Lulu demands a script rewrite.  And a bigger trailer.
Lulu demands a script rewrite. And a bigger trailer.

I was interested to read the news regarding actor Christopher Abbott’s decision to leave the HBO series Girls.  The official word is he elected not to return for the show’s third season in order to pursue other opportunities – however the timing of his exit (depending on who you talk to either before or just after production started on season three) suggests there’s more to the story.  Rumor has it he split due to “creative differences” with showrunner Lena Dunham.  The New York Post cites a source that claims Abbott wasn’t happy with the direction his character was headed.  HIS character.  Hmmm.  I’m reminded of a Vanity Fair article on Sopranos creator David Chase.  In the piece, reference is made to a story involving an actor who once told Chase: “”My character wouldn’t say this.” To which Chase responded, “Who says it’s your character?”

(http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/04/sopranos200704)

So whose character is it?  The writer who created him?  The actor who plays him?  Can we be diplomatic and say they both share in a co-ownership of the character?  Sure, I suppose we could.  But what happens when there is a creative disagreement?  Back when I was on Stargate, the cast would sometimes swing by the office to suggest tweaks to their dialogue, and we were always perfectly willing to accommodate them.  Occasionally, they would stop in with concerns about their characters or ideas for future storylines and, again, we were happy to work with them.  Episodes like Reunion, Broken Ties, and The Hunt came about as a result of conversations I had with my actors.  Of course, these are examples of best case scenarios, amicable collaborative efforts that yielded great results.  But what happens in those worst case scenarios where writer and actor have very different takes on “their” character?

I’m reminded of another story, this one told to me by a friend who, back in the day, had written a script for a series he was showrunning. A fairly well-known (at the time) television actor was hired to guest star in the episode.  Upon his arrival during prep week, he requested a meeting with my friend and, during the sit-down, asked for a not-so-minor alteration to the script.  As written, his character was a loopy doctor who, at episode’s end, is revealed to be a murderer.  According to the actor, his fans wouldn’t accept him as a murderer so the script would have to be changed.  My friend pointed out that the change would require a wholesale rewrite only days away from production and further reminded the actor that he had already signed on to do the script which he’d presumably read beforehand.  But the actor was adamant.  The script would have to be rewritten.  And my friend was equally adamant.  If memory serves me right, the actor ended up shooting the episode under protest and my friend cut around his performance and got the ending he wanted.

Granted, it’s an extreme example, but similar scenarios play out behind the scenes more than you’d think.  Remember Katherine Heigl’s ungracious dig at the Grey’s Anatomy creative team when she turned down an Emmy nomination because, according to her: “I do not feel I was given the material this season to warrant a nomination.” (‘Grey’s’ insider calls Heigl’s Emmy comments ‘an ungrateful slap …)?  Ouch.  Or Community showrunner Dan Harmon’s very public feud with Chevy Chase (‘Community’s’ Dan Harmon tells fans about Chevy Chase feud – Los …)?  And then there are all the other incidents you never hear about that are ultimately resolved through some sort of grudging compromise or, in rare instances, with the ouster of one of the combatants (“Hey, I can’t believe they killed off [fill in the blank]!”).

Step back and you can see both sides.  On the one hand, the actors object to what they perceive as someone screwing with the character they brought to life; on the other hand, we have the writers taking umbrage with someone dictating the terms of what can and can’t be done with a character they created.  There’s no denying both creator and actor make significant contributions to the development of a character, and I think that in those worst case scenarios, a little empathy would go a long way toward resolving the issue.  Ideally, each side should understand that the other is greatly invested, creatively and emotionally, in ensuring the character’s best interests.

Ideally.

But if all else fails, I, personally, tend to adhere to the adage: “No one is bigger than the show”.

*

2

Hey, blog regular Ryan “Stitch” Nixon has kindly agreed to do a Q&A for the blog.  Ryan was a consultant on Apollo 13, Green Lantern and, most recently Ender’s Game.   If you have questions for Ryan, post ’em!

