"Know your type," was the first and most valuable piece of advice I received when studying acting. “That way you’ll know what to play up, what to play down, and how the director is gonna see you when you walk in the door.”
My type? I suspected it from the first, but it has become abundantly clear over the last several years working in show business: I’m the bad girl.
From my theater debut at the age of 8 when I played one (of 20) of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s deputies, to my most recent credits on both stage and film, it holds true. I've played strippers, murderers, thieves, cheats, demons and a myriad of other malcontents. Even in comedies, I tend to fill the role of the foul-mouthed best friend who you love to hate.
Fun and playful interactive theater has me playing the type too: I’m the pregnant maid of honor, the corrupting goth girl, the angry union organizer or, most recently – actually labeled ‘the bad girl.’ Indeed, there are scant ingénues on my resume. Okay fine, there aren't any – not one.
The purist in me, of course, hates it a little. Like most actors, I like to believe that I can play anything – and should. I could be Cosette, or Juliet, or Snow-fucking-White if I wanted to. But, there it is. I have red hair and tattoos and a deeper-and-raspier-than-most-women voice. I swear a lot, too – at least I’m told I do – and I drink whiskey (almost) anytime it’s offered. The shoe fits… and it looks great with these jeans.
But, between you and me: I’m not actually bad. I drive the speed limit, I pay my taxes and I've never punched anyone. I don’t send food back at a restaurant, even if I hate it, and I get really scared in haunted houses. I cry during those Sarah McLachlan dead-puppy commercials, and I hand-make most of the presents I give. I’m even nice to Republicans.
All the same, there are some benefits – both professionally and personally – to having what my agent calls ‘an edge’. For example, I work regularly as a host and emcee for corporate events. With my tattoos covered, hair pulled back into a conservative ponytail, modest make-up, and a mono-colored suit – I’m the picture of appropriateness. And although I am sober as a minister, G-rated in every line, and doing little more than introducing speakers and shaking hands with executives – I get comments like “You’re crazy” and “Geez, where’d they find you?” They still feel like they've made a risky and provocative choice with me even though, at the moment, I am neither.
Out of the business, the fact that people perceive me as the bad girl has also had its benefits. The most direct example happened about a year ago at a bar in Minneapolis with my girlfriends. A guy approached me with the line, “My buddy bet me that if I grabbed your ass you’d punch me.” I smiled at him and said, “There’s only one way to find out.” I watched him think about it for a second before his face fell and he walked away, defeated.
Indeed, playing the bad girl – on stage or in the bar – is often rather fun. I’m not alone in believing that Eponine is more interesting than Cosette, or The Wicked Queen than Snow White. There is a richness to villainy that audiences and actors alike are drawn to, and playing them is often a daunting challenge.
For example, in December I played the character of ‘Pam’ in a production of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg at The Red Eye Theater. The play itself is a dark comedy about a young couple struggling to raise a daughter with severe cerebral palsy. Pam, the couple’s friend, is described in the script as aloof, smug, and judgmental. She is disgusted by anything N.P.A (non-psychically attractive) and does little more during the play than chain smoke, criticize, and try to leave her friends’ home as soon as possible. An unlikable woman, to be sure.
But as an actor playing Pam, there must be more to her than that or she becomes a caricature. Unrealistic to the point that you can’t imagine why the other characters on stage would even tolerate her.
For me, I found the character of Pam, ultimately, in smiling. A smile, an unassuming head-tilt while insulting, and speaking in an almost-musical tone. Ironically, turning down my own edgy and aggressive mannerisms in order to play an even bigger bitch. Also, secretly, Pam was just really terrified that this tragedy was somehow contagious. Like most ugly behavior, it all came from a place of fear.
And to be fair, it’s like that out here in the real world too.
My adorable, ingénue-type friends are often sweet and accommodating because they can afford to be. They have little to fear. If the comet is flying towards the city or the zombies are invading the farmhouse, someone big and strong is going to pick her up and take her to safety. Trust me, I've read this script a thousand times.
Nice as I may be, I’m getting elbowed in the throat on the way to the door, or thrown a lead pipe to defend myself right before the door is knocked down.
I guess I like it that way. And, she says with a smirk, the costumes are better.