INTERVIEW: David Rees Snell (creating character)

Hi everyone!  As promised here… and also here… I am finally posting my conversation about creating characters with the super talented star of stage and screen… David Rees Snell!  To all of you, he is a really amazing actor, probably most well known for his role as Detective Ronnie Gardocki in the critically acclaimed series, THE SHIELD.  David was also recently seen as “The Mako” on TNT’s LEVERAGE, and as the star of Michael Stokes’ (super creepy awesome) movie, THE BEACON.

To me, however, David is one of the nicest guys ever, and a really good friend.

Okay, so in case you weren’t a Shield person (and this is a YA writing site, so that’s within the realm of possibility), here’s the skinny: it was a crime drama created by Shawn Ryan and aired on the cable network F/X.  It was tough and edgy and unbelievably well written.  So here we go!

Jen: Can you tell us just a little bit about how you got started as an actor?

David:  I started when I was still in high school.  My brother kinda pushed me into participating in Showtime’s search for the funniest person in America when I was a h.s. senior.  I believe the person they chose was Ellen DeGeneres that year.

Jen:  HILARIOUS.

David:  Yeah, but it went really well for me.  I can’t remember who was the funniest person in Kansas but I do remember there was this one guy from D.C. there, like he thought that no one would be funny in Kansas so he’d be able to go win Kansas.  He didn’t.  I was so young that they gave me a bit of a pass, I got more laughs than I probably deserved.  And I also got a little of the fever.  Then I did a couple plays in high school but didn’t think it was something you DO with your life.  Then halfway through college I finally became a theatre major.  Lucked into a program at KU with some really good teachers, and went from there.

Jen:  Awesome.  I remember something you said to me once, about character.  I’m not going to get it exactly right, but it was something along the lines of this: you said that once you understand a character, you just know how he walks and talks and moves.  It resonated with me because once I get a character, there are just things that I know about him/her… things he/she would or wouldn’t say, for example.  Can you talk a little bit about how that thing, that “knowing” comes to be?  I don’t know if that’s an answerable question…

David:  You hear a lot about the audition process, that they don’t necessarily choose an actor as much as the actor chooses the role. That someone comes in and just IS the character to the auditioners.  I think that has to do with what we’re talking about, characters.  There’s a number of things I auditioned for that are easier to get a handle on who this person is and how I can key into this person… and others that you just don’t have a sense of what they are thinking about.  I think one of the differences in camera work from stage work which is what I did for quite a long time before I started doing television is that, you know, on stage your breadth as an actor is important, and it’s really not very important on the screen.  On the screen, it’s your depth as an actor.  What your range is… I wouldn’t want to say it’s detrimental, but it doesn’t necessarily help.  In some sense, you are a product that you are selling and if you play… let’s say you have a mobster/hit man kind of feel about you, that’s what they think you are.  And then your ability to get those jobs has to do with your depth of ability within that range of mobster/hit men type roles.  But I have struggled at times to find out what is that thing about me that is so easily identifiable: oh, he’s THAT guy.  What is David Rees Snell so that we can bring him in for THAT role?  So as far as these sort of things that I go in for, it’s taken me some time to realize that it’s not about reaching out to that role but rather bringing that role closer to me each time, on camera.  And most of that is just about the truncated time that you have to work.  Let’s say that I’m going to play a mobster hit man onstage, I’d have a good chunk of time to do the role, to research, to get the flavor, to meet people, to do everything that needs to be done to get there.  But on camera, especially on TV, you’re conceivably getting some sides one day and doing your performance two days later.  There’s just no time to stretch that far and be good at it.  And there was a learning curve to realize that’s not what I should be doing here.  And I’m curious as to what your perspective on this is, as someone who has written scripts and not just novels, where someone interprets what you have written.  What I have learned is that ANY character description in a script needed to be ignored.

Jen:  REALLY?

Dave:  Yeah.  It seems crazy, but when you’re auditioning, they’re seeing really an enormous amount of people, way more than I would have expected.  It’s not like – oh we’re seeing 5 actors who would be great at this.  They’re seeing way more than that.  And if you just kinda give them exactly what they think they wanted, by the time they see you, it’s kinda boring.

Jen:  Because they’re seeing it over and over.

David:  Yeah.  And it’s just not that fully realized.

Jen:  Not fully realized because a script is not INTENDED to fully realize a character, right?  And by that, what I mean is that since I have started writing books, part of my realization is that what was initially so daunting about it—having to be everything, the writer, the actors, the director, the person who decides what color to paint the walls—it was instead immensely freeing.  BECAUSE I got to be all those things.  But in film/TV, it’s such a collaborative art.  And you as an actor are responsible for creating the character but not solely responsible.