2

Received an email from my friend, fellow Hong Kong Movie Nite Crew member, and lover of all things Japanese, Ron Harris, who has a solo exhibit of his photography ongoing at Les Ateliers Lozeau in Montreal. The exposition runs from May 23rd to June 18th with a vernissage featuring his work between 6:00 and 9:00 p.m. May 30th.  Congrats, Ron!

You can check out his work online here: http://500px.com/ronthemon

36 thoughts on “May 28, 2013: Whose character is it anyway?

  1. And THIS is the EDUCATIONAL reason I read this blog. This type of conflict has been overused as a dramatic theme over the centuries. Jane Q. Public may be surprised to hear how collegial the film industry really is. Thanks, Joe.

    And Ryan, thanks for your USN service!

    I Googled Ryan, sharing the results to help us all prepare questions.
    http://navy.togetherweserved.com/usn/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=AssignmentExt&ID=254684
    http://www.rebellegion.com/forum/profile.php?mode=viewprofile&u=5506
    http://www.zoominfo.com/p/Ryan-Nixon/442486061
    http://www.scifihero.net/forums/lofiversion/index.php/t7562.html

    News of Note: Came across this while researching. Ideal clock for a successful yarn shop, about $3,300 USD.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2228844/A-stitch-time-Remarkable-knitting-clock-creates-6ft-long-scarf-stitching-loop-thread-30-minutes-YEAR.html

  2. Following up on my comment.

    Joe said:
    “Granted, it’s an extreme example, but similar scenarios play out behind the scenes more than you’d think.”

    As I’ve learned more about the film industry, I’ve gotten the impression that individual divas are in the minority. Am I correct in thinking that most participants “play well with others”?

  3. Well, there were certainly no lack of rumors about behind the scenes shenanigans with SG1 and SGA. Never heard much about SGU though. I think I won’t be on the writer’ side here so much because I see in many shows characters being written inconsistently by different writers of the same series. To me it seems the actor’s, who live with the character as sort of a second skin and bring them to life, opinions should be given a great deal of weight. I agree the story the writers want to tell should be their ultimate decision (that guest actor was just hired for a one-shot, he shouldn’t have taken the part if he didn’t like it), but getting to the how it’s told by the characters, for things like lines the actors think their characters wouldn’t say or actions they don’t think they’d take, I’d tend to be mostly on their side. I don’t know, this is just from a fan perspective, I’m sure if I were a writer or showrunner I’d have different feelings.

  4. i’ve thought about this scenario you’re talking about, joe, which is how much can/should an actor have control over their character. i think that it’s alright for the actor to express concerns and desires, but that it’s the writers/producers that, so to speak, own the character.

    if the actor doesn’t like what’s going on, there’s a *lot* of other actors standing behind them that’ll kindly take their spot.

  5. Haha! Hey, thanks, Joe, for the shout out!

    And, yeah, the writer/actor dilema was a very interesting read. I guess it’s a “yin-yang” thing, where you can’t have one without the other. Of course, the actor could be fired, but if he/she is beloved, well, there’ll be no show to write for in the end because the audience may tune out. A delicate balance!

  6. @majorsal, but what about Amanda and her not wanting to wear those clothes that first season? Aren’t you glad she advocated for Carter?

    1. “@majorsal, but what about Amanda and her not wanting to wear those clothes that first season? Aren’t you glad she advocated for Carter?”

      I wasn’t around for the show’s first season but I doubt very much this was a point of contention. Like most of the concerns our cast had over the course of the franchise’s run, they were easily addressable.

  7. “So whose character is it? The writer who created him? The actor who plays him? Can we be diplomatic and say they both share in a co-ownership of the character? Sure, I suppose we could. But what happens when there is a creative disagreement?”

    You’re asking me? I’m flattered, but you do understand I’m not anything in between writer and actor by training? Okay, fine, I can have an opinion about anything. I’m just that full of myself.

    I think overall character direction is absolutely the writer’s territory. The best product would be a writer controlling the characters in as skeletal a way as possible. This recruits the actors to apply one more brain per character to do the work of fleshing out each character’s perspective.

