On Being (and Not Being) Carol in Mamet’s “Oleanna”

From time to time as an actor you find yourself truly falling in love with a role. There are certain ones that just speak to your soul in a way you can’t undo. You become woven into the fabric of each other, and you come to care for them in a strange way- strange only because, by nature of being a “character”, they are fictional.

These characters don’t truly exist, and they are subject to the opinions of those artists playing and directing them. Of course. We know this….

Still, I can always tell when I’m head over heels for a character I want to play because the same thing happens to me every time: I become desperately protective of them. I’m suddenly worried that no other artist in the world could possibly understand them the way I do, and that, out of my control, they will become terribly misunderstood by the entire world.

More often than not, it is the nature of our business that we do lose those roles. There are vast numbers of actors feeling this way, and just the one role.

Such it has gone for me. In a few weeks time I met, studied, deeply understood, became wildly obsessed with and overly protective of, auditioned for, went to callbacks for, and subsequently lost the role of Carol in a production of David Mamet’s Oleanna

An actor knows we don’t book most of the roles we audition for. We just don’t. Even A-list celebrities don’t get every job they want. They simply can’t; it’s a numbers game. Even if you have three Oscar winners who have fallen in love with a particular character and fight to play him or her, you can only give it to one of them. That’s how it works.

Except for Meryl Streep. If she wants it, you give it to her, or risk defying certain laws of nature with the power to implode our planet.

But, to the point- we are used to letting jobs go. As actors, we are taught to prepare for the audition fully, go and give a great performance with strong choices, perhaps take a few minutes in the car outside to make some notes to ourselves, then immediately forget it. If we left space in our brains wondering about every single audition- Did I get it? Will they call??!– we would literally go insane.

Ok, I don’t know if we literally would, but I’m an actor, so I have to use the most dramatic option available when explaining the possible outcome of a situation in my life.

Come to think of it, it’s likely we would die.

However, sometimes one sticks with us. We can’t help it. We have somehow entered into a sacred covenant with this character, to show the world who they really are. To represent them fairly. To help everyone understand their motives and their heart, their true selves. A piece of our soul is on the line, and, we feel, the entirety of theirs.

I remember reading a quote from Jennifer Lawrence when she was auditioning for The Hunger Games. She recounts a conversation with the director at that time: “I told Gary, ‘I totally understand if you don’t hire me, but please remember that after Katniss shoots a bow and kills someone, her face cannot be badass. It has to be broken.’ It’s so tempting, especially with a cool, big-budget franchise movie, but we have to remember that she’s a 16-year-old girl.”

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The “please remember” in this quote kills me. Please. As actors, these decisions are typically out of our hands, but we are the ones who, more often than not, truly have our hearts on the line. Please represent her well. Please don’t make her a monster, or shallow, or angry, or too strong. Please.

(If we are being honest, it’s really the writers who probably suffer the most heartbreak in the process…but that’s a different blog….)

So, here I am, in love with the role of Carol. If you haven’t read or seen Mamet’s play Oleanna, maybe do that before reading the rest….yeah, actually, just run out right now and grab the play, or, better yet, the brilliantly acted film version. I’m sure they have it at your library! I’ll wait….

….really. I don’t want to spoil it for you, and there are definitely spoilers here.

oleanna-film

William H. Macy and Debra Eisenstadt performing circus tricks with language….

Ok, so now we are all blown away together. Let’s discuss. (William H. Macy, amirite?! Oof!)

Here’s what happened to me. First, I watched the film. From my understanding, the play is basically written so that the audience ends up hating Carol by the end of the second act. Many feel Mamet is taking out some of his ill will toward feminists in this piece, although he would insist otherwise. It’s not impossible, however. We must remember, it was during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings that he felt prompted to pull the draft out of a drawer and go back to work on it.

Not to mention, in interviews about Oleanna, Mamet speaks of a college teacher friend who had been the subject of a sexual harassment charge. It’s fair to speculate whose side he may be on.

Still, the beauty of this play lies in the tagline: “Whatever side you take, you’re wrong.” We are meant to see the same events differently. The audience is intended to go to a restaurant after watching this show, and discuss all the reasons one character had a point and the other was in the wrong. There isn’t a clear villain. There isn’t a clear hero. They both unmistakably cross the line- though there is an argument to be made as to who crosses it first.

