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Building Character: Brenda Blethyn

Date: Dec 08, 2010


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles


The characters in Haunted might be everyday British folk, but they never speak like they are. Instead of "you seem upset," they say, "there's a kink in you." Instead of "let's not fight," it's "we promised we would not war." These phrases lift Edna O'Brien's play, now running at 59E59, a few inches above reality, injecting a tale of marital strife with something bigger than spats and reconciliations.

That's one reason Brenda Blethyn signed on to play Gladys, a woman who suspects her husband Jack of romancing another woman. "We're so far removed from Jane Austen, if you will," says the two-time Oscar-nominated actress. "We're reduced to texting and 'OMG.' When I opened Edna's script, it was a feast of language."

That may explain why Blethyn often sees people debating the show after it's over. (She also played Gladys in Britain last year.) The heightened language intensifies Jack and Gladys' behavior, and it clarifies the emotion behind it. "Gladys says, 'I perceive a gulf, an ever-increasing gulf," the actress explains, "and people think, 'Oh, yeah! I know the weight of that. I know that cavity she's talking about when something is lost in a relationship."

But Gladys is more than fancy phrases: She's a regular gal who supervises in a doll factory and saves her vacation money in a jug. She's a wife whose husband is secretly giving her clothes to a younger woman. She's a woman just trying to get along.

As an actor, Blethyn needs to communicate her character's earthiness, even though she's spouting elegantly constructed dialogue. "I have to think of it as normal when she says things like, 'Fetch me a chair, ere I faint,'" she says. "It has to feel day in, day out."

She partly justifies her speech by explaining that Gladys has always tried to get above her raising, and that she uses big words and quotes famous poems to make herself feel more sophisticated. "I'd imagine that at work, everyone takes the piss out of her," Blethyn says. "She obviously thinks she's a cut above."

But Blethyn doesn't necessarily need a psychological justification to understand a scene. "Mostly, you just try to be honest," she says. "Never think, 'How am I going to say this?' Always ask, 'Why am I going to say this?' That's the only thing you need to know, but not everyone thinks of that."

Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor