Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shrew, Merchant, Measure

My questions would be with the endings of any of three of Shakespeare's comedies: SHREW, MERCHANT, MEASURE, all viewed as problematic. Why does Isabella say nothing at the end of MEASURE--is the Duke her true match or is she being misused? Is Kate's final speech in this day and age chauvinistic or incredibly well-balanced, mature, and thoughtful? And what's with Portia's demand that Shylock turn Christian? I don't see the quality of mercy there--and then having to go back to Belmont in the fifth act and care about their silly lives...

I would love to hear any of these addressed if they strike your fancy. But truly the blog puts me in touch with something it is very easy to lose sight of--why theatre is something to devote yourself to that has nothing to do with the culture of entertainment.

Thanks for the generous comment about the blog.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the phrase “culture of entertainment” (“a fertile ground where one keeps hold among”) applied to how Sophocles keeps hold on his audiences as well as it does to the latest appeal to the shallowest of human needs for engagement?

Your questions articulate the essential problematic issue of each of these plays. And they are questions that probably will never find fully satisfying answers. I won’t try to be definitive in my responses since I don’t think that’s possible. Rather, I’ll jot down some ideas and perhaps they’ll provoke some thoughtful comments.
Shrew and Merchant in this post. Measure in the next one.

The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice

More obviously so than with other works of art, I think, plays exist in two time/places at once: they are real fragments of their past time of creation and they are also living reflections of their present time of production. The older the play, the more I think its “pastness” is part of its meaning and should be embraced in contemporary production.

With The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice, the young playwright Shakespeare was showing off his wares with his takes on popular story forms. The shrewish woman went back to the mystery plays (Noah’s wife) and was still popular in Shakespeare’s time (the lost Taming of a Shrew) and the Jewish villain had found the spotlight with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. In our time, "The Woman Question" goes back to the Nineteenth Century and continues to morph with the times and "The Jewish Question" must forever root itself in the horrors of the Twentieth Century Holocaust.
Where we are with each of these two “Questions” is what we bring to the pastness of these two plays in production.

The Taming of the Shrew

I think it’s unhelpful to view The Taming of the Shrew as a comedy in the form of As You Like It or Twelfth Night or even Much Ado about Nothing, all of which imply more complex characters and relationships than the plays Shrew is more like: A Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Also, the induction scene moves it one story telling step further from “reality”, presenting the story of Kate and Petruchio as a play within a play.
It’s a farce rooted in commedia traditions.
That means focus is on the situation and not the characters and that no character is ever in danger of being really hurt—slapstick. That means it requires two excitingly acrobatic actors animating their Kate and Petruchio masks.
More Punch and Judy than Benedick and Beatrice. Or perhaps Benedick and Beatrice a la Punch and Judy--energized, even elevated, by Shakespeare’s wit and language.

So, yes, Kate and P are equal matches for each other in wit, in vitality, intellect, sense of humor and comedy. Each is indeed what the other seeks in a mate.
Keep the focus on their mutual joy in the contest. If Petruchio’s fight is aimed at getting a wild and determined Kate to see and to value him without the need for macho posturing and if Kate’s fight is to keep him off-balance while she discovers if he’s worth her time, the play can work. It might help to remember that Kate was written for a male to play. I think the implication for the actress today is to focus her sexual and gender energies on the physical, carnival, farcical aspects of the part. If you create a rambunctious, circus-y, even gymnastic, play-within-a-play atmosphere, the play works.

But then there’s Kate’s last speech.
Doing the speech straightforwardly—even in a farce—I think won’t cut it today. We bring more than a century of concern over the relationship of the female to male-centric society, of women to men.
And for the same reason, if you’ve tried to create a character comedy with this speech as a thoughtful final note--disaster.
Not to mention that in the past decades we have become a culture that has even criminalized the kinds of physical interactions that Kate and Petruchio engage in.
The answer for Lynne Fontanne in her 1935 performance with husband Alfred Lunt still makes some sense: Play it with a subtext suggesting that this is just a pause in their tussle meant to placate Petruchio, who may perhaps then let his guard down so that, off stage, Kate can come back full force for another round. In effect, the conflict hasn’t been resolved. It will continue to be a joyful, farcical, on-going match.

It’s likely that however engaging and, yes, entertaining this play continues to be, any production will include aspects that rankle some contemporary sensibilities.

