On the Shoulders of Giants

8 Aug
by Jeremy van Meter

As an actor, the creation of a character is an exciting process. From start to finish, it is a time of delving into every part of what is on the page to come up with a person that is honest and believable. This has been my goal with each role I have been given the opportunity to play. Of course, with each new role there is the realization that someone else has already played that character ahead of me. I have always appreciated that part of the history of the stage. With each addition to my résumé, I join a special group of actors who have embodied that specific role. Each of those performances is different as each actor finds his own special stamp to put on the characterization. It is one character created in a very different way depending on direction and actor process. 

With Stef Dickens, Katie Berger, and Catherine Glynn in “Pillars of Society” – photo courtesy of Jason Underferth

For instance, my Johan Hessel from this season’s Pillars of Society was, most certainly, quite different from the last actor who portrayed him wherever that may have been.

Every now and then a role comes along that is a bit more daunting than the others. These are the roles in which you have a heightened sense of awareness of another actor who has played the role at some point. Off of the top of my head there is Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Paul Newman in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Zero Mostel in Fiddler on the Roof, and you might ask our own Executive Director Hal Cropp about his experience last season with Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. The list goes on and on. This season at the Commonweal, I embody one of those characters with CK Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story. Haven was played, most famously, by Cary Grant in the 1940 film version.

When casting for the season was revealed and I found out that Dexter was on my plate, I made the decision to stay as far away from the film version as I could. The reason being is that I did not want an audience to feel as though I was playing an imitation of Cary Grant playing Dexter Haven. I have had people on the street ask me if I am playing the Cary Grant role or ask what it feels like to “play Cary Grant.” And while I understand the question, it has strengthened my resolve to avoid the imitation. The greatest similarity to be found is in the Trans-Atlantic speech pattern and dialect that must be utilized in the world of the play. Anything else would be to shortchange my own experience and that of the audience. 

With Catherine Glynn in “The Philadelphia Story” – photo courtesy of Jason Underferth

I will speak for all actors when I say that we are “standing on the shoulders of giants.” I have a great appreciation for the fact that Cary Grant is among those actors who have played Dexter. The acting world is a grand community with a deep history and I can only trust that my version of CK Dexter Haven is honest and true to the way in which I know the man. And maybe Mr. Grant smiles down on that performance every now and again. 

One Response to “On the Shoulders of Giants”

  1. Janine Holter August 10, 2012 at 4:52 PM #

    Jeremy, I have yet to see Mr Grant’s performance in this movie. I will now be compelled to see it and determine if he meets your high standards. (:

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