30 years of working behind the scenes. His return to the theatre began in 2014 at the Louise K. Taylor Performing Arts Center in Monrovia, CA as Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz and was followed up with the role of Mr. Alonso Smith for Meet Me In St. Louis. He has performed in several productions in the St. Louis and Chicago area in the 1980’s including Carousel, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, Wait Until Dark, The Music Man, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Julius Caesar, and Showboat. Having studied theatre at Judson College (now Judson University) in Elgin, IL and worked with several acting repertoires, Jeffrey has been transplanted to the LA area for almost 30 years where he has worked behind the scenes writing, directing, producing, costuming, designing sets and doing lights and camera in his spare time. He describes himself as a storyteller, actor, singer as well as an announcer for several different venues including synchronized swimming and pageants. First and foremost a husband (for over 27 years) and the father of four daughters—three of whom have worked on stage with dad and a fourth who is studying cinema at Azusa Pacific University. He can currently be seen in the Glendale Centre Theatre's Children's Production of Cinderella.