    Actor input, character chemistries that develop, and details that clicked well become resources for the writer to take into account in determining the overall direction for a character, but it should still be in his control.

    If creative differences are being solved through power-wielding, that’s the actors wrestling for the writer’s territory.

  8. Ultimately, I feel, the character belongs to the show and the writers of the show. In the past, when an actor died or needed to be replaced for some other reason, the actor was often just replaced without losing the character (*see Bewitched). I believe a tv show must take its cue from the stage, where actors are replaced on a regular basis to portray the same character. That alone is evidence that the character does not belong to one particular actor.

    However, in the past some actors have become synonymous with a particular character (Karloff as The Monster, Lugosi as Dracula, Nimoy as Spock, Falk as Columbo, O’Connor as Archie Bunker, Depp as Jack Sparrow, etc). I think this is because the screen brings the actor closer to the audience than the stage does, and after a bit some just cannot imagine another actor in the role.

    When this happens smart show runners will take into consideration the popularity of the character and the actor and the possible impact it may have on the show to alter the character too much. In this case I do think it’s good to get feedback from the actors, as you pointed out was done on Stargate. I don’t think, however, that an actor has a right to dictate every development that happens to his or her character unless said character was the creation of the actor, and he or she plays an active part in the development of the character (as I guess is the case in shows such as Psych, where actors Dulé Hill (Gus) and James Roday (Shawn) are also both producers of the show).

    That said, when an actor feels uncomfortable (such as being expected to do a nude or sexually explicit scene), then I feel they have an absolute right to object. No one should be forced to do anything that makes them feel physically or morally uncomfortable, especially if it was not spelled out as a possibility when they were hired for the role.

    And THAT said, an actor who has had everything spelled out to him or her when accepting a role, then objecting to what is done to the character in that role (especially if they’ve read the script beforehand), is a knucklehead.

    (Okie dokie, hubby just came home so I have to go pay attention to him now. Sorry Joey. 😉 )

    das

  9. I agree with Bailey in that the actors take the role and give it life. If it was all writing then there would be no need for auditions. Just hire the first actor that shows up for the part. But the actors become that character and if the writing falters and eventually kills a show, the actor is the one who suffers because they will always be remembered for that character. Writers are the bones, but the actors are the skin and breath of life. Great shows have both. Joe what do you think about the actors becoming directors for some of the episodes?

    Rumor has it, Lulu demands peanut butter flavored bones, a walk on the hour, at least 5 different kinds of treats served on a big tray, and a nap at 2 o’clock every day while filming. Such a diva!

  10. @Joe I didn’t mean it was contentious but that Amanda had a good idea about how she felt Carter would present herself.

  11. But Das, the stage plays to a different audience every night, so it would be easy to replace an actor with another one. But on TV, the audience is the same week after week. You can’t just replace the actor playing a role on TV. That would be weird.

  12. @bailey – like i said in my statement, i think it’s alright for the actor to express concerns and desires, but i think the writers/producers should have the final say, period. to me, it’s their character first.

  13. Okie dokie, hubby is tucked into bed and I’m WIDE awake, thanks to a 3 hour nap I took when I got home from work. The last two weeks of hard physical labor getting the patio down and potting plants, and spending all day Monday getting my Japanese garden in order – it was SO overgrown! – has finally caught up to me. All I want to do is sleeeeeeeep! 😛

    Anyways…

    About this: “No one is bigger than the show”.

    I think it all depends. If you have a show where it’s almost impossible to separate the actor from the MAIN character, then sometimes that actor is bigger than the show. For instance, a show like Magnum PI could not continue without Tom Selleck. Today there are fewer shows like that with the emphasis on ‘ensemble’ casts, which just may be a good ploy to ensure that no actor is irreplaceable, but for those that still rely on one or two leads it’s almost impossible to imagine the characters without the particular actors who first starred in those roles.

    Also, speaking earlier of Columbo, this particular episode starring William Shatner is about this particular subject – that of an actor who is bigger than the show and uses it to his advantage: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074328/

    das

  14. @Ron: Absolutely stunning photos. Loved the variety of subjects and lighting. Best of luck with the exhibit.

