In this week’s video, take a peek at some interesting behind-the-scenes’ anecdotes about Steve McQueen’s performance in The Magnificent Seven to learn how you can mimic his acting techniques to create vibrant characters.
The 1960 western The Magnificent Seven is classic cinema for many reasons, including a great script, a great score, and great acting. Most of the actors who play the seven gunmen hired to defend a small Mexican village from a ruthless bandito have relatively small roles. The lead character in this story is unabashedly the black-clad bald gunman Chris Adams, played by veteran actor Yul Brynner. And yet Brynner’s character is overshadowed in practically every scene in which he plays with Steve McQueen. It’s an interesting behind-the-scenes anecdote that Brynner knew—and resented—that McQueen was effectively stealing the show, despite having significantly less screen time and fewer lines.
How did McQueen accomplish this? Instead of taking his character at face value, saying his lines, and exiting stage left, McQueen looked beyond the dialogue and stage directions and breathed life into even his character’s most mundane scenes. His character never just sat around in the background, looking on while Brynner’s character took the lead. He was always moving, always adding personality and idiosyncrasy, never allowing his character to become mere scenery, even in scenes where he wasn’t required to do anything but be present. Brynner was so irked by McQueen’s performance that he supposedly hired an assistant just to count how many times McQueen drew attention to his character by fiddling with his hat.
It’s an example writers can learn from. Never settle for letting your characters lie flat on the page. You could probably get away with letting them speak their dialogue and meander off-screen, but if you look a little deeper, if you mine your character’s personality beyond the obvious, you’ll likely find a bigger, more unique personality than you realized you had. And, like McQueen, your character may well go from bit role to all-star before you know it!