The Merchant of Venice

Merchant has two story forms in one play: the fairy tale romance and the folk tale turned into social, courtroom drama. The two stories come together with Portia as the bridge.

To take sides and to make absolute villains and heroes in this play is, I think, to miss something vital to its dramatic life. A production that makes “the Christians” as wicked as other productions make “the Jews” hasn’t done anything more to explore the lifestuff of the play. It’s subtler than that and more complex.

*First scene:
We get involved with the vitality and the gusto and the camaraderie of the boys of Venice and the older merchant who delights in their company. Love and Money. Friendship intertwined with Commerce.
*Second scene:
Vitality, laughter, excess and bigotry in the wealthy gated community of Belmont. And a romantic future controlled by secular contract.
*Third scene:
The Outsider confronts The Entitled.  Drama confronts Comedy. The Judaic Them and the Christian Us engage each other in the arena of secular law.

I think we are meant to find the Christians attractive, generous, life-loving people who are both consciously and unconsciously chauvinistic and racist and jingoist and xenophobic.
But no more so than everybody in the audience is.
It’s just another mirror held up to nature.
Merchant assumes the inevitability of such bigotry in the sustaining of any social group. Societies exist as much in relationship to what they are not as to what they are. There must always be those who are “in” (Us) and those who are “out” (Them) and there will always be tension when the “ins” and the “outs” must deal with one another. In the world of The Merchant of Venice that conflict reaches conclusive arbitration in the secular court of law, where the play says the dominant cultural group will always prevail. Antonio, the merchant of Venice, is of that group and will therefore prevail; Shylock, the Jew of Venice, is not and therefore will not.

What is being dramatized in the first Belmont scene with Portia and Nerissa?
Too often we get actresses way too old for the characters, which turns Portia into a proper, slightly stuffy, early middle-aged woman with just a hint of humor and Nerissa into her proper middle-aged gentlewoman in waiting. If, however, we imagine two young sorority sisters (one weathy and privileged, the other a scholarship student from a working class family) cracking each other up and laughing and poking fun at the fraternity jerks and townies that one of them has to deal with while the other eggs her on--we get a better idea of the comedic tone of the scene. It really is great comedy; it’s funny. The audience should be laughing, not just smiling in that tolerant bemused way typical of contemporary productions of Shakespeare.
Portia says, In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he!…. and we laugh and become confederates in making fun of The Other: the English, the French, the German, the Neopolitan. The Other.
(If the play were written today, who might Portia include in the list? Who would you want to put on it?)

The subsequent casket scenes heighten the comedy of ridiculing The Other and also intensify our confederacy in the racism. When the Moroccan fails in his suit and leaves Belmont, Portia tosses off, Let all of his complexion choose me so. And, yes, we laugh.

The gold, silver, lead casket arrangement asks the suitors to conduct courtship in terms of wealth and contracts and riches and laws, which is common social currency in this world. So in their turns, both Bassanio and Portia woo in legal, contractual language. The ring device is Portia taking Bassanio’s legalistic language of courtship to its extreme just as in the law court she counters Shylock by taking his legal literalism to its extreme.

Love and Commerce and Bigotry and The Law.

We delight in the exuberant joy of living embraced by the boys of Venice and the girls of Belmont. We become involved in a world structured by the legal language of commerce in which a fairy tale romance is cast in the terms of a wacky legal construct set up by Portia’s father. At Belmont, the beautiful mount occupying the place in a Shakespeare comedy that is usually a refuge from the harsh realities of the court, everyone engages in bigotry and legalese in matters of life and love. And in Venice, Launcelot the clown even gets us to laugh with him as he ridicules his old blind father.
It’s funny and it’s harmless, right?

