The "Great Man Theory" is, in very basic language, a 19th century idea that history is driven by the actions of great men. Deification is simply the act of making a god out of someone or something. You may be asking yourself, what does the great man theory and deification have to do with acting? Well, let's take a closer look and find out.
As human beings and actors, one of our great weaknesses is our psychological need to make gods of our great men and women. We project all sorts of positive attributes and noble motivations onto our 'great men' in order to give us something to aspire to and believe in. History has proven that this is never a good idea as 'great men' always prove themselves to more 'man' than 'great'. Yet the great man theory is the dominant theory of history taught to us from a young age in school and popular culture. We learn that Columbus discovered America, George Washington founded the United States, Abe Lincoln freed the slaves and Elvis invented rock and roll. We want a simple narrative and the great man theory gives it to us without getting us mired in any complicating details.
Similarly, in drama, whether it be film, tv or theater, we are told to find a simple narrative in order to tell a story. We are constantly told by the gatekeepers of our culture that the audience want to be told simple stories with an easy to follow and understandable narrative. As actors though, we want to flesh out our characters and give them depth, dimension and human complexity well beyond what any surface story would allow. Our yearning for this creative human complexity is directly at odds with our culture's alleged demand for narrative simplicity. So if we are fortunate enough to get to play a historically famous character, a 'great' man or woman, how do we swim against this tide of simplicity and create a character of depth and dimensions well beyond the typical one note portrayals given to us in history?
To start, we must set aside our personal feelings or beliefs toward the character. This is where we risk deification. Actors must avoid making gods out of the people they play. Why? Because gods are one dimensional and boring. Gods have no dramatic tension. They are perfect. On the other hand, people are interesting because of all of their flaws and foibles. Actors are supposed to show the human condition, not the divine condition. If we admire the 'great man' to the point of deification, we are falling into the trap of simplicity that strangles our imagination and creativity in the crib. Deifying 'great men' is just as damaging to our creative approach as demonizing them.
In order to better understand how to create a complex character out of a great man of history, let's take a look at some great actors taking on the challenge of playing 'great men'.
Let's start with Ben Kingsley's Oscar winning portrayal of Gandhi. Gandhi was famous the world over for being a revolutionary figure who kicked the British out of India through non-violence. Playing Gandhi as a saint would certainly play to the audiences expectations and maybe even be accurate according to the script, but as a genuine portrait of the man Gandhi, it would be inaccurate and, frankly, one note and boring.
In order to give the character dimension and depth, the actor needs to create a lush and vivid inner life that can drive the characters actions in their outer life. Ben Kingsley is as good an actor as there is, so when he portrayed Gandhi he didn't focus on his gentleness, kindliness or saintliness, the script already highlighted those things. Ben Kingsley dug deep into Gandhi and didn't find a soft, sweet and gentle love at his center, but rather he found a burning anger. Gandhi was angry at the world, at racism, at the injustice of Imperial Britain, at man's inhumanity to man and finally at violence itself. Kingsley has said that Gandhi is the angriest person he's ever played. Now, he couldn't bring this deeply felt core of anger out in ways that weren't on the page of the script (having Gandhi punch someone in the face wouldn't fly), he had to be in the world like Gandhi was in the world, a man of peace. The lesson from Ben Kingsley and Gandhi is this: external peace does not mean internal peace. In fact, the opposite is almost always true.
Kingsley's Gandhi was invigorated and driven by this internal anger. It drove him through the film and made him incredibly dynamic and charismatic. Playing a historical man of peace is difficult, there has never been a very good portrayal of Martin Luther King for example, although that may have more to do with audience expectation and deification by both writers and directors than the lack of an actor to accurately play him, Kingsley however, gives us the blue print for bringing a vibrant inner life to a man of peace. It is to play to his internal opposites.
Denzel Washington's portrayal of Malcolm X is another example of a great actor bringing life and dimensionality to what could have been a performance undercut by deification. Denzel Washington, along with Spike Lee's script, made Malcolm into more than just a noble and defiant civil rights leader. Denzel played Malcolm X as a real man, one who was constantly growing and evolving, be it physically, emotionally, intellectually, politically or spiritually. It is a truly beautiful performance which shows Malcolm in all his humanity and frailty, from his unconscious rage and desperation, to his righteous anger and defiance, to his disillusionment and finally enlightenment. What makes Denzel's Malcolm so interesting is that he struggles, not just against outside forces, but against his own inner weakness and insecurity. A lesser actor would have made Malcolm into a strong, charismatic leader who never doubted himself or his mission, the pop culture Malcolm we see on t-shirts. Denzel avoids that trap by not making him fearless but rather filled with a complicated fear and self doubt. Malcolm's courage in the film (and life) is accentuated by the fact that Denzel lets us see that Malcolm is afraid, but acts in spite of his fear. Malcolm is at times on unsteady ground and unsure of himself, but he moves forward despite those fears and that gives the film and the portrayal the powerful dramatic tension that would have been lacking with a lesser actor (and director).
Val Kilmer's portrayal of Jim Morrison in "The Doors" is another great performance by an actor who easily could have fallen into the trap of deification. Morrison is a legend, therefore Kilmer could have been expected to play him as the icon of cool that most perceive him to be. Instead, Kilmer, informed by Oliver Stone's script, makes Morrison into a tragically flawed anti-hero that we watch self destruct. Kilmer creates such a full portrait of Morrison by letting us see him not as just the cool, sexy rock god, but also as the cruel asshole, the creep, the drunk and finally the fool. Both Kilmer and Stone should be applauded for the honesty of the Jim Morrison they put on film, for both were self described fans of The Doors and idolized Jim, but they didn't let their idolization (which is merely a different form of deification) get in the way of creating a full, dramatic and human character. Kilmer's Morrison is fascinating not because he is a rock god, but rather because, as Morrison says of himself in the film, "I see myself as an intelligent, sensitive human being, with the soul of a clown, which forces me to blow it at the most important moments." The fact that Kilmer's Jim is aware enough to know this about himself yet is incapable of doing anything about it, makes him an absolutely captivating and heart breaking character. It would have been a terrible mistake and a creative crime to make Jim Morrison nothing more than the guy on the album cover. Thankfully for us, Kilmer (and Stone) gave us the real Jim or at least a real man playing the part of Jim Morrison, which, in a weird way, is exactly what Jim Morrison was doing all along. Kilmer masterfully removed the public mask of Jim Morrison and showed the human being behind it, and the film and the audience were better for it.
These three examples show us that the key to playing a historically 'great man' is to embrace and cultivate opposites. Gandhi's anger, Malcolm's fear and Morrison's clown are examples of creating a dynamic internal life of opposites in order to give a character's outer actions complexity and depth. The secret inner life of a character allows the actor to be engaged on a level beyond a simplistic approach based on surface actions and gives us the chance to bring our own unique creative imagination to any character, no matter how famous and well known they may be.