Breaking Down the Characters with Antwayn Hopper
In this Breaking Down the Characters, we’re talking to Antwayn Hopper. He was most recently seen in Nick’s Flamingo Grill, and Off-Broadway in the Public Theatre’s Loophole. Here we’re talking about his character study process, his time at Carnegie Mellon University, and his advice to young performers.
When it comes to character study, what’s the first thing you do when you receive the script for a show?
Perfect timing to ask this question, as I am gearing up to play yet another soldier, Acker at The Public Theater here in NYC! This time the show, The Loophole is during the Civil War, rather than WWII as was the case for Nick’s Flamingo Grill. The first thing I find necessary for me in my work, is to simply read the whole show from start to finish. I read all stage notes as well and mark all of the definite beats as I see them. (Omitting several as this is just a read through…NOT my actual scene work dissection time).
Afterwards, being that I have a clearer sense of the show…I read it again. This time keeping in mind the mental notes made before and I add recordings of the songs as I read so it’s like I get to experience it all, emotions, the music, the action, etc. I go through it one more time with the intention to mark all beats within the show. Period. From there, I gather simple detective work as I read through the show: What’s said about my character, mini objectives, other characters’ spines. Then I start thinking about mine ,the story’s spine, climax, etc.
One of my favorite parts of your performances is how you move. How do you decide how your character moves and speaks?
After figuring one’s interior traits, point of view, motivation and/or all the WHYS…I start to figure out mannerisms of the role. The OUTER or EXTERIOR…which involves speech, physical attributes and other traits that could be informed from the INTERIOR work. Which informs me further creating a living and breathing character. Which from this sort of work…creates a guaranteed and satisfying experience of taking an audience into another world. Into a world of a person separate from yourself…8 times a week. So the exterior can be motivated by simple questions, what time of year is it? hot or cold? This informs the way he walks. Is he “a trickster”?
Cool, then I will make him a snake and tell no one. Which “tricks” everyone altogether as I slide from stage right to stage left…making the whole show my prey. OR is he soft spoken? shy? Why? Oh. he fears rejection? Ok, so every time he walks he imagines jumping off a cliff…still. Which makes him even more interesting. All of that derived from specifics which came from answering the basic questions. Complexities always are more interesting, which comes from layering work on top of work, on top of work. All my script pages are always bombarded with writings. Attached is a picture of one of my pages from Nicks! But…this all and more helped in me finding my Bechet: A WWII Tuskegee Airmen turned Jazz Singer/Activist who married a French soldier-Claudine and moved back to ATLANTA and opened a Jazz club with his best friend who is White. COMPLEXITIES!
Do you build a backstory for your characters from the beginning of their lives to moments before the show starts? If so, how?
Yes. For if there’s no backstory, there is no play! hahaha! I do this mixed with personalization exercises aka I daydream! I think about the characters journey within the play. What is mentioned about his past? His goal? Is there one? From there I think about how this character speaks to me as a person. What similarities, if any, do we share? And if none…who do I know that’s similar? What makes them similar? Many times, I do research on people’s mindset after realizing certain things about a character. If you think about it, you must approach it as a curious child or like a Psychologist would, studying the characters mental space and bringing him to life. How did this happen? What were their names? Keep this present within your heart and spirit and the audience will forget that you are playing a character. Remember, layer on top of layers of specificity.
When it comes to scene study, what are you looking for in the text (operatives, character background)
Score the Play! For me I do it so much that it’s second nature for me! I have a little system of symbols and such and I mark up the page. I make charts on top of the script and I examine tactics, objectives/wants, etc. Within the play, the scene, the beat. It can be taxing but…this kind of work makes you own your role and it provides layer upon layer of good detailed work filled life and possibilities!! It’s a fun thing!
With Bechet, how did you start finding your way into his headspace?
I presented all the facts he was going through that were written in the text as well historically speaking. I also thought of where he was from. His father, I looked at pictures of blacks in rural Georgia at that time. How they dressed, hats, Holes in the shirts, their build, and They’re surroundings. Were they proud? Then I applied it to me and played around with different variations until I found a temperament that coincided with the facts. Then, what my director was wanting emotionally and of course with what the play NEEDED to create an authentic space mentally for Bechet.
What’s the most valuable thing you learned about character study at Carnegie Mellon?
HOW TO ACT! Jacobean, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Greek, Western, African, Restoration Comedy, Film, Music Theater, Drama, Improv, BALLET, Jazz, tap, singing..whatever. We learned how to Act and be truthful and be connected. What’s funny is I was a music theater major and at CMU, they thought of us as a bit more elite because Music Theater actors were known across the world as weak actors. At CMU, we were taught that we were the best singers, and dancers because we knew how to ACT.