Then Portia goes to Venice and confronts the legal world of Us versus Them.
The trial scene should build in horror and suspense, but too often it flatlines because it focuses so much on Shylock the character (actors can’t resist it) that it steals focus from the terror of what Shylock is actually doing. The few minutes during which Shylock presses to extract his pound of flesh right there in court should have the excruciating tension of the best of melodramas; say, the last minutes of North by Northwest as Cary Grant hangs on to Eva Marie Saint with one hand and the edge of Mount Rushmore with the other as Martin Landau presses his foot onto Grant’s knuckles. Although we know how Grant gets out of it, the suspense of the scene still manages to grip even today. What could a production of Merchant learn from Hitchcock about the generating of suspense for the trial scene, especially the last minutes leading to Portia’s Tarry a little, which is akin to the gunshot on Mt. Rushmore?
There’s probably a courtroom scene in some film that illustrates this more felicitously than North by Northwest or lots of thrillers where the villain gets perilously close to cutting the heart out of the hero in a particularly intimate, graphic way, but I just couldn’t resist Hitchcock’s genius techniques for creating suspense.

You ask: What’s with Portia’s demand that Shylock turn Christian? I don’t see the quality of mercy there.

Let’s review the exact sequence of how that judgment comes about:
By the way, Portia says to Shylock, now that you’ve lost the case, the law stipulates that anyone seeking the death of one of Us can be executed. And then half your wealth goes to him and the other half to the state.
Mercifully, effortlessly, the Duke rescinds the death penalty. It's almost shocking how easily he can do it. He then gives Antonio half of Shylock’s wealth and decides that the state will collect only a fine rather than its entire other half. It reminds me of the court in Saint Joan that tells her in its mercy it won’t execute her; she’ll just spend the rest of her life in prison.
Shylock, like Joan, says You might just as well kill me.
In response, Portia asks Antonio what mercy he can show Shylock.
Antonio offers to turn down his half of Shylock’s wealth and asks the Duke to rescind the fine as well so long as Shylock agrees to put the other half of his wealth in trust for Lorenzo.
What Antonio wants in return for this mercy is for Shylock immediately to convert to Christianity and that upon his death, his whole estate should devolve to Lorenzo and Jessica.
The Duke tells Shylock to accept the offer or die.
Portia asks Shylock to respond.
I am content, he says. Do you mind if I leave now? I am not well.

I wish I knew how Shakespeare’s audience would have reacted were Antonio’s only stipulation the one naming Lorenzo Shylock’s heir. Why did Shakespeare need to make Antonio force conversion on Shylock? And without the slightest question from Portia or the Duke?
I think it has to do with Shylock’s brazen stepping out of his place as The Other in Our Society. And doing it in order to use the laws of the secular court for his own Old Testament purposes. He says if he doesn’t get his bond exactly as stipulated, he’ll bring the whole system down. After all, We, Antonio’s people, devise those laws and Shylock has stepped presumptuously way over what We think of as that Other’s line.

It’s true that most of the non-Jewish merchants of our Venices and the inhabitants of our Belmonts today—the perceived audience for the play--no longer live with a line drawn so absolutely between them and The Jew. It doesn’t mean that such inexorable lines no longer exist; it just means that they separate Us from different Thems now.
Still, there are today audiences of good people who have no trouble seeing the Duke’s and Antonio’s and Portia’s actions as merciful and soul-saving for Shylock. They approve the Christian magnanimity.
And there are those who see those actions as actually unconscious, though undeniable, bigotry.
And there are those who view it as the crowning proof that the play is out and out anti-Semitic.

I find similarity, though admittedly not quite analogy, in the attitude of some of American society today toward the push for same-sex marriage. Something is perceived as dangerously fractious and over-stepping and violating about The Homosexual Other presuming to push out the boundaries of secular and religious laws that We have created to define Our Healthy Society.
I don’t think Shylock is being punished for being a Jew; he’s being purged of the trappings that motivated him to threaten the majority society. And I think it’s being done more to neutralize him than mercifully to save him.

The external “social drama” story line ends with the trial, after which Portia (and we) flee the social realities of Venice for the fairy tale romance of Belmont and where, as you say in your question, things are “silly” by contrast. But we don’t forget Shylock when we’re at Belmont even if the Belmontians do. We don’t forget that it was Portia who spoke so eloquently as she articulated things about mercy that she had never before had to think about; and that it is she who subsequently makes no mention of Shylock to his daughter and who now re-engages in the fun of the ring deception (another wacky legal contract dictating personal relationships) as fully as previously she presided over the horrific trial.

