The following article is republished from St. Patrick's Day 2013
What does Irishness, cultural memory and the curse of St. Patrick's day have to do with acting? Well, let us begin with this statement: the key to great acting is specificity. Be specific in action, intention and character and you can bring life to any part no matter how big or small. The converse is also true, generalities will suffocate any part in the crib, from Hamlet to the third extra on the right, leaving it lifeless and limp. St. Patrick's Day is a celebration of the generalities and dumbing down of what it means to be Irish, and that is the 'Curse of St. Patrick's Day'.
Irish characters in film and television for decades consisted of little more than the kind hearted policeman, priest or nanny who loved to drink, sing or put up his/her dukes, all with a charmingly lovely Irish lilt to their sing song speech. These characters had as much depth and complexity as an Irish Spring soap commercial. This image of this rosy cheeked lad or lass has been the defining one of the Irish for the majority of time that film has existed.
St. Patrick's day celebrates this version of Irishness. As the saying goes, "everyone is Irish on St. Paddy's day"...yeah...well, not so much. Wearing a green Notre Dame shirt and drinking yourself silly doesn't make you Irish, no matter what the culture at large may think. Irishness is not an idiot puking on their "Kiss me I'm Irish" pin in the gutter, trust me.
We, the Irish, are just as much to blame as anyone for our own misrepresentation. We Irish, and by 'Irish' I also mean Irish-Americans, embrace and celebrate our own self-destruction. Drunkenness is not something to hang your hat on, especially when the Irish culture is rich in so many other ways. Yet we do celebrate drunkenness anyway with an uncanny pride. Have the drunken fools chugging their green beers ever read James Joyce? George Bernard Shaw? Samuel Beckett? William Butler Yeats? Odds are they haven't, and would never associate Irishness with those writers, or with any intellectual endeavor.
Which brings us to the point, what is Irishness? Irishness is deep, dark and complex. Hell, Freud once said of the Irish, "This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever." If you've stumped Freud you've got to be pretty complicated. So what makes the Irish so complex? Well, Irishness is defined in part by over four hundred years of occupation by a foreign power and the helplessness, shame and anger that come with occupation. Irishness is massacres, famines, insurgencies, civil wars, sectarian violence, hunger strikes, brutal discrimination and segregation and near cultural extermination. In contrast, Irishness is also defined by staggeringly great works of art, intellect and spirituality.
Want to know true Irishness? Read the plays of J.M. Synge or Sean O'Casey, or read the novels of James Joyce or the poems of Yeats. Read about the rich history of the place and it's people, from the Celts to St. Patrick and St. Brendan all the way to Michael Collins and Bobby Sands. Want to know the experience of Irishness in America? Read or see any of Eugene O'Neill's plays, but check out Long Days Journey Into Night and Moon for the Misbegotten in particular. Or if you just don't want to read, watch a Jim Sheridan film, try In America or In the Name of the Father. Or watch Hunger by director Steve McQueen or Bloody Sunday by Paul Greengrass. These will teach you more of what Irishness is than any St. Patrick's Day parade or crowded Irish pub.
This brings us back to acting and specificity. What do we as actors do if we are in a position where we are playing an Irish character? Well, if the writer and the director both understand what true Irishness is in all its complexity, then you'll be allowed to build a rich, complex character devoid of any stereotypes or generalities. But what should an actor do if the writer and director just wants them to be a stereotypical Irish lad or lass straight from central casting?
This is what you do, you fill the general with the specific. You build an internal life which is as rich as the Irish and their culture and history. If you are told to play a smiling, rosy cheeked, kind hearted cop/priest/maid, use true Irishness and Irish cultural memory to make the motivation and inner life more vibrant. For instance, use the cultural memory of four hundred years of foreign occupation that has taught the Irish to keep their true thoughts and feelings to themselves while projecting a joyous exterior to the world in order to keep their occupiers at arms length. So the cheery cop/priest/maid with a heart of gold actually has a hidden and much more vibrant inner life with which to keep the actor and their actions alive and engaged. If you are playing a stereotypical drunken, brawling Irishmen, tap into the fire within that character that makes the Irishmen fight to prove himself and his manhood in an attempt to break free of the cultural shame and humiliation of being a second class citizen in his own country. If you are asked to play the stereotypical kind hearted, fun loving, witty Irishmen(or women), then feed that choice by tapping into the insecurity and low self worth of a poor, hard working people with the burning and desperate need to be loved by everyone they meet. This will help you 'raise the stakes' of your actions and be a driving force through your creation of the character.
These are just a few suggestions to get an actor to realize that there is much more than meets the eye when you have to play a stereotype. Sadly, more often than not, that's exactly what we are asked to play, but it is up to us to give depth, meaning and complexity to these parts. The actors greatest challenge is to give specificity to generalized writing and direction. Using the cultural memory and rich history of a characters nationality, religion or race is a great way to engage our imaginations and tap into different textures and colors when bringing a character to life.
So, have a happy St. Patrick's Day, but instead of wearing green and getting drunk, shake off that curse of St. Patrick's Day and go read a book by a great Irish writer, or read about Ireland's history, or go watch a film by a great Irish director or with great Irish actors.
Now go forth and celebrate the tradition of the Irish in all its wondrous complexities.