David:  I mean, how many sentences of description would you put in a script?  One?  A sentence fragment?

Jen:  Totally.  So it’s up to you to do EVERYTHING ELSE.

David:  Yeah.  I had lunch with a friend today who had written a project.  As he conceived it, it was for Pierce Brosnan.  Don Johnson is interested.  So he’s doing a “Don Johnson pass” on the script before they give it to Don.  But the reality is, he doesn’t need to, really.  This is just a form of flattery, really.  Because Don Johnson is going to do it Don Johnson’s way.  And that’s the only way it can be good, you know?  It’s easier sometimes to step outside yourself and go—if Don Johnson tried to act like Pierce Brosnan, would that be good?  NO.  so why would it be good if I acted like someone else? Maybe if Don had a bunch of time, he could do a really cool Pierce Brosnan-y thing, but why would you want him too?

Jen:  Because then, it would be like instead of finding the character, he would be doing a copy of Pierce Brosnan, right?

David:  Yeah, kind-of.  What it took me some time to learn is that the character is within you, it’s not outside of you.  People say “write what you know”—

Jen:  Because there are so many aliens and cops writing drama.

David:  Yeah, the bad writing and acting is when you try to get outside of some sort of real understanding of.  Some people understand crazy things they shouldn’t and some people don’t understand anything.  But once you’ve researched a bunch of stuff, you also come to know that.

Jen:  I agree with that.  It’s not just write what you’ve personally experienced.  It’s write what you have the ability to understand.

David:  What’s interesting to me is that as audience members (or readers), we GET whether the people know or don’t know.  It has the ring of truth or it does not.

Jen:  Can you be specific about what shows/books are truthful or not?

David:  I watched FUNNY PEOPLE, Judd Apatow’s movie.

Jen:  I haven’t seen it.

David:  It’s got kind-of a weird structure.  I know a lot of people who didn’t like it and I think it was structure related for them.  Anyway, I started doing comedy early but I didn’t do stand-up for very long–

Jen:  YOU DID STAND UP.  We’re going to revisit that later in real life.

David:  I only did it a half dozen times a long time ago.

Jen:  I mean, I guess I should have understood that from the “funniest person in America” thing…

David:  So I don’t really know the comedy world REALLY, but that movie had the ring of truth to me.  Without me having any… I’m not a doctor watching a medical drama… I’m an actor who sits in my house watching a show about comedians and I say to myself… THAT’S REAL.  Why do I know that?  Does that mean every single thing in that movie is the way it would happen?  I don’t know, but it had the ring of truth to it.  I bought it.  I love the movie.  I watched it in two settings, like a mini-series.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind the structure.  That world is so intriguing to me and just felt so truly realized and I feel like I know that was real even though I have no real reason to feel that.  The funny thing about being an actor—and maybe for writers also though not as common—if I was a carpenter, there would be a number of people who were very knowledgeable about carpentry who could tell you if I was any good.  But a lot of people—unless I was HORRIFIC—just wouldn’t know.  But there’s very few people who are like… “I just don’t know acting.  Maybe it was good.”   Everyone has a list of people who they think are good and who suck and who are over-rated and under-rated…

Jen:  It’s like when you’re watching the Olympics and you TOTALLY KNOW how the judges should call the diving competition.

David:  Exactly!  You watch diving a little and you’re like, “Oh!  He totally over-rotated on that!”

I don’t want to over-promote, but this LEVERAGE episode I just did, they did a production blog with one of the show’s creators, Mark Downey and my episode’s writer, Paul Guyot.  They talk about my audition for “The Mako,” which is the part I play.

Jen:  Mako?

David:  It’s a type of shark.

Jen:  The interview with the LEVERAGE creators is right here.