Jessica has fled Shylock’s house (The man that hath no music in himself...Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils) for the freedom and frivolities of Belmont. But she is still The Other. Or at least The Outsider.
I live in a working class Latin neighborhood in Los Angeles where, I have jokingly remarked, Bullets is our second language. People have been gunned down only a few blocks from my house. 
I get in my car and twentyish minutes later I’m at a house party given by friends around the pool where the concerns are by comparison “silly” and where I am reminded of the first scene between Portia and Nerissa:
By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great world says the beautiful young woman with the gorgeous clothes and hair and jewels; to which her companion responds, That would be understandable if you were as miserable as in reality you are truly fortunate.
A look from her beautiful friend and she adds: But I guess if you’re glutted with too much you can be just as unhappy as those who are starving and have nothing. Moderation in all things, eh?
And the lovely lively young rich girl replies, I know, I know, but it’s hard to live moderately when you have so much.

The Belmontians should be delightful and gregarious and fun and we should find ourselves giving over to their sillinesses. Each episode of this final movement of the play, however, should, I think, end with a close-up on Jessica.
My friend’s Mexican housekeeper was invited to one of those poolside parties and she came with her husband and teenage son. They sat like Jessicas and said little, even when they were actively included in conversations. But when one of the partygoers chided her boyfriend for losing that money clip she bought him and when she, yes, pushed him fully clothed into the pool and everyone laughed, who at the party thought to look to the housekeeper and her family to see how they were responding to the antics?
Productions that keep Jessica on the outside looking in throughout the act—even ending the play with her alone on stage holding the deed from "the rich Jew"—make sense, I think.

Play Shylock’s closed, musicless, calculating nature fully. And when he gets a chance to exact revenge, play him fearlessly as the Ultimate Other. But create a world that gladly treats him that way and in fact will keep him that way through its social mores as well as its laws. He devises his diabolical bond only after Antonio smacks him with his and after this is over, I’ll go right back to spitting on you.
And when The Other hammers at the system that keeps it all humming along, the system neutralizes him.

Play Portia’s vitality and her grace, her intellect and wit, her sense of humor and her great generosity, but play her bigotry and her spoiled-rich-girlness too. One does not preclude the other.

Play Antonio’s anti-Semitic hatred of Shylock as fully as you play his bountiful generosity to Bassanio. One does not preclude the other.

While there is no necessity to play Antonio’s love for Bassanio as a wholly out older gay man’s obsession with a young man who freely takes advantage of that obsession (productions, for example, that set the Venice scenes in a gay bath house), there is also no reason to underplay the otherwise irrational intensity of Antonio’s love.
The ambiguity is the point.
The play starts with ambiguity: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad. A few minutes later, when Bassanio lays it all out for Antonio and Antonio pledges to borrow money to help him, we have a good inkling why, even if Antonio knows not why.
And after all the couplings at the finale of the play, Antonio the Merchant of Venice is left the lone outsider.
Perhaps Jessica isn’t the last to leave the stage.

That Shakespeare was a transcendent genius who saw things in his world that his contemporaries didn’t doesn’t mean he therefore saw the world as we see it, though it’s easy for us to wish it were so.
Perhaps he saw deeper than either his world or ours sees things.
In order to write a play dramatizing the inevitable if unfortunate necessity of bigotry and racism, the necessity of creating The Other to contrast The English, he was a man of his time and so he created The Jew, the heathen, the joyless money-lender, who gets hoist with the legal system. If today he were writing for an audience of The West he might create The Muslim, the jihadist, the soulless terrorist (How dare we afford them legal rights?), however narrow and bigoted--and uninformed by firsthand experience--both of these depictions may necessarily be.
If he were writing today with the American Evangelical Christian Right as his audience, he might easily dramatize The Homosexual as The Other and The Homosexual Other would surely get his comeuppance. Rather than stoning him to death, the merciful Christian judge might send him to a Gay Cure camp, after which he might profitably be Christianized.
You might try this one with The Abortion Doctor as The Other.
Or try these:  
If the Orthodox Jewish Communities of Urban America were the audience (Us) for such a play, then who might be The Other?
If extreme Tea Partiers are the Us?

I think the play knows that the basic questions it asks have no absolute answers and that that, in fact, is part of what’s being dramatized. I think a major concern of the play is that to sustain any culture or social polity we must of necessity exclude some people and define ourselves against them; that there must always be people we think of as somehow less worthy because they are not like us. So long as we all keep our place, everything’s okay. Behind it all is a concern about a world in which, because other traditional systems have failed, issues of love and family and religion must be framed in, and can only be satisfactorily worked out in, the language and the logic of secular law courts.

