This week’s Hollywood Reporter cover story is about the remarkable year SNL has had making fun of Donald Trump and our current political swamp. When you step back to look at how they’ve successfully navigated a particularly divisive cultural moment and walked away with a ratings bump of 11 million viewers, it’s truly amazing.
It’s particularly impressive given that so much of what’s happened in the news is either really serious and scary to many people, or is so absurd that it in-and-of-itself goes beyond parody. What I appreciate about their approach in these instances is that they often simply repeat what actually happened, giving us all a second to laugh out loud at it. It turns pain into catharsis, and makes SNL a type of antidote that people have to tune in to get.
In the interview, Leslie Jones quotes Lorne Michaels commenting on the numerous celebrity self-pitches to play other administration officials – most notably Rosie O’Donnell as Steve Bannon. What he says, I think, is actually incredible advice for how artists must approach despicable characters who do unsavory things, whether real or invented.
From the article:
Jones: I asked Lorne, “How come y’all aren’t bringing Rosie O’Donnell in [to play Bannon, per her plea on Twitter] or any of them to do it?” And he was like, “When you’re playing a character, you can’t play it from hate. You have to play it from funny, because when you play it from hate, it looks like you’re just being mean.” I love Rosie to death, but he might have been right on that one.
It’s so important to remember the notion that you can’t play a character from hate. For actors and writers alike – you have to be able to get behind every character you bring to life. I might even go so far as to say you must love them, or at the very least feel compassion for them.
I struggled with this while I was working on my show Joe Schmoe Saves the World. It’s a four character musical, and while primarily an ensemble piece, there’s a clear front runner for the main antagonist, which is the character of Joe.
When I created the character, I created him from a place of resentment and hate. He represented all the things that I despised about two groups in general: young musical theatre writers, and loud, obnoxious Americans. I built him to fail. I made him for the sole purpose of knocking him down.
This was a YUUUUGE mistake. Because I came from a place of hate, I had no room to understand, or even empathize with his motivations. This is what hatred does generally – it blocks us from connecting with another human being.
I had to go back over the course of many drafts and rediscover who this character was, who he wanted to be in my piece. I learned to feel for Joe as an artist just trying to make a name for himself, struggling with the feelings and side effects of failure. Ironically, this allowed me to both care for him and make him do even more disagreeable things. Because I gave him a good reason why, I could make him an even stronger antagonist.
Furthermore, my compassion for his situation gave me the ability to see his character arc as a tragedy. Rather than creating a strawman to attack, I created a human being with relatable flaws that become his undoing.
Lorne suggests to come from a place of funny, which makes sense given their ultimate goal of making people laugh. But more generally, I would say to come from a place of compassion. Whether you are portraying the hero or the villain, all people have reasons for doing what they do, and those motivations are universal at their core. Don’t let hate blind you to your character’s wants and needs. Choose compassion, and follow that where ever it takes you.