David:  The interview was very flattering.  According to them, they saw a LOT of people and almost all of them were great but, for whatever reason, I just was clearly the guy.  And from my perspective and I’m sure from most actors’ perspective, that difference that they saw is sort of unfathomable.  I felt good about the audition but I felt good about several others where I guess I was not clearly “the guy” even though I thought I hooked into the character and made it my own and all that stuff.  So it’s interesting.  It’s like you just don’t know what’s going to attract people on some level, and you don’t have any idea why they make the choices they make.  I auditioned for a new show last week and it was very secretive so I could only see my sides and read the description of the show.  And they’d already made a pilot but I couldn’t read the pilot.  What I could discern about my character and what the sides were, the guy could have been anything.  So those are tough because they’re like—you come up with the character but you’re really working from whole cloth.  My take on that is that I don’t think they really have any idea what they’re looking for yet, and it’s your job as an actor to give them that choice.  Someone like The Mako was… I don’t recall his description in the script (which I tend to ignore) but he was written very specifically.  It was the type of guy that I feel very comfortable embodying.  He’s sort of a twisted Harold Hill, one of my favorite characters from my childhood.  I’ve had an experience lately.  I did a film that I expect to be going to festivals soon.  I played a priest—it’s a period piece.  These priests were strict with these kids.  I went in to do my ADR (Additional Dialog Recording) and  I sat waiting next to the editor who was dropping something off for the director, Carl Franklin–one of my favorite directors–the editor said, “Oh, you’re the mean priest!  I didn’t even recognize you.”  And I didn’t even think of myself as the “mean priest.”  And then I enjoyed playing The Mako so much that on some level, I kind-of forgot he was the bad guy.

Jen:  That makes absolute sense to me because, as we all know (or are supposed to know), villains don’t KNOW they’re bad guys.  Right?

David:  Some villains embrace their bad guy-ness.  It makes sense in their world.

Jen:  Like Captain Hook?

David:  There you go! I literally was a little shocked when reading message boards to learn that the LEVERAGE fans hated The Mako!  Oh yeah, he’s a bad guy.  They’re not going to love him…

Jen:  Where can we see that episode of LEVERAGE?

David: Right here.

Jen:  Okay, so I have a couple questions from readers.  JESSE wants to know something specifically about THE SHIELD: As an actor, one who’s character was introduced as a background character but ultimately rose to a more prominence as the series progressed, how do you feel about this concept, often referred to as “fanon”: the idea of fans of certain characters filling in the gaps left in the narrative by the writers, as far as character motivation and character personalities, with their own theories and observations?

David:  What was interesting about playing Ronnie on THE SHIELD was that I had never before done any open-ended story-telling.  I really didn’t understand how to.  Really, there’s a little bit of hubris because I’d done a lot of stage stuff regionally out of Kansas City and sometimes you’re the lead and sometimes you’re a supporting character, and felt like I was very good at making character choices to help tell the overall story regardless of the size of my role.  But then I got to THE SHIELD and I didn’t know what the story was.  Because the story just keeps going.

Jen:  Right.

David:  And as Jesse says, there wasn’t a character written for me.  And to be honest, it took me a long time to realize that I was never going to get the kind of complete story and character information that I was used to working with.   In answer to what Jesse is asking, filling in the blanks–it’s what the actors do too.  Ultimately what I realized that I needed to do was basically create the character all by myself and then just start playing him.  I think for a while I wasn’t sure—what if I think about him as this ex-football safety who got injured in college—what if that’s completely contradicted by the writers?  And the answer ultimately—well so what if it is?  No one else KNEW that that’s what I thought of Ronnie.  But if you’re going to create a character that has that ring of truth, you gotta have a character.

Jen:  Right.

David:  And then what happens is as you figure out what you’re doing and hopefully you do that earlier than I did with Ronnie… there’s some sort of weird symbiosis that happens with the writers.  They start to write him in the way that you’re thinking together, usually.

Jen:  That’s cool!

David:  I mean, sometimes there are conflicts.  And there are a number of writers on the show.  Every year, we would have a meeting with the writers and talk about our characters.  Scott Rosenbaum who was GREAT, kept pitching Ronnie with some sort of black bag that was full of sex toys.

Jen:  HA!

David:  Luckily, not everyone else was excited about that.  But Scott wanted to flesh Ronnie out that way.  But, really we fill in gaps with every single person that we know.  Sometimes we do it right or well but sometimes we don’t.  Someone will do something that we think is completely out of character for them — turns out we just filled in their gaps wrong.

Kenny Johnson was enormously helpful to me to about creating character. The role of Lemonhead was not very large either, early on.  Kenny essentially taught me that you’ve got to create the character yourself.  The writers got to know Kenny,  learned who he was and what he was bringing to the role — aided by the tremendous amount of work he’d done to create Lemonhead himself — and they wrote towards it.  I’m sure that some of what he came up with to create Lemonhead got contradicted in the process and he just went with it.  But to some extent, on television, the actor’s writing the character.    But that’s how, to some extent, the actor writes the character.  You know, when Don Johnson becomes interested in my friend’s script, we all understand who Don Johnson is.  He has started to affect the script just by BEING Don Johnson.

Jen:  Okay, I think this relates.  Reader MOLLY asks: How hard was it to transition from a lesser known member of the Strike Team to a front burner (no pun intended) character in the last few seasons?  What did you do to get in the frame of mind of a likable criminal?