Or perhaps all this is only what I think the present production moment can bring to the past creation as a way of keeping this play alive today.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Staying in Character

The first time I heard a story about an actor staying in character in between takes on a film set, I rolled my eyes. But the first time I performed in a short film, I suddenly saw some sense in the procedure. It was incredibly challenging to summon the intensity to deliver a good take. In theater, you know when you're going to have to act –curtain to curtain – but on a film set, there's no telling when they'll need you in front of the camera.

What do you think about the whole "staying in character at all times" business? Is it overkill? Is it simply necessary for some actors? Is it self-important nonsense? Or is it something else entirely?

The easy response is that I think for some actors it is overkill; for some it is necessary; for some it’s self-important nonsense; and for others, it is something else entirely.
What many (perhaps most) people really mean by “staying in character”—especially when talking about television and film-- is “maintaining an emotional state”.  And most film and television actors tend to maintain the appropriate emotional state between takes, though at a lower intensity than the scene usually asks for.  Depending on what that state is, then, it might mean staying aloof between takes or it might mean staying in off-camera situations compatible with the emotional situation of the take. Of course, if the actor is simply doing his well-honed shtick, then there is no need to stay in any state, because if he’s alive he’s already in character.

But let’s not go for the easy answer. Let’s look at something more interesting.

If by character you mean habitual kinds of behavior not the actor’s own; if you mean ways of responding to environment and situation different from the actor’s; patterns of human action as expressions of deep driving passions determined by biology and circumstance that are not the actor’s, then you’re in the realm of film actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep.

Daniel Day-Lewis 
Surely does the “staying in character” thing—some say obsessively so.
My Left Foot
He was always in a wheel chair and had the crew feed him. 
This makes sense to me: He wanted some muscles and limbs to stay unresponsive and inactive so that he could be free to respond while in scene without concern about them. 
In the Name of the Father
He spent three days and nights in a small jail cell without food and water preparing for the interrogation scene. I think I remember reading at the time that he had the director subject him to harsh abusive interrogations as well, but I can’t now find specific references to this. 
Whether or not this seems obsessive or whether the ole tale about Olivier’s response to Dustin Hoffman’s running himself to near exhaustion before filming a scene for Marathon Man is apposite, the character of Gerry Conlin is true and complex and detailed. And the interrogation scene is pretty harrowing.

Helen Mirren
The Queen
The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone
I know nothing of Mirren’s creative process, but in these two films alone she creates two utterly different characters and with each, you can’t tell where the actor ends and the character begins. You could easily believe she was type cast in both films. 
Great Characterization.

Meryl Streep 
There is no actor working in film today, it seems to me, who has created more characters more definitively than Meryl Streep. 
I'm not going to parse her individual characterizations nor compare their relative successes. When she’s good she’s very good; when she’s not, it shows. But of what artist can that not be said? I admire her courage and her reach. 

 Julie and Julia
Streep is 5’ 6” ish and curvy. We perceive her Julia Child as over 6 feet and angular—it’s a determining part of her character, her way of looking at life, the kinds of decisions she has made, etc., not just the external physical behavioral quirks of a real person.  And it was not accomplished simply with wardrobe or by standing on boxes.
To create Julia, Streep says she also channeled her own mother’s love of life.
This Julia is not just a crafty imitation of a real person; she’s an embodiment that gives perspective and meaning to the character of the real person.
It’s an artistic creation.

The Devil Wears Prada
I’m fascinated by what the screenplay expected and what Streep created. If you listen to the screenplay carefully, you sense that the writer intended Miranda Priestly to be a shrill, shrieking harridan, loud and overbearing. (Is that true to the novella? I don’t know, I haven’t read it. Perhaps someone can clarify.) 
Streep told David Letterman that all the people in power that she knew never raised their voice because they didn’t have to. Then she added: “Of course, they were all men.”
Miranda Priestly is a character for a purpose.

Yes, there’s an accent.  But it’s not simply external surface mimicry. It’s the vocal expression of a parochial mind, of a person of limited experience. 
It’s her character.

Creating a Character That You Can Stay In 

Begin with your self. 
First: What’s important to the character?
Then: What stimuli in your own life can activate the “you behavior” that you share with this deepest driving force of the character?

