Exploring Powerful Actor Character Inspiration

character inspiration heath ledger the joker tom waits 1979 interview
When you combine real life quirks and an actor’s imagination, the results are entertaining characters! Have you ever wondered how an actor came up with the personality tornado you’re watching on screen? Your favorite actors often have incredible inspiration working in concert with their imagination.

Musicians offer inspiration

Johnny Depp acting as Captain Jack Sparrow has thrilled millions in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. His swaggering brand of swashbuckling buccaneer wasn’t purely the result of Depp’s eccentric imagination, but multiple personalities: The Rolling Stone’s Keith Richards and the Bugs Bunny cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew.

After Depp had spent time with Richards and his inspiration story was released through the press, he was understandably worried. Richards turned out to have been ‘sweet about it’, and the two ended up sharing screen time as pirate father and son in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and On Stranger Tides.

johnny depp keith richards

Heath Ledger’s The Dark Knight vision of the Joker is stark contrast to Johnny Depp’s family friendly pirate. The Joker was taken to a surprisingly dark place by an actor that had, until that time, been known for lighthearted roles. Ledger admitted to a multitude of inspirations, but none seem more defining than musical legend Tom Waits’ in a 1979 interview on Australian TV.

After watching minutes of the video below, many fans have thought that Ledger used Waits’ body language, costume and voice traits to create his version of the Joker. If you haven’t watched that interview below, you must – it’s an excellent example of an actor appropriating an already powerful sense of self and transforming it into a screen ready character.

From The Wire to The Hangover

The Wire’s detective Jay Landsman was inspired by a real-life homicide detective of the same name. Creator David Simon wrote about and met many of the people who would become characters in show during his time as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Ten people inspired various characters in HBO’s The Wire, including street dealers, drug kingpins and Baltimore police. Fans of the series have lauded David Simon’s use of real people as inspiration to create a compelling, lifelike story that has stood the test of time.

If you’ve seen The Hangover, you’ll remember the incredibly angry Mr. Chow. That wasn’t just an enthusiastic actor at work; Ken Jeong admitted channeling his rage at his wife’s cancer. At the time of The Hangover’s shooting, Jeong and his wife had one year old twins, while his wife was undergoing chemotherapy. If that doesn’t give you enough rage to jump out of a car naked on camera, I’m not sure what would!

Find your own characters

We know what it feels like to be in the presence of an actor that has created a fascinating, believable character. It’s a stunning experience, that captures an audience. Try keeping track of the interesting people you come across with a character journal. Once you have a character to build, consider the traits you imagine this person would have, and start flushing out their personality, mannerisms and relation to their fictional world.

Ask yourself these questions, and allow yourself to naturally form your character. Need some more help? Check out our Guide To Getting Into Character.

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