In an episode of Friends, Phoebe suggests that someone can do something nice for someone else and not have any selfish motives about it. Joey challenges that idea, implying that there’s always something in it for the do-gooder.
Now, the motivations and objectives of our real-life actions is not a path I want to tread right now, but the debate does raise the question for us as actors, when trying to determine our character’s objective:
“Can my character’s objective be purely selfless?”
There are some very kind-hearted and righteous characters on stage. Atticus Finch and friends inspire theatre-goers to put others first, sacrifice self, and pursue the greater good.
But does a purely good character make good theatre?
A doctor who simply wants to help people. A teacher who wants to inspire a rebellious student. A billionaire who gives money to the less fortunate. If these characters were central to a plot, be honest—what opinions about them come to mind? Personally, I see each as lofty and unrelatable. I think it’s because we know that in our own lives, there’s usually more going on in our minds than “How can I help you better?” As Joey points out, even feeling happy about a good deed is a personal payoff. And I think he’s on to something.
Our job is to allow our character to be recognizable to the audience. They should be able to see a little bit of themselves in our portrayal. Since the honest audience member doesn’t act selflessly in all situations, we will alienate him if we pursue a put-others-first objective.
Let’s revisit the previous examples and invent some compelling backstories:
- A doctor who lost her father to cancer when she first started med school. She knows it’s irrational, but she can’t help but believe that if she can heal this patient, she can somehow bring her father back.
- A teacher who had an abortion many years ago, and struggles with guilt. By trying to connect with her student, she is desperately trying to prove to herself that she is a good mother.
- A billionaire, becoming increasingly aware of his own mortality, thinks back about all those he has cheated and manipulated during his climb up the socio-economic ladder. He feels like if he is generous enough in his final years, he can atone for his past life.
You see, these backstories don’t need to be given in the script. These may not be plot-directed. As long as nothing in the script conflicts with your invented backstory, feel free to draw motivations and objectives from it. No, the audience might not know exactly why you are doing what you’re doing, but they will know that there is something at stake, and a bit of a desperation.
What’s the difference, then, between selfless objectives and these more dramatic, “selfish” ones?
The possibility of failure.
By doing an action with the hope that you will gain from it, you’re putting your own interests on the line, and you may lose. The possibility of failure becomes a real, visceral fear, and the audience will be compelled to see you battle it.
Set yourself up with the possibility to fail, and the audience will suddenly care. So go ahead, be selfish.