  15. @ Ponytail – It WOULD be weird if tv followed the stage practice to the letter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m using the stage as an example of showing who really has the rights to a character – and it usually is not the actor unless it is his own creation. Look at Spider-Man – he’s already been played by two different actors on the big screen in the past decade. Same with the Hulk. Same with Batman and Superman. And the same with Sherlock Holmes (who is currently being portrayed by three different actors in three different productions – the Sherlock Holmes movies starring RDJ, Sherlock on BBC starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and Elementary on CBS starring Jonny Lee Miller). And don’t forget The Doctor – probably one of the best and most convincing use of multiple actors in the same role.

    Of course, those are all ‘iconic’ characters that have been around for ages, and played by a variety of actors over the decades. Still, we do have examples of similar things being done on tv shows – here’s a list (I was actually surprised to see how many there were, especially in tv shows I watched and never realized the change!) SG-1 even makes the list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_television_programs_in_which_one_character_was_played_by_multiple_actors

    Of course, many of those were not main characters, but a few were (such as Darrin on Bewitched, probably the most famous example of all).

    das

  16. @ Ryan “Stitch” Nixon – Meant to mention this in yesterday’s entry, but was just sooooo busy running around like a head with my chicken chopped off! Anyhoo…I didn’t see Green Lantern but hubby did, and he really liked it. He’s not as picky as Joey. 🙂

    das

  17. So many shows have many guest writers, and yeah I think an actor playing a role for a long time has a better handle on it than the guest writer. Smart writers listen to the actors and they work out a compromise when possible. And smart actors listen to writers and try to see their point and do their jobs. But if an actor feels like they are unhappy with the role, I object to the “diva” label. In any other job, you negotiate, you try to get what you want out of the job, and you walk and find other work if it doesn’t fit your needs. Most stars who leave a series don’t do so well, but they have a right to do it and I hate seeing them bashed for their decisions. Why is a writer’s job of writing more valid than an actor’s portraying a show? Why is it okay for writers to leave for “creative differences” but not an actor? The articles you posted are simply BOTH sides behaving badly/unprofessionally. But in a situation where an actor has input, yeah I think it often is as important as what the writer has written. Their butts are on the line and they have a right to want to be heard, and a right to quit if they feel it is important. No matter how good the writers are, if the actors stink, it’s over. A decent actor, however, can help save a mediocre script. Just my opinion that we hear more writers belittling the role of actors than the other way around… and no, I don’t mean you. Whatever you may actually fee, lol. you have never shown a disdain for actors. Oh wait.. that’s where professionalism comes in… which those in the articles all seem to lack.

  18. Bewitched is a weird example because nobody noticed the change. 😀

    And someone who worked on Green Lantern is a friend of Joe’s? Well I guess that explains why he was so kind to that film. 😛

    As to Joe’s actual post – who owns the character, the person who writes them or the actor that plays them, I don’t think it’s a black and white either/or answer. I remember in Uni they once brought in some actors to act out scenes from the scripts we were all writing. It was fascinating because when they went through the particular scene I had written they did things in a completely different way to what I imagined in my head, and in some cases the decisions they had made were better than what I have originally thought of. It may be a bit wishy washy fence-sitting nonsense to say this, but I think that the character’s creation and growth has to be a collaborative effort, with no one really ‘owning’ the character (outside of legal ownership and all the obvious network related things that go with producing television or movies).

    Of course if I had to pick one I’d side with the writers, ’cause I am one. 😀

  19. Oh, also, speaking of Community, Chevy Chase reportedly has always been a complete dick to everyone he’s worked with, so his clashes with Harmon were more par for the course than some sort of television oddity (the bigger oddity are today’s reports where Harmon confirms he’s been asked back to Community after they fired him last year).

    And Joe, wouldn’t you say that your question – who owns a character – works very differently between television (where the writers often run the show) and movies (where writers are not to enter the actors’ eye-lines, ever, on pain of death)?