If you’re an actor wanting to animate the Hamlet “you stuff” in you, you may wish to recreate an experience that animates the you that deeply wants life to be good and honorable and rooted in unassailable principles; then smack it right up against the reality that life is a lot dirtier than you hoped, a lot more corrupt than you were led to believe.
Some Americans are having Hamlet moments with the clash between the purity and clarity of the Obama campaign message and his perceived capitulation to the political realities of Washington life. 
If you were dancing and singing in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night 2008 because the Cheney/Bush nightmare was over and you believed “Yes We Can”, recreate that elated you and then confront that you with the recent realities of a favorite political situation. Progressives who saw the public option disappear from the health care bill have experienced Hamlet sucker punches. And there are people having Hamlet smack downs over the handling of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal process.
If you are among those who think the Bush White House was salvation from the years of Clinton corruption, then you can go there to animate your own Hamlet self. 
The world has no shortage of corruption to touch off your "you Hamlet stuff".

The Gulf oil spill practically literalizes the metaphor of pollution corrupting the world regardless of how true and admirable their leader’s passions may be. There’s something rotten at the heart of Western Civilization. Oil. The very thing that runs our civilization is the source of its greatest corruption. Pure classic tragedy.
And it’s global. It’s almost too theatrically perfect that the BP CEO is British. That the rig was built by a Korean company. That it was licensed in some little island in the Pacific because its regulatory measures are so lax. 
It is an unweeded garden. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.

If you care about your country, you can find your way to creating a Hamlet through your responses to today’s political world. 

I stress this public aspect of Hamlet because it is routinely short-changed by actors who would rather plunge into Hamlet’s family life (and I suspect their own private emotional pools)—which always threatens to make of him something of a whining adolescent stamping his foot in rage at mom and step-dad (granted, step-dad did kill dad) rather than a young man facing the tragedy of the corruption of culture and society.

Where were we? Oh yes, Begin with Yourself.
Streep and Mirren had to begin with themselves in order to create great characterizations of Julia and Elizabeth. I won’t presume knowledge of their private creative processes, but take a look at Streep’s Emmy acceptance speech for Angels in America and you get a glimpse of the Streep who loves acting that can be turned into the Julia who loves cooking.

Actors who don’t know themselves and who haven’t learned how to bring the self to character don’t know how to let themselves respond simply, directly, truly. So they act qualities, ideas about a human being, etc. They try to create emotional and behavioral effects that they think will represent the truth their intellects grasp in general conceptual terms.
And so their teachers work hard to get them to understand their "selfs" from the point of view of acting; i.e., in terms of actual direct sensory response to specific stimuli. 
All good acting teaching/learning must address this basic concern. At its core, the Meisner repetition exercise aims at getting actors to discover the answer to the question: Who am I in terms of actual behavioral response? Who am I in terms of literal authentic response to what I see/hear/sense directly before me? Who is the essential, fundamental me and what’s it like when I let that me respond freely and honestly?

Most television and film work hardly asks that of actors and rarely ever more than that. Perhaps those actors need never learn more than that, and truth be told that’s a lot to learn. 
Perhaps they need not concern themselves with dramatic  characterization.
Teachers facing actors who work only for effect and who don't respond authentically may go so far as to declare that character doesn’t even exist. That seems extreme to me, but the reality is that film and television mostly expect actors to “bring themselves" to the script. If character is suggested, it is rarely with more than the most generalized traits.
In television, when a show has a long run, writers change the character over time by writing to the individual actors’ personalities and performing strengths. 
What "character"?

But you aren’t Hamlet and neither is any of those Grant Park revelers.  
Streep isn’t Julia or Miranda Priestly. 
Mirren isn’t Queen Elizabeth or Mrs. Stone. 
The “you stuff” you and they activate is the life stuff that still must be worked into becoming the character.
(This might be an opportunity to mention the moment in Hamlet performance history when Daniel Day-Lewis walked off the stage because he became convinced that he was talking with the ghost of his own father, the poet Cecil Day-Lewis.)

