Authentic (as defined by the on-line American Heritage dictionary): 1. Conforming to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance, or belief: an authentic account by an eyewitness. 2: Having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship; not counterfeit or copied.
The word came up for me as I was reading A Heavy Load, this past week's cover story in the L.A. Weekly by journalist Judith Lewis. I wouldn't normally read an article about the plight of Californian truckers, but Judith is a friend and a good writer, and as I read, I began to understand a problem I have with some of the screenplays I've been reading.
I can't see the people. I can hear them, all right, but I don't feel them. I sense the presence of actors behind them, and the ghosts of other roles in other movies, but the parts seem counterfeit or copied, I don't find them worthy of trust. They're not authentic.
To get me to keep reading a rather lengthy article on the trucking industry, Judith did a smart thing: she hung her story on a human. At the top of A Heavy Load, she introduces us to a truck driver named Chicho, and Chicho (one of her primary sources) is the hiding-in-plain-sight spine of a complex tale.
Chicho's got great dialogue. He provides the big quote for the story, with his "Who controls the drivers controls the pier, and who controls the pier controls the container. And who controls the container controls the economy in this country." But his words wouldn't necessarily resonate with a layman reader like myself, if it weren't for the vivid physicality of Chicho that Judith captures on the page. Here's a few excerpts:
Chicho, born Hernan Robleto, is short, round, nearly bald and, when he speaks, energetically animated... He jumps back and forth as he tells the story, acting out both sides of the conversation, turning one way and then the other as he switches characters... “If they need money for the roads, they give the bill to the truckers. If they need money to fix the terminal, they give the bill to the truckers. Everything they need to pay for here, they say, ‘Oh, let’s make this man pay for it!’” Chicho plays a port official as he says this, turning to face an imaginary trucker much shorter than himself.
What I love about this is that, while described in the act of playing other characters, Chicho's own character becomes so clearly realized.
The word authentic floated in my mind as I kept reading, and I realized it had come up in another Weekly article of Judith's that I'd read, an interview she did with the actress Laura Dern, so I called Judith to ask her about it, and she supplied Dern's quote:
I'd grown up watching my parents work with Scorsese and Hal Ashby... particularly the films of the Seventies where you only found flawed protagonists in films, and there were only extreme circumstances surrounding the authentic character. [In Dog Day Afternoon] no one broke your heart more than Al Pacino sitting on that floor of the bank... Somebody was asking us to film empathy and love for a bank robber. Or Klute, or Midnight Cowboy. I was so inspired by that as a kid...
Judith said that she'd told Jane Fonda about Dern's "authentic character" notion when she interviewed her some weeks later. Here's Fonda's reaction:
I think that's a very wise thing. I did Klute right at about the time I was becoming a feminist, and... I suddenly thought, I don't know if it's politically correct for a feminist to play a prostitute. I called an old-time progressive feminist woman. I sent her the script, and said what do you think, should I do this? And she said, if you can make this a three-dimensional character that's a feminist movie. And I did... In a sense, that's a feminist movie. It shows a whole person. It shows why she does what she does. [She's authentic] because she's real. The truth of what Laura Dern said is particularly relevant for women...
The core of it, obviously, lies in the conception: the "flawed protagonists" Dern speaks of -- bank robber, call girl, male hustler -- are nonetheless achingly empathetic, precisely because they're so terribly human in their weaknesses, their vulnerability, their contradictions. They're not defined by role ("prostitute") but by their inner struggle, by their souls.
The soulfulness that Pacino brought to his electrifying Sonny in Dog Day, a performance that many actors still talk about, was evident at the heart of one of today's most wildly popular characters, a heinous New Jersey mobster named Tony Soprano. These are people we're not supposed to love. But we see the whole of them -- the "why they do what they do" -- and we see into them until we hit the dark unknowable, the essential mystery that they are, even to themselves. And we're awed.
Which is why I guess that every time I read a pre-pro screenwriter's spec that describes its protagonist as "attractive," I want to throw the script across the room.
I don't want to know attractive. I want to know this guy: He is haggard, haunted; his face is a road map of places we could not bear to visit. (First person to name character, film and writer of that famous intro gets a candy bar.) I want to know this trucker who acts out the people he's quoting, and who by facing an imaginary trucker much shorter than himself when he's impersonating a port official, tells me everything I need to know about truckers and port officials.
So what do you want or need, to become convinced that the character you're reading about is real and has a soul? I'm curious to hear other opinions. What makes a character authentic? Living RomCom wants to know.