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