The Importance of Paradigm Shifting when Preparing for a Role

I want to give a shout out to Alan Watts (who I will thank again next week) and Thomas Kuhn who coined the Phrase “Paradigm Shifting” in 1996 when I first came across his book. The two men have had a profound impact on the development of my brain in terms of non linear thinking. I couldn’t do what I do without their guidance. Their influence will be woven into the blog below and the one to follow next week.

“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”  This line originates in a poem called Judge Softly written by Mary T. Lathrap

Marcus Aurelius said, “Whenever you’re about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

Paradigm shifting is a powerful tool that actors can use to discover deeper and more intricate characters from within themselves. Trying to relate isn’t going to get you past the observational. By shifting perspectives and challenging your own biases you can create characters that transcend your personal experiences and help you connect to a wider audience. Here are two extreme examples to highlight how paradigm shifting can be used to develop character, understand relationships, and how to commit to powerful and emotional stories empathetically. 

The first is a story about a young Iranian family who moves into a mostly white neighborhood. The wife begins to make friends with some of her neighbors and starts to develop more Western ideas and values about how to raise their young daughter. The husband was horrified, their arguments escalated to the point where a court order had to be issued. The husband was not allowed to come to the house and was given only limited access to his daughter. On the daughter’s fifth birthday, the husband came to the house and kidnapped the little girl. He took her to a bridge and jumped with her in his arms. This is a terrible and tragic event. How does a father do something as vile and cowardly as this? As an actor, it can be challenging to understand or empathize with such behavior.

If we shift our perspective, we can see this story in a different light. We can see the husband as a man who grew up in a particular culture with religious practices and believed that he was doing the right thing by his daughter. He believed that she would be damned to hell forever if she was raised in a way that was foreign and dangerous to his beliefs. In his mind, sacrificing his life for his daughter was an act of supreme love and faith. He took her with him so they could go to heaven together. 

The second example of paradigm shifting in Film or Television is Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the made-for-TV movie, “The Bunker.” It has been said that Hopkinsna prepared for this role(amongst other things) by reading Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf.” In it, there are a few paragraphs where Hitler, as a young man, speaks of standing on the steps of the University of Vienna, watching people coming and going, laughing and enjoying life. Hitler sits on the steps and weeps openly, knowing that he will never become an architect like he dreamed. Hopkins wept for the young man. His performance challenged us to see Hitler in a different light, as a human being with hopes and dreams, just like the rest of us. It was his pain that made him a monster. 

As Anthony Hopkins demonstrated in his portrayal of Adolf Hitler, it’s possible to empathize with even the most reviled figures in history. By delving into Hitler’s personal experiences and motivations, Hopkins was able to find a more nuanced and complex portrayal of the infamous dictator; perhaps if someone had helped the young Hitler, he might not have become the monster responsible for the Holocaust. 

Approaching Scripts with an Open Mind
Actors are often given scripts that come with very specific stage directions, tones, genres, clear storylines and unique character and relationship circumstances. We may be tempted to impose our own biases and assumptions onto the characters and situations, which can limit our ability to see the deeper underlying dynamics at play. This is especially true for seasoned actors who may think they have seen it all before and dismiss a script as just another cliché. I.e., “it’s one of those.”

Instead of making assumptions or trying to force a particular point of view onto the script, you should allow the story and characters to reveal themselves to you naturally. In Taoism this is called the Uncarved Block.*

The uncarved block signifies a return to the natural, unaffected state of mind. For an actor, this means clearing their mind and emotions of personal biases and preconceived notions, making themselves an open vessel ready to be carved into the character they are to portray. 

You should let the script guide you towards the underlying dynamics that are universal and will trigger empathetic responses within you. These underlying dynamics are what make a story compelling, regardless of the specific circumstances. Nobody must put a show or film on pause so they can find “their substitution”, or a way of “relating” to the show before they continue. Empathy will always be your guide. The script will ultimately corral you into what it requires of you.

