Why it often helps to let Actors know Character Backstories in advance: A Dylena and Doccubus* related Rant

[Update: This is an extended version of the original post, see the bottom of the page for more info.]

Rachel Shelley in a Showtime ‘The L Word Podcast’

In this podcast recorded during season 3 of The L Word, Rachel Shelley shares her thoughts on Helena Peabody’s changes between season 2 and 3, playing scenes with Leisha Hailey and Alexandra Hedison, how she’d like to take on her character’s no-nonsense attitude sometimes – and mentions that she is always excited to get a new script because the actors “don’t know where [their storylines are] going” beforehand, which brings me to the first part of this little rant:

When it helps to let actors know character backstories in advance, part 1:
Dylena in The L Word

Dylena (Dylan Moreland [Alexandra Hedison] and Helena Peabody [Rachel Shelley]) in The L Word

Dylan Moreland (Alexandra Hedison) and Helena Peabody (Rachel Shelley) in The L Word.

Alexandra Hedison puts a slightly different spin on the storyline issue in an interview with the Alexandra Hedison Fan Site regarding season 6:

Fan Of Alex: Are you happy with the Dylan/Helena storyline and how it ended?

AH: I’m not sure. It seemed that it was more important to underscore the divisiveness of Jenny’s character (by adding more distrust in the Dylan/Helena relationship) than it was to just tell the story of Dylan + Helena. As an actress I was often confused as to what was happening. I would be playing it like Dylan was truly in love with Helena, and then the next day I would get a script that had my character acting suspiciously.

Well, people noticed. Please see Exhibit A:

I can think of many reasons why the actor is not given their character’s storyline for the season while they are filming it (production issues, dangers of the internets, learning about advances in the general storyline at more or less the same time as their character can certainly add to an actor’s performance in some cases, etc.) and I know that it is quite common, but isn’t this practice total character assassination kinda bad when the actors are – well, let me think – playing a character who later on reveals their true motives like Dylan in season 3/season 6, for example?! Doesn’t it prevent them from turning in a nuanced performance and adding subtle clues for the audience that the attentive viewer might be able to piece together before any big revelation happens (if one hadn’t been so distracted by…ahem…other scenes

Dylena (Dylan Moreland [Alexandra Hedison] and Helena Peabody [Rachel Shelley]) in season 3 of The L Word

Helena Peabody (Rachel Shelley) and Dylan Moreland (Alexandra Hedison) in season 3 of The L Word.

…that is?! ;)) How can you portray even remotely complex characters truthfully if you don’t know what their intentions are?!**

When it helps to let actors know character backstories in advance, part 2:
Doccubus in Lost Girl

Doccubus (Succubus Bo Dennis [Anna Silk] and Dr. Lauren Lewis [Zoie Palmer]) in Lost Girl

Succubus Bo Jones alias Dennis (Anna Silk) and Dr. Lauren Lewis (Zoie Palmer) in Lost Girl.

Lost Girls Zoie Palmer said the following (perhaps quite “diplomatically”, as it is customary if one, um, wants to keep their job and such…) about her character Lauren in a recent Suite101 interview:

[…] we don’t get to know necessarily how the character is going to be written before we see each script. We sort of learn with you in a way.

I learned how Lauren is going to turn out by reading the next script that I get. We don’t get a ton of notice. So it’s kind of great in that way. I get to learn a lot with you guys, you know?

While I agree with her when it comes to advances in the general storyline or surprise twists that do not interfere with a character’s backstory, I do see things a bit differently regarding the kind of secret Lauren was withholding from Bo (Anna Silk), the character that she has interacted with the most over the course of the series. Because the details of this secret have changed the dynamic between Lauren and Bo quite significantly in retrospect, I don’t think it’s fair to the actress to give her character this specific kind of backstory during the second season. Even though she wasn’t billed as a main character in the first season, the writers really should have thought the specifics of this kind of character history through and told her about it before she played any of her scenes with Anna Silk, or they should have simply written a different type of secret for her.

The last paragraph is kinda cryptic because I do not want to spoil those of you who haven’t watched Lost Girl up to the middle of season 2 (yet), but I’d like to get into a little more detail for those who have seen it – so if you want to remain spoiler free, please see this GIF for further reference…

Rachel Shelley and Matt LeBlanc in Episodes

Rachel Shelley in Episodes.

…and please do continue reading this general little rant. And if you are up to speed with Lost Girl: My slightly more specific rant continues after the *** at the bottom of the page.

Why letting actors know character backstories in advance is (often) important:
The empathetic human

Adding or expanding character history later may be necessary due to production issues**** or the like of course, but if a series is produced in a basically day-by-day manner and the writers aren’t extremely careful what kind of character backstories they introduce, they are bound to mess with one of the viewers’ most intrinsic “behavior anticipation mechanism”, interpreting emotions.

This may be one of the most important reasons why surprise twists and turns by the network/producers/writers that interfere with character backstory might not be the best idea. Humans are (more or less) experts at interpreting emotions. We are, in most cases, very empathetic creatures. Interpreting emotions is one of our best practiced ways to anticipate the behavior of others in everyday life [pdf].

So, um, yes, we will notice if the actor gets told a backstory late in the process that they should have known at a much earlier point, at the point when their character would have been aware that they really had been the secret villain all along or whatever, at a point when the actor would have had the chance to adjust the emotional responses of their character accordingly.