As I was watching, and rewatching, and researching, I came across a little bit that stuck in my mind and suddenly felt my heart break wide open. I read that it was typical, during the first run of the play on Broadway, for some people in the audience to hate Carol so much that they would break out in cheers when John snaps and physically attacks her. Pretty brutally, I might add. They applauded this.

From that moment forward, I felt desperate to tell her story. Someone who really understood her, I reasoned, could make the audience see her side of things. Indeed, the more I watched the first act, the more I saw it through her eyes. The terrible things that were actually happening to her, the moments I had missed all the other times. How frightened she was, how trampled on, how condescended to, how dismissed. How inappropriate his behavior.

(Nevermind that the actresses who have famously played Carol are some of the most talented, brilliant performers there are. truly understood her. Ah, the actor’s ego.)

I actually was shocked to realize a bias I had, one which I had never noticed before. The first time I watched Oleanna, I simply assumed she was attracted to her teacher. It’s kind of hot, right? And who hasn’t had a crush on a teacher at some time or another? Most of us find it sort of sexy, and wrong….

Oh, yeah. Some people find it a turn on because it’s considered to be “wrong.”

Now I’m not a judgmental person, not at all. I very much believe most everything lies in the gray area, and seldom falls into the black or white. Human beings are just out there doing their best, animals and instincts underneath it all, trying to navigate a crazy world and a confusing, unpredictable life filled with feelings and desires and many other creatures like us, all within the confines of society’s ideas about rules and structure and “correct” behavior, much of it arbitrary.

I think I would have a hard time being an artist if I didn’t feel that way, at least a little.

Still, here my natural unbias became a bias. I so feel it’s an understandable part of human nature to want something considered “wrong” or “bad,” I forgot to consider that, for some people, it actually feels wrong and bad.

I read the first act as one of those all too common human moments where a soul recognizes a like soul and, whether it should or should not, yearns to connect with it. However, if you step back and shift perspective, if you just see Carol as simply a young girl, practically a child, who is terribly lost, confused, feeling stupid, and searching for someone to honestly help her, who truly values her education as something sacred and desperately out of her reach, everything seems different. Not just for Act I, but for the entire play.

All (at least most) women have felt this, at one time or another. That creepy feeling when you are trying to have a purely professional or platonic interaction with a man, and you are suddenly covered in his gooey slime. Not literally, of course (ew), but that slimy feeling when they touch you a little too much, compliment you too personally, tell you a “joke” that is completely inappropriate, invite you “in” to be their “special confidant.” When you are not at all attracted to that man, and especially when he is exploiting a position of power over you, you feel horrible. Used. Dirty. Molested. Like your skin is crawling.

Yes, Carol oversteps when she brings a rape charge into the picture, because that must be reserved in a court of law for a specific situation, or it becomes useless to protect people.

But using the word rape to describe that feeling…this I understand.

Haven’t we felt that? I’m certain there are men who understand as well.

It’s all to common- even still expected- in today’s society, for women to gloss over these moments. We sweep them under the rug. We wonder what we did to invite them. When we call them out, we are subject to ridicule, questioning of our motives, painful attacks on our character, complete dismissal, or blame.

Carol, in this way, shoulders all of that for us, and speaks her truth anyway. She lifts her voice, and announces, “this is wrong.” She is empowered, and so she is wrong.

Did she do everything in the best way? It wouldn’t seem so. But she has the burden of handling everything correctly, perfectly, while John is allowed to be blinded and confused by his privilege and position of power. How was he to know she wouldn’t appreciate his words or actions? Poor man.

Yes, I see both sides, because I feel for his confusion, too. I just believe we have to really look at ourselves and ask why our instinctual reaction tends to place more sympathy with John.

So, here we are, and I didn’t get the role. I have to let Carol go (for now). I hope and pray that she is in good, capable hands, and being molded by people who understand her side of things. She deserves it, after all.

Oh, and I know her secret. The one she almost told John, before the phone rang? I definitely know it. But, I’ll never tell…. 😉

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