It’s important to remember that panic makes us stupid. When we’re under pressure to learn a script quickly, we may rush through it, trying to impose our own assumptions and biases onto the characters. We all know the expression “rush to judgement”. But by taking the time to approach a script with an open mind and allowing it to reveal its underlying dynamics to us will result in a more nuanced and powerful performance.

By plumbing the depths of even the most superficial of characters and situations, we can find the universal truths that make a story resonate with us, casting, producers and ultimately audiences. The irony is by doing so we are revealing our own selves in the process.

Sometimes, the most powerful stories are those that challenge our assumptions and force us to see things from a different perspective. For example, a character who does something terrible may have been motivated by love or pain, which can be relatable even if we don’t condone their actions.

As artists, our job is to empathize with our characters and the conditions they(we) find themselves in. It is to find the humanity in them, even if we don’t “relate” or agree with their actions or beliefs. We can practice paradigm shifting by seeking out diverse opinions and experiences, even those that challenge our own beliefs. In the end, approaching scripts with an open mind allows us to connect with audiences on a deeper level, to tell stories that are not just entertaining, but meaningful and impactful.

“Heroes and villains often share similar painful childhoods and life traumas, yet they react differently: heroes channel their pain into preventing others from experiencing the same fate, while villains may want everyone else to suffer as they have.”

It can be easy to stay in our own echo chambers and only seek out information that confirms our beliefs. However, by actively seeking out and listening to opposing viewpoints, we can challenge our own beliefs and expand our understanding of the world.

The Sopranos is a great example of a show that took familiar archetypes and turned them on their head. We have Tony Soprano, a tough-guy mob boss who also struggles with anxiety and depression and sees a therapist. We have his wife Carmela, who seems like the perfect suburban housewife but also enables and benefits from her husband’s criminal activities. And we have a whole cast of characters who are complex and layered, not just one-dimensional stereotypes.

It can be challenging, but it’s an obligation to find a way in and bring the characters to life. If the artist cannot do this, it’s better to turn down the audition than to take on a role they cannot fully embody. 

Here are some practical tricks and tips to help you find ways to paradigm shift your way into a character or find ways to allow the character to come through an expanded version of you. 

Out Fox the Algorithms! Expose yourself to Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and an array of news outlets that you may find offensive in order to get a multitude of viewpoints.

Seek out people who hold different beliefs and ideologies than your own and hear them out.

Join debate clubs or organize debate nights with friends where you have to take and defend positions that you don’t agree with.

Consider what is being said to you before you engage in “ya but”

Seek out monologues that challenge your own personal experiences and biases and work on them.

Sit in a different chair at a family dinner(this may cause a real ruckus) 

Have the courage and be open to changing your own beliefs and opinions.

Ask friends and acquaintances(or on your own), attend cultural festivals and read literature from other cultures. I’d say go so far as to read some of their religious texts. 

Volunteer at food banks, hospitals and community centres to get a more profound and deeper understanding of how different life can be for people of different economic, cultural, and health concerns.

Remember, paradigm shifting is about challenging your existing worldview and being open to new perspectives and experiences. The more you can engage with diversity and step out of your comfort zone, the better you’ll become at seeing the world from different viewpoints. 

Whether you’re an actor, writer, director, or any other kind of artist, strive to approach your work with an open mind, ready to challenge your assumptions and seek out diverse perspectives. The importance of paradigm shifting in preparing for a role cannot be overstated; it’s a tool that allows us to authentically embody a character, fostering a deeper connection with audiences and creating impactful narratives. By practicing and nurturing this skill, you will find yourself equipped to bring even the most complex characters to life.

I have said on many different occasions and in other blogs that the greater your capacity for personal growth and the more depth and range you will have as an actor. The fostering of empathy is step one. The spinoff benefit is you will also be a better person.

Next week I will look at 3 paradigms that have shaped contemporary acting techniques that require a re-examination. I will be taking on The Bible, Newton and Freud.