For actors, the challenge is to imagine the role and to breathe life into the character. “It shouldn’t matter as much what I look like, what matters should be how I act.” How an actor portrays a role defines what people see on screen or on stage (like high school). Acting ultimately guides the audience’s experience, not a person’s race or ethnicity. Even when a story is traditionally told a certain way, it can be retold differently.
Take The Wiz, for instance (which coincidentally is scheduled to be shown live on NBC on December 3rd). Wasn’t it a successful twist on a classic tale? Wasn’t it also an early example of changing the way an audience sees an entire cast of characters? If Ken Harper didn’t reimagine L. Frank Baum’s classic, what a loss it would have been to musical theater!
“Nobody writes a role with people looking like me in mind. But you prepare for the role anyway...Define yourself before playing characters that are not you. Then trust that you are interesting enough as a human being…find something in that role and bring yourself to it. I also come to auditions with lines completely memorized. I call it ‘performance ready’ auditions. It transforms what I’m doing from an audition into a performance.”
We used to measure the skill of an actor by his or her ability to play roles that are far from who they are and what they know. We used to demand to be convinced that they embody the character they are playing.
As far as we know, there are no real aliens, hunchbacks, vampires and zombies fighting for roles today. On Broadway, we have yet to see real mermaids, genies, lions and witches. In these types of roles, we cast based on who could best bring out the essence of the characters. Yet when it comes to roles for “ordinary people,” we make decisions based on appearance. One might argue that is because mermaids and the like are fantasy roles. But isn’t all acting fantasy?
For now, Jeff says he plays mostly characters that exist in voids, characters that have indeterminate backgrounds.
“Ninja. The clown. The nerd. I don’t fit into any of these. I always get called in for the nerd character only for them to realize later that I’m not one. I’m a geek, but I’m not a nerd.”
To Jeff we say, Take comfort. You are not alone. Keanu Reeves was once a geek, too. And he is also one handsome ‘white’ man.
Jeffrey Omura is currently performing in Lloyd Suh's Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery directed by Ed Iskandar and produced by NAATCO at Walkerspace in Tribeca. He is sporting a moustache.