Jen:  We’ve talked about that, but if you want to touch on it some more…

David:  To be honest, it’s a lot easier to be a front burner character.  It’s not as much work by yourself.

Jen:  But you had to make that transition.  I mean, it really is what you’ve been talking about.

David:  Yeah, you lay the groundwork.  But it’s just while the cameras are rolling, you’ve got more to say.  I think when you try to do MORE because now you’re a big character so you have to do more, it would turn out bad.  Just like when you have one line and try to make it have real resonance, that’s probably not turning out well either.  But as far as the likability of him goes, some is just plainly how the writers wrote Ronnie.  Early in the show, Vic tortured a bad guy by holding his face to the stove and then found Ronnie in his apartment where he’d had the same thing happen to him by that bad guy.

As an aside, my make-up for that took an extra… TWO MINUTES a day.

Jen:  That’s it?

David:  Yep.  Once it healed, and was a scar.  It was a 3-D tattoo they put on my face.

Jen:  Movie magic!

David:  From a macro standpoint, that was not about what’s going to happen to Ronnie now that he’s been burned, it was about what it was going to do to Vic, that his boy who had nothing to do with it, he had to take that hit for him.

Jen:  So it wasn’t about your character even though it was…

David:  It was about Vic.  There was a time when I was waiting to see what they were going to write about what Ronnie was going to do now… and then I realized that I had to do that.  I had to figure out how Ronnie copes, and then hopefully it seeps through.  To a huge extent, we were made likable so that when the bad things happened to, say, Ronnie or Lem because of Vic, it had real resonance.  You certainly get the feeling—absolutely with Lem and likely with Ronnie—that their professional and personal lives would have evolved completely differently without Vic Mackey.  So it’s not like I’m just going to MAKE him likable just because I like it when people like me.  It was clearly a plan by the writers, to throw in enough that people could relate, whether they didn’t know much about Ronnie, they could kind-of like him.

Jen:  This is great.  All great.  And REALLY interesting to talk to an actor about creating character when writers spend so much time doing it, but in a completely different way.

David:  I’m curious to hear about this from you.  Do you find you create characters differently… I mean, you say there’s more you have to do… but do you find there’s a different process when you know you’re not handing it off to anyone?

Jen:  You mean, when I’m writing a book instead of a script?

David:  Yes.

Jen:  I think… it’s not exactly like people are birthed full-grown in my brain.  Like what’s that Greek myth, where the daughter of Zeus or someone pops out of her father’s head–know what I’m talking about?

David:  Yeah…

Jen:  Anyway, that’s not the way it works, for sure.  But there is a greater definition to characters when you’re writing books.  I mean, in your mind as you’re putting them on paper.  And it’s not just because in books you can talk about how their hair falls or how their voice sounds or what they had for breakfast yesterday (which would be boring).  But it’s because I think on some level you ARE responsible for the whole package and so it has to work that way.  Does that make any sense?

David:  Yeah.  It’s intrinsic.  It’s the job description.

Jen:  Exactly.

David:  To clarify, when I say that I ignore the description, it’s not that I ignore what’s been written.  It’s like when you’re writing a script, you have to dash off something that will make a reader have a SENSE of this person.  I read a lot of scripts and these scripts have to be vetted by so many people and you need someone to know that the coroner is “crusty and about to retire” so that when you see that person, you know who he is.  So if you’re writing, is it more important that people understand who the coroner is every time we see his name, or that he is crusty and old.  That little fragment is not the character.  The character is all the things said and done in the script and that’s what the actor keys into: how can I do and say those things in the most interesting way I can do it?  And truthful.  I don’t want it to seem like I just ignore scripts, I respect the scripts so much, but I do ignore that part of the character that says—it’s not me.  Because if I said to you, “Okay, act like a cop,” you might feel embarrassed but you might do something that you’d feel is cop-like.  We have pre-conceived notions, all of us, about what a cop is like and a doctor and a lawyer.  Those aren’t helpful, acting-wise.  They’re really unhelpful.

Jen:  I’m trying to think about what I’d do that is cop-like.

David:  We can play charades and figure it out.

Jen:  Yay!  Anything you want to leave us with, oh great guru?

David:  Guru?

Jen:  And there you have it, everyone!  David Rees Snell!

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  • New Zealand Fan

    Great Interview. I really enjoyed David’s work on The Shield. Ronnie was my favourite character. I’m so glad he got more screen time in the last few seasons.

    • Anonymous

      I know — he was GREAT in that final season, wasn’t he?