Courtesy of our built in cognitive biases, we sometimes (and it might be more accurate to promote that “sometimes” to “at all times”) make mistakes in the highly automated process of interpreting other people’s intentions and feelings. We might read some things into earlier filmed scenes – especially if they are acted somewhat ambiguously – that may appear in tune with the newly added character history, things that the actor obviously could not have intended to be there. We do that whether we watch scenes again, or, especially, when we just think back to the things that have happened earlier in the series, and the lovely confirmation bias or the equally useful/annoying hindsight bias, for example, are “helping” with this shaping of the past. But we will (almost) always notice that “some stuff felt kinda off and out of character”.

And we will totally notice if the writers pull a surprise backstory on everyone that would have dramatically altered an actor’s interpretation of their character’s motives please see the “WTF is wrong with Dylan in season 6 of The L Word?!” reactions above for an example of the things that are bound to happen to any show that does this.

In addition to messing up characters over seasons, this production practice could also explain many of the inconsistencies in character behavior between episodes. As Alexandra Hedison has pointed out above, the actor might play a scene one way at one point, while on the next day or so the network/producers/writers might decide to go into a totally different direction with that character for whatever reason; the actor might (subconsciously) believe their character is “one of the good guys” and play the emotions accordingly, while the writers might decide that making the character “the vicious secret killer who has been hiding behind the good guy facade since the beginning of the series” would totally get the network guys out of their hair, who sent this pesky “we need to turn this comedy series into a science-fiction-serial-killer-massacre-drama immediately to keep it on the air” note yesterday. Let the fandom uproar begin. 

One more thing: Helena Peabody, season 2 vs. season 3

Another character arc problem that I simply have to mention in this context revolves around the “WTF happened to Helena from The L Word‘s season 2 to season 3?!” million dollar question. Well, after having witnessed way too many a forum battle about this debate, all I can bear to write here is: I think Rachel Shelley has made some good points in the podcast above and click here if you’re interested in a (very short) version of my take on the subject. Also, here’s one more thing Rachel mentioned in an interview with L-Word.com that might explain a huge part of “WTF happened”: “The long term plan [for The L Word] changes, I think it changes every season.”

While those changes in the long term plan of a TV show may be unavoidable, they could simply be one of the most important reasons for every storyline problem ever. 

The (cynical) conclusion

What really makes me sad is that watching (the portrayal of) character arcs over the seasons used to be one of the things I enjoyed most about serialized television. Looks like these days are gone, for most series at least. Well, unless I more or less constantly turn into this cynical being that apparently lives inside me somewhere and comes out once in a while to rant about stuff. :)

OK, must watch

again and cool off…


* “Doccubus”: Doctor Lauren Lewis and succubus Bo Jones alias Dennis in Lost Girl, in case you’re wondering…

 ** The relevance of this little rant for the Dylena storyline of season 3 depends on the point Dylan got involved in the extortion scheme of course, which might be so hard to determine for the very reasons I am talking about here.

*** [Lost Girl spoilers ahead:] Zoie Palmer also said in the interview that she “didn’t expect for [Lauren] to have another girlfriend,“ that she “had no idea how that story line would play out, why she was so committed and dedicated to the Ash.“  Wouldn’t it have been, um, kinda important for a nuanced portrayal – one that is based on the character’s truth that is – of Lauren’s attraction/love/lust towards Bo in the first season to have been privy to that backstory?! And yes, the writers probably didn’t flesh out the Lauren character enough to have that much character history back at the beginning of the show, etc., etc., but if that is the case they really shouldn’t have given Lauren a girlfriend – comatose or not – at this stage, a backstory that, as I have said above, would have (most likely) had a major impact, subconsciously or not, on Zoie’s portrayal of Lauren in the scenes between her and Bo, in my humble opinion.

**** “Production issues” that may have had a significant impact on actors and writers in case of Lost Girl: filming episodes out of order in the first season, getting the second season green-lit after all the filming for season 1 had been completed, Zoie Palmer’s promotion to “regular cast member” in the second season after her character had become very popular with the fans during season 1, having 22 episodes ordered by the network for season 2 instead of the expected much lesser amount, [Update: getting picked up by the US basic cable channel Syfy at the beginning of the season 2 filming process, as SarahP871 has pointed out in the comments], etc.

This post was last updated on 08/28/13. (It is an extended version of the original post, which was titled “Rachel Shelley’s ‘The L Word’ Season 3 podcast [and my little production practice rant]”. Additions include everything Lost Girl-ish and most of the “The empathetic human” part in the middle of the post.)

6 responses to “Why it often helps to let Actors know Character Backstories in advance: A Dylena and Doccubus* related Rant

  1. Interesting post.One thing I would add to the Lost Girl productions issues at the end is that Syfy picked it up before they started filming the 2nd season. Most US networks are censoring like crazy and there was a lot more mature content in the 1st season than in the 2nd. Could be a coincidence but you know what I mean, right?

  2. @SarahP871 Very good point that deserves to be more than one of the “etc.”, will add it to the “production issues” with reference to you.I think most would agree that the second season has been toned down quite a bit (even Anna Silk does, ever so “diplomatically”, of course: http://www.afterellen.com/people/an-interview-with-lost-girl-star-anna-silk ; ). IF this had anything to do with the Syfy pick up, I doubt that anyone in charge would ever admit to it.And even if Syfy didn’t restrict anything, the social desirability bias and all it’s equally restricting friends were certainly running wild in the minds of the writers/producers/etc. once they found out that they had been picked up by a (basic cable) US channel incl. its content restrictions, large base of conservative US viewers – and all those other stereotypes attached to US television and its audience that *ahem* may or may not be based on reality…

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