In a previous article, I offered brief encouragement to explore beyond stereotypes and common expectations when performing an iconic role. When I recently walked into The Players’ Ring‘s production of A Christmas Carol, I knew there would be no shortage of iconic roles. It’s Dickens’s Christmas Carol, after all! Anyone who doesn’t lock themselves in their basement the entirety of December knows Scrooge, Marley, Bob Cratchitt, Tiny Tim, and the three ghosts. Among the highly enjoyable performances of those characters and the others stood G. Matthew Gaskell and his portrayal of the Ghost of Jacob Marley. I’ve seen Marley played like a ghost from a horror movie. I’ve seen Marley played ironically comedic. I’ve seen Marley played by two old man puppets. But there was something so sincere about Gaskell’s Marley. It was a portrayal marked by a relational connection, genuine concern, and urgent exhortation. This Marley struck me as unique, yet still the most true to the script (in my opinion, anyway). I had to learn more. So I contacted Gaskell and asked if he would share his experience in preparing for the role of Jacob Marley. He generously agreed.
Mike: What was your initial reaction to being cast as Jacob Marley’s Ghost?
Gaskell: Marley is my favorite character in the story. Hands down. And I’m not alone. This is my third time playing him and I was both honored and excited to wear the chains one more time.
M: What did you do to prepare for your role?
G: I really wanted to transform this time. I wanted to alter how I move and talk so there was as little of “me” out there as possible. Marley comes from an unimaginably horrible world and I really wanted to embody that as best I could. Once the show starts I don’t spend a lot of time interacting with my fellow cast members. I try to embrace his isolation. But I do enjoy listening to Scrooge as much as I can. Roland Goodbody is damn near perfect in the role and the more I can ingest his character, the anger and frustration, the more it compels me to want to step in and help him.
M: Was there anything you discovered about your role through rehearsal that you didn’t expect at first?
G: The rehearsal process was frustrating for me. I knew what my director (Whitney Smith) wanted, my brain understood. But I had a difficult time with the actual execution. She envisioned the scene with heightened urgency and I agreed, but within the scene I couldn’t, as Marley, get my head around the finite amount of time I had. As it turns out, it’s probably my favorite aspect of the scene. Marley is often played with an “internal clock”. As in, he somehow knows when it’s time to leave. I really liked the idea of getting Scrooge to understand because, at any moment, I could be dragged back to hell.
M: What advice would you give to an actor who is cast as an iconic character–one that the audience feels like they already know?
G: I found it really interesting when you first approached me about this and described Marley as “iconic”. For whatever reason, I never saw him that way. I always considered the story iconic and the characters as cogs in the overall machine.
I guess that would be the first thing I would say. No matter the character, you’re a part of something bigger.
Also, years ago I played Juror number 8 in 12 Angry Men. Which meant I was playing a character made famous by Mr. Henry Fonda and later by my favorite actor, Jack Lemmon. This was pretty daunting. My hope is that I stayed true to the character and lived in the moment. That has to be the most important thing. If you’re playing Hamlet, you have to shake off every thought about every actor who’s ever played the role, follow your direction and make it your own. That’s what your audience is hoping for.