  20. @ baterista9, remind me never to try to hide from you! LOL =) I am proud to have served so thank you for you comment!

    I must say one the highlights of my 20 years came when I had the pleasure of Amanda Tapping perform my re-enlistment for my final tour of duty in 2006 in Vancouver! I think she was as excited as I was! I just saw her again last year after 6 long years and she let me know right away that her shadow box was hanging in her office still to this day! That was very special for me and I know out of the 1000s of present she’s has been given over the years that one holds a special place for her!

    @ dasndanger, i had blast and hope to do more in the future! Although I can not really talk much about ENDER’S GAME I am very excited to see the finished product this fall! I have been very luck over years to have done the things I have and consider myself very lucky! Id be happy to answer any question about the work I have done or of course my love of Stargate! =)

  21. I would say that a character, belongs to a writer completely, in so much as the way the character is written, anything not on the page is 100% open for the actor to interpret, be it how he plays the character or the character’s relationships.

    However, there must always be room for healthy debate between actor and writer, and both side need to give way to certain points.

    That said, there are actors that “make” the character their own. Case in point RDA. I don’t think anyone could EVER replace him as O’Neill, and so if say… in season 3/4(so his character is well established/beloved by millions at this point), had he asked for something to be re-written, i betcha they would re-write rather than risk losing him.

    Obviously RDA isn’t like that, but its a hypothetical to show the differences between a long standing actor portraying a beloved character & a one time cameo appearance by a well known actor playing some know nothing character. One could get things changed without too much risk to his job, the other, not a chance.

  22. I think something like this happened in the last season of The West Wing: Richard Schiff’s character, Toby Ziegler, did something that Schiff later commented (and most fans would agree) Toby would never, ever do. Schiff acted the role anyway like the class act he is, but even before I heard that he’d objected to the direction his character went, I and many others were rather stunned by this sudden departure from 6.5 previous seasons of character development.

    In this case, ownership becomes even more complicated. It was Aaron Sorkin who created the character, and Schiff who brought it to life, but Sorkin left after season 4 to pursue other interests and was in no way involved in the writing after that point. Hence, the new direction for the Ziegler character was entirely John Wells’ doing; Schiff was the only constant throughout. At that point, how can you really say whose character it was?

  23. Joe wrote: But if all else fails, I, personally, tend to adhere to the adage: “No one is bigger than the show”.
    @Joe I think that what happened with the Dukes of Hazzard proved that adage to be wrong. When Wopat & Schneider wanted raises, the network figured they would just replace them with two other good looking actors and as long as the premise stayed the same and the General Lee was present, then the audience wouldn’t have a problem accepting Coy & Vance.Boy were they every wrong! The majority of the audience hated Coy and Vance and the network scrambled to get Wopat & Schneider back.
    The two leads of Supernatural were recently discussing that it puzzles them that new writers come in and retcon history regarding the characters of Sam and Dean Winchester and that they don’t blame the audience for complaining about these sudden changes in the history of the characters.
    In the case of SG1 yit gets even more complicated. Who really owns the characters of O’Neil(l) and Jackson?

  24. Possibly the cutest shot of Lulu, ever. I say possibly because she only ever gets cuter and cuter.

    I’d think studio interference would cause the most problems on set than divas. It may not be scientific but if an actor never changes their hair (same mustache for Selleck, same bob for Cybil Shepherd) that is a sign they will be problematic. During casting say “we’ll be shaving half your hair” to test their diva quotient.

  25. I’m excited about Ender’s Game! It’s not being released until later this year though right?

    I love that picture of Lulu. Why is it so funny to dress up our pets? It never gets old.

    There were some good comments about “who owns the character”. M Reed (@newz2knowmreed) had a great example of when the actors own the character (Dukes of Hazzard). I suppose it could be on a case by case basis. By keeping with a lead, that does create more of a bond with the audience. However, Dr. Who worked lead changes into the main plot.

    Das: I never liked the new Darren.

    It is ridiculous an actor would take a guest appearance and demand his way. I bet that actor didn’t even read the part before he accepted.