Life studies can help.
Where is the Hamlet in President Obama? Take a look at the 2005 convention speech. Look at the bright gleam of possibility in Obama’s eyes. Listen to the forward-looking power of his voice. Now take a look at recent photos. What do the eyes reveal? Listen to the recent press conference about the gulf oil spill. What do you hear in his voice?
He believed Hamlet-like that he could change Washington, bring transparency to politics, create a climate of bipartisanship aimed at improving America—all worthy Hamlet-like goals. 
But there’s something rotten in the District of Columbia. 
An actor with true empathy can absorb Obama behavior and it will deepen his understanding/creation of his own Hamlet.

For Queen Elizabeth and Julia Child, Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep had life studies indeed to help turn their own “life stuff” into Julia and Elizabeth. Their major task as artists in this regard was to select only the most revelatory behavior and to incorporate it into their characterizations. 
When it works, life model behavior becomes absorbed by muscles and senses with true comprehension; when it doesn’t work, it is at best mimicry of external behavior without understanding. 
In the examples of Queen Elizabeth and Julia Child, it works indeed.
And I love that Streep added her mother’s joy in living. And for Miranda Priestly, there were those men in power.
Note: Streep perceived, absorbed, stored up experiential images of her mother and the men in power throughout her life--perhaps largely unconsciously. And then when she needed those stored-up experiences to create with, they were there. 
What does the actor create with?

Metaphor can clarify and help you to create with objectivity.

Become a young eagle who has learned to use the muscles of his expansive wings to mount into the skies. Spot a rabbit and dive with accuracy; grasp it with sharp strong talons. Soar, ride the wind currents high above your domain. Sense freedom and power in your entire body.
Then: You're caught in a net, you're thrown into a darkened room. Try to walk, to fly. Bump into a wall.  Stumble into--what is that? Try to find a way out. Try to lift your wings. To find the light.
What’s an eaglet to do?
Note: You’re still you. The eagle images help you to become you if you were the young eagle Hamlet caught in a mad maze of traps.

There’s something of a fish out of water about Julia Child in the kitchen. Or a bony walrus standing upright and miraculously doing a graceful ballet with pots and pans and knives and spoons. Bon appetit! Why is it anomalous for Julia Child to triumph in the kitchen? What should a walrus be doing? 

You try this one.

Photos and paintings and novels and biographies:
Hamlet is an Elizabethan Prince. He’s a poet; he's a scholar; a fencer. He wears clothes that create behavior different from what clothes have asked of the Western male body for the past hundred years or so. What does any actor today do to incorporate these elements? Besides avoiding them by playing the play in contemporary clothes.
Julia is a woman who emerged from a certain time and place in America. Give specific examples to illustrate. What would Mirren have to do to be able to create that American woman besides work with a dialect coach?
Elizabeth is contemporary British royalty. What would Streep have to do to be able to embody this with true understanding in her human totality?

It's true that good casting does most of the director’s work. Especially in television and film, cast an actor with the essential qualities needed for the role and much of the actor’s creative work is done.
In his last years, Jimmy Stewart said that his first question to a director who wanted to cast him was Why do you want Jimmy Stewart? Why couldn’t you use any other old actor? What makes this a Jimmy Stewart role?  If the part didn’t need Jimmy Stewart, if the director wanted him only because of his name, then Stewart declined.
Jimmy Stewart wasn’t asked to create a character; he was asked to bring the recognizable Jimmy Stewart brand to the role. (Yes, even for Vertigo.)
Most television and film actors aren’t asked to create characters; they are asked to play their recognizable characterization affect in various situations.
We expect certain things from such actors as, for example, George Clooney or Julia Roberts. Character creation is not one of them. 
Test it: You can interchange characterizations among the films. Clooney in this film for Clooney in that one. Roberts in this one for Roberts in that one. What accounts for any difference in “character“ is a difference in the emotional or attitudinal state of the Clooney and Roberts brand. 
But you can’t imagine Miranda Priestly singing on a Greek island with Pierce Brosnan or Queen Elizabeth undressing in an automobile to have sex with a young gigolo.
All of which is not to judge either kind of actor as more or less valid or worthy. Their work situations are just utterly different with utterly different expectations of what the actor’s role should be.

And it does suggest something about how deceptively simple the phrase “staying in character” actually is.

Post Script:
I wanted to write about this--and perhaps way too loosely--because I’m hoping readers will post comments, anecdotes, side bars, etc. This topic can be expanded and altered in many ways. So how about trying it?