And within Music Theater…it’s supposed to be the best of each genre, singing dancing and acting. So, they made sure their MTs were individuals first and actors second. Now admittedly, the trick behind CMU actors is this: We can break down a scene within any genre. Period! Music Theater, Acting, Voice or Dance…doesn’t matter. Every genre has a story for the most part (winks) but our job as storytellers is to tell the story. Beginning, middle, and end. Then break THAT down. Then… break THAT down. Ahhaa! That’s really what has kept me working admittedly so. Scene Study/Work as well as learning how to be authentic and honest…which is LETTING GO! Less is more. Less is real. I learned what it meant to be a humanitarian and put your Heart into your work! That’s our slogan at Carnegie. “My heart is in the work.”
What’s your advice to students auditioning for schools?
Don’t listen to other people. Everyone told me to go elsewhere because no one in Topeka, Kansas had really heard of CMU! I also thought I was horrible because I didn’t get into two schools I really wanted. At the time, I thought accepting CMU was like me accepting my fall back school and I had listened to what others had said about Pittsburgh sucking and so on…so I was sad heading into my studies.
But when I got there it was literally OUT OF THIS WORLD magical! So, do WHAT YOU WANNA DO and own it! Also ask yourself….is this something that is realistic for me? Figure an out of school 4-year plan. As it is, “success” doesn’t happen right out of school for everyone upon graduating COLLEGE. And Save your money! I moved to NY with $300…because I was stupid and my parents surprised me by offering NO HELP. Have a backup-post college too, like at least $3,000 saved and a 9 to 5 job AND apartment. A solid foundation before college and or after sets up your whole outcome in life. Trust me!
What’s your advice for auditioning in NYC professionally?
Love yourself. Don’t be a negative Nancy. Except the truth about you if you know it’s true. If you are sensitive about whatever you are hearing, then it’s probably true. Be strong. Have a hobby/volunteer. I find that when I give, then I can balance the taking that auditioning does. It’s a positive outlet for what many of us deem painful. Don’t hold back.
**Within the room of an audition:
OWN THE ROOM. You have to go in there and say mentally “HERE I AM!” Find your groove to memorizing and learning the scenes. Is there a formula developed? Good. Because there will be times where you will have to learn 4 Tv sides, 4 musicals, and a play (in spanish) at once and your agents and casting peeps will not take to you to well when you are unprepared and saying “HERE I AM!” because as you exit, they will say and remember “ AAND THERE HE WENT!!!!”
Be prepared above all.
Know what and who you are. With cold reads, always hold the paper please!??!! People ask me whether or not to hold the paper in an audition. I always say YES! HAHAHA and I wish not to share my very awful and horrid reasoning behind this notion. hahahah!
What’s your key to balance when it comes to being a triple threat?
Well, I started with Dancing and Singing together. So at times I was able to put that on the backburner and focus on acting and knew that the singing and dancing would always be there. Once I caught up on the acting, I focused on keeping all three balanced equally with the acting ALWAYS leading the other two and being used in everything I do.
Currently, I think of myself as a Principal actor. Dancing doesn’t really happen that much and for everyone it’s different but for me, young, queer and black with a deep voice. I knew early that I would not be fully fulfilled by merely Ensemble work, so I am currently sacrificing me not showing too much dance in order to keep up with the Principal world. To offset this, I take voice classes as well as looking at Ailey Extension for Dance Classes. What I will say honestly is…
ONCE YOU HAVE IT. YOU ALWAYS HAVE IT.
I haven’t taken class for dance since 2007. Last year, I did a HUGE DANCE SHOW (Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago) and to my amazement I was asked to be front and center for ensemble pieces! Know that It never leaves you, so don’t drive yourself crazy trying to cover all three. Make your focus acting and the other two will remain or catch up! Acting is important. For my peeps here in NY, I love brush up classes at Atlantic, William Esper and UCB! Actors Connection offers great Film classes as well as auditioning technique! Also, as far as vocal studios here in NY are concerned, they are all excellent. Just do a simple FB search or google and voila! It’s all yours to keep yourself together!!
What’s one thing you wish you knew about acting when you first started?
I wish I knew the importance of having other things to do outside of acting as the mental game behind the acting game can eat you up inside-out and you have no clue! That’s why I stress you to keep your hobbies up! Friends! loved ones! PRAYER! Meditate! and OWN and LOVE that you are a special mofo that many look up to! You are courageous and selfless in your brave attempt of bringing characters to life. What an amazing GIFT you possess. Now….what will you do with it? Remember..LAYER on Layer upon Layers! xoxoxox!I want you all to win and I thank you all for allowing me to share my strategies I have found worked for myself in this play called LIFE.
To read more Breaking Down the Characters click here! You can find Antwayn Hopper next in Michael R. Jackson’s Strange Loop off-Broadway this summer at Playwrights Horizon, Click here for tickets. Follow Antwayn on instagram here and MWMIV SPEAKS everywhere here.