    Question for Ryan “Stitch” Nixon: I have a couple of friends that retired from the military (forced out in the downsizing) and they had a devil of a time transitioning into civilian life. One friend was in the Air Force, switched to Marines to fly helicopters. After over 15+ years of flying/mechanics with helicopters, he found a job in home improvement instead of a pilot type job. How did you get involved in “show business?” I’m glad it worked out for you, by the way.

    Question for Mr M: Did you try the cheesecake recipe yet?

    I can NOT stop eating the one I made (white chocolate w/raspberries). I ate a huge piece of cheesecake for lunch the other day and followed it with Doritos. Hubby looked at me odd and I remembered something Akemi said. With a straight face I looked and him and said “Don’t judge me”. He had a good laugh out of that.

    Cheesecake is the reason I could NEVER be a vegan.

  26. Technically speaking, I suppose the character really belongs to whoever holds the property rights to the show. In Stargate’s case for example, I would expect it would be MGM(?). I don’t think anyone could write a story to publish or do a script for a movie or TV show without their okay. In this context, both the writer and the actor are the “hired help” as it were – which only makes it more in the interests of both to work out agreeably details of the character.

    It brought to mind a story (true or not) that I heard about Sarah Brightman being granted the full rights to the character of Christine in “Phantom of the Opera” in the divorce from Andrew Lloyd Weber. Apparently, in any given production of the “Phantom” she has the right to step in and perform the part, apart from any royalties she gets from its performance. Not that I suppose that anyone would refuse her if she wanted to.

    Question for Ryan: In your role as consultant, what exactly do you do? And, do you have input through the whole process, or just at the beginning?

    Questions for Joe: I’ll go ahead an ask the obvious one – any word on the Dark Matter front, or the other projects? 🙂

    Also, do you know if Cookie has and ideas for future reviewing projects after the superhero movies? We’re starting to get fairly close to being up to date with these and frankly, my Mondays would be shadow of their former selves without his erudite commentary!

  27. The cheesecake recipe! I completely forgot about that! I’ll try to do that by the weekend.

    Another question for Joe: Are you watching the S4 of “Arrested Development” on Netflix? I think it’s brilliant, but you have to watch several episodes to start to figure out what’s going on.

  28. I know it’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted, but I’m still here, Joe! It’s just been really crazy at work this past month and I haven’t even been able to steal away 5 minutes to read your blog. But these past couple days have been slow enough for me to catch back up. Also, you should know that over these last couple years, my favorite posts of yours tend to be the “News of Note” posts that include articles from cracked.com. Thanks to you, a few of my friends and I are addicted to that site and read it daily. Awesome stuff.

    I met Ryan at the first Stargate Live Auction in Seattle back in 2010 and have emailed sporadically back and forth about Stargate items and reproductions and accuracy off and on since then. So, logically, my question for him relates to that:

    Ryan, what item do you have, from the SG franchise, is your absolute favorite? It can be real(show used), or a recreation/copy. Is it something you bought at that auction or subsequent auctions? Is it something you’ve made or were given? Or if you can’t nail it down to one, what items are your favorite?

    Are you working on any current/new reproduction SG props? I saw people on the SFH forum were working on a SGA ARG, but I haven’t checked their progress in many months. I remember seeing and handling those AND the “staple gun” Replictaor Neutralizers at the auction. Man, those were cool!!!

    -Mike A.

  29. @gforce beat me to it; re: Dark Matter

    So, any updates on the other scripts? i.e. the urban drama, the new take on zombies, et cetera?

    For Ryan, my daughter is a big fan of the John Stewart Green Lantern. Was there any thought given to basing the movie on other Green Lanterns, or was it always Hal Jordan?

  30. Hey, “Stitch”, long time since we talked last after Propworx’s first live Stargate Auction in Seattle; my mom says ‘Hi.”…anyways, other than Stargate, what other series are you affiliated with doing fan costuming for? STAR WARS? Star Trek? BSG? etc.

  31. God, I’m so behind. Everyone makes good points here. I initially was siding with @majorsal but @debra had good points about guest writing.

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