Sculpting a Role: Susan Wands’ “Mrs. O’Neil”

JSCW is honored to have a guest blogger today, Ms. Susan Wands, who shares her wonderful experiences with us:

When my childhood friend, Jan Pavlic, invited me to participate in her blog, I thought of all the venues in which I have known Jan, creatively. In high school in Spokane, Washington, she was always sketching, painting, beading, sewing, there wasn’t a form that she didn’t take on, from cutting her hair in this fabulous “shag” haircut of the 1970’s to jitterbugging in our living room to swing music.

Through the years, Jan and I have kept in touch as I studied and worked as an actor, starting out in Seattle, Washington to my 20 odd years here in New York City. One of my prized possessions was a burlap piece of  “faggoting” that Jan made for me, a wall sized piece with assorted sections tied off, cut, braided and silhouetted. In much the same way that a ceramic artist must confront that block of clay and turn it into an artistic expression of concrete form,  that one piece of burlap had life as several different forms. And an actor must take the “sides” or audition material and turn it into a concrete expression of a story. How much of the story is conveyed from the materials that you are given to audition with and how much are from your own inspiration and creativity often means the difference between booking a job or not. Now, that said, sometimes you are selling a different flavored ice cream than what they are looking for, and you cannot take it personally if the flavor that you are presenting (yourself as a tavern slut, yourself  as a society mom, yourself as…you get the picture) is not what they are looking for in their theatre ice cream store. Sometimes they want the chocolate chip. And you are the mint.

The outside form of what you look like, how you express that character, how you move and speak, the external art form – how do you mold that clay for an audition? In some circles, it is considered a “cheat” to wear makeup or dress provocatively for an audition, you are to portray the character, not rely on tricks to indicate the character. I was told this by a dear friend, Jennifer Roblin from Canada, who from her drama training was told to put more emphasis on the interpretation than the presentation (she is a stunning looking woman who never needed makeup to outshine me at any outing). When you look for inspiration to see the world through the world of your character, the best way to see the world is from the reaction of what you look like. That said, where do you begin to mold your look for an audition?

Last year, I was given a chance to audition for a series called BOARDWALK EMPIRE for HBO for the role of Mrs. O’Neil. The opportunities to audition for recurring roles on series comes along once every blue moon so I was thrilled to be even in the running for any sized role. I was given the sides, they were a scene between Mrs. Al Capone, her husband and a dinner guest, with the four-year-old child who was the Capone’s child. I was not auditioning for Mrs. Capone, she was already cast and the scene was already shot. They were auditioning actresses for the role of Mrs. O’Neil with the Mrs. Capone sides, since they hadn’t written anything for Mrs. O’Neil yet. So, these sides now needed to be interpreted for Mrs. O’Neil. The few things known about the series was that the series started in 1920 and would take place in Atlantic City for the next decade.

Television is very specific, it is said you don’t need to process or indicate the intention of your character, merely think it and it will register. And that you will be type cast by your hair color, age and weight immediately. Mrs. O’Neil was to be the wife to a ward boss in Atlantic City; “wards” were the city’s smallest political units, ward bosses served as the local vote gatherer and provider of patronage. So, outside of knowing that Mrs. O’Neil is Irish and has a husband who is working for  political ends, Mrs. O’Neil was a blank slate. I had decided that I wanted to go in looking exactly like a woman from that time would look like for the audition. I decided to contact my friend, Dave Bova, a wig maker who has worked on several Broadway shows and had done my wigs for STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE when I played Blanche. I went up to his apartment and told him the series’ time frame and was thinking of a marcelled hairstyle. Dave made  a sketch and a few days later, I had the wig. A second-hand store on 23rd street in Manhattan had a quasi twenties house dress. So, now I had the idea of what I thought Mrs. O’Neil looked like:

I put on the total outfit a couple of times at home as I worked on the role to get the feeling that this wasn’t a costume but real clothes and hair worn at that time. The internal world of Mrs. O’Neil was certainly informed by the look, but the few lines had to be real and grounded.

The rain on the day of the audition was a deluge of biblical proportions. All this effort to get Mrs. O’Neil’s look on tape was about to go down the drain, literally. Trying not to get upset, I wrapped a plastic bag over the shower curtain cap over my head to try to keep the wig from being destroyed. I had practiced several times to put the wig on without destroying the beautiful set Dave had given it and tried not to touch the netting around my face, which is called ventilation and is very fragile. If it is touched too much, the ventilation will curl and pucker, destroying the illusion that it is real hair. I had to dress in layers so that the vintage dress didn’t get soaking wet. The astronaut’s helmet type protection for my head and boots and pants under my vintage dress made me look like a weather resistant germophobe.

The rain was like a soaking shower head on full steam. I took the subway to the audition and was dressed so strangely that even New Yorkers looked at me askance on the train. Homeless? Tasteless? Stylish? So many possibilities. When I got to the casting office, I immediately went and changed to the period costume. There weren’t very many other actors there for the call yet so I had a chance to concentrate and relax. The casting director, Meredith Tucker, seemed pleased to see me and I was relieved that she read with me, as she is a good scene partner and I was able to be “in” the scene. When I went out to the waiting area after the taping of the audition, I saw several lady friends also auditioning in various stages of period accents. I still fall out laughing when I think of one of my friends looking at me and in affection whispering to me “Bitch” as she motioned to the get up I was wearing. Yes, I was over the top and I might have been able to do the audition without going crazy with a wig and period dress. But inside, I felt connected and secure in this high wire act of auditioning for that role.

And afterward, I was so happy to have done a job that I was proud of. But even if the cost of the wig and the dress was not slight, it was very much worth it. Especially when I got the call that I was cast as Mrs. O’Neil, with no lines at this point but with the possibility in the future of some. Of course, once I was cast, I had one of the best costumers, John A. Dunn, on a series suit me up and my hair was set by the hair department on set. And the look they envisioned for Mrs. O’Neil for the first day was this:

The minute I was on the set, there seemed to be three hundred women in period costumes sitting at various round tables. The hairdresser was told to set my bun lower so that my hat would cover half my face. In order to see anything, I had to lift my head to I could see. It seemed to be a look that a woman trying to fit into a fashionable crowd would put on. It also allowed me to watch the room without being seen, as I was peering through the straw material of the hat with one eye.

The other days on the set lead to other looks, where I was costumed and made up.

It’s a funny medium, you are asked to bring the character with you and adapt to the designers ideas of who you are. The interior life of your character must be flexible enough to swim in the exterior world that you move in. But much as in the same way that clay and glass can transform from one medium to a very different one, one’s character  needs to be fluid enough to adapt and incorporate the work of the director, writer and designers. The process is out of your hands but guided by an intuitive sense of where it could go by what you bring to it.

The challenge is to be original, creative and truly coming from your own resources, whether you book the job or not.  (Although it can be hard when the finances of this art form mean getting a second job when the acting job doesn’t come through.) It’s called show business, not “show fun” or, as we say, “show art”; but unless you have  “show art” and “show fun” you will not have a joyous career in this business. In exploring the outside form of what you need to bring to acting work, like clay work, it’s the inner joy of discovery that lasts. Oh, and lots of luck and hair spray.

— Susan Wands

About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
This entry was posted in Articles and Interviews, Current Events, Featured Artists and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sculpting a Role: Susan Wands’ “Mrs. O’Neil”

  1. Pauline D. says:

    I really enjoyed this article and will look to watch the performance on HBO. Break-a-Leg!

  2. Mark Falkenberg says:

    Bravo! Terrific behind-the-scenes insights.

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