Friday, June 19, 2009

Channeling Her Inner Captain Kirk: Dana Fredsti on Character

Our guest today is Dana Fredsti, author of the Murder for Hire mysteries but perhaps more importantly, the lovely star of Princess Warrior...a truly schlocky viewing experience.

From Dana Fredsti:

When Juliet Blackwell asked me to write a post about character for Pens Fatales from the perspective as a writer and an actress, I pushed thoughts of impending deadlines to the back of the old brain pan and said 'yes.' Various writing related blogs talk a lot about creating characters: the pros and cons of pulling them from real life; how to make them realistic and/or interesting; what to name them; and so on and so forth. Lots of diverse advice and -- like a salad bar -- writers can pick and choose what works for them.

Actors have a lot of choices as well (and boy, will some actors talk your ear off about those choices if you give them half a chance) when developing a character. The choice of which way to turn can be a huge issue. I actually had an actor in my Murder for Hire troop argue with me when I told him he had to exit left. He objected, saying his character would stride forward, not turn. I pointed out the only off the stage and back to the dressing room in this particular venue was to the left.

We did not get along well. Ah well, such real life anecdotes, while annoying as hell at the time, gave me much grist for the writing mill when I wrote Murder for Hire: The Peruvian Pigeon.

Sometimes the choice is as simple as following orders; some directors are very particular about performance specifics. Writer/directors are even worse. But at least when you combine the two, you don’t feel like you’re being Pushmepullyou’d.

Some actors build elaborate back-stories for their characters, even when the part is a walk on with one or even no lines. You’d be amazed at how many background characters could tell you details ranging from their first kiss to what their favorite brand of ice-cream or underwear is. And again, if you ask them, they would be delighted to enlighten you.

I worked with one actor who played the villain in CAUSE OF DEATH, a low budget movie put out by the same people who produced PRINCESS WARRIOR (my claim to low budget, fashion terrorist fame. More on PW in a sec). D had a list of demands he gave us before production started, including (to name but a few): Several pairs of expensive leather gloves; certain designers for his wardrobe; and (my favorite) NO Rollo’s in the craft service area. Rollo’s, in case you’re not familiar with them, are little pieces of milk-chocolate enrobed soft caramel. He insisted these demands were necessary to help him fully immerse himself in his character. I wanted to immerse him in a large body of water and hold him down for a few minutes. He got what we gave him and I made sure to have a constant supply of Rollo’s on set. D ate most of them. Go figure. He managed to find his character. Actually D found more character than needed. Some truly glorious over-acting occurred.

For me, I never thought a lot about background, etc., when I was cast in a role. I mean, Eliza Doolittle is pretty much Eliza Doolittle. And Kate from Taming of the Shrew is a no-brainer. Although I chose (augh! I made choices and didn’t even realize it!) to make her sympathetic as opposed to an uber-bitch out to screw with patriarchy just because it was fun.

My best and favorite role was Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. In case you’re not familiar with the play, it focuses on a divorced couple who discover that they are honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel. Realizing they still love each other and regretting having divorced, Elyot and Amanda abandon their mates and run off together to her apartment in Paris. Before long it becomes clear that while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, nor can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. During the course of the play, Amanda breaks a record of Elyot’s head.

The actor playing Elyot happened to be my ex-boyfriend. We’d broken up right after we were cast in the roles. When I went into rehearsals, I was still in love with him. He brought his new girlfriend (who he moved into his apartment the day I left) to all the performances. By the end of the play, I was over him. In between, I thoroughly enjoyed breaking records over his head.

Finding the character was amazingly simple in this case and it is honestly the best performance I’ve given in my life.

Then there’s PRINCESS WARRIOR. Juliet has seen it. I know she’s snickering while reading this and she is right to do so. It is a terrible movie, known for having the longest and dullest wet T-shirt contest in cinema history. I used the experience in a book (not finished) about low budget Hollywood, and include here an excerpt that is very close to my real life experience. I’ve changed the names of the director/producer to protect the guilty.

"So you're here to read for our villainess, Daggerette. Let me tell you a little bit about the story so you'll have some context for the scene. By the way, are you comfortable with the sides? Do you need more time?"

The only correct answers to those questions were respectively 'yes' and 'no', so that's what I said. Besides, it was the truth. My stage fright had subsided and the butterflies in my stomach had regressed into nice calm cocoons. I was ready to channel my inner Captain Kirk.

"Great! Okay, so Curette and Ovule are sisters, princesses on a planet in a galaxy somewhere far, far away." He grinned, pausing, so I gave a 'hah hah, aren't you clever' laugh in response. "Their mother, the queen, is dying and passes on the royal Seal of Power to Ovule even though Curette is the older sister 'cause Daggerette's evil."

Of course she is, I thought. She's brunette.

"So Curette tries to kill Ovule, who escapes to present day earth in a teleporter. She transports into a strip bar and meets our hero, Darren. He thinks she's crazy, but falls in love with her anyway and helps her hide when Curette and two of her evil minions follow in the teleporter. So it's basically a classic tale about good and evil, very black and white, no shades of gray. Any questions?"

My only question was how he gave that entire rundown without taking a breath, but it didn't seem relevant so I shook my head.

"Great! Don't worry if you make a mistake, you can read it more than once if you want. It's a short bit, so the main thing is to have fun with it. I see Curette as an old fashioned bad guy, black and white, she's bad and she loves being bad! So have fun and be bad! Don't be afraid to think outside the box."

Okay, so this called for evil Captain Kirk, possibly Turnabout Intruder, 'I'm really a woman' Captain Kirk. I could do that.

"Great! Okay, whenever you're ready."

I took a deep breath, thought "I'm captain of the Enterprise!" and dove right in.

"Have you ever seen what a white hot spoon does when inserted into a human mouth?" I asked, enunciating and rolling the words out with relish. "It sort of...cleaves to the roof of the mouth and the tongue." Pause for evil – yet subtle chuckle. If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.

"Let me make myself very clear, sister." I stared at both James and Manny and narrowed my eyes. "And if you don't give me the Seal of Power, sister, your precious boyfriend will be something short when it comes to the more… pleasures of life." Pause. "No? Very well." Dramatic pause with evil smile. "Bulemia, hand me the spoon!"

Dana kicking some Uvula butt as Curette, Princess Warrior (in her earth clothes)
The end result? I gave great white hot spoon. And I got the part. My performance is somewhere between a female Tim Curry a la Rocky Horror Picture Show and generic villainess from hell. My motivation? Mom always loved Ovule better. If you’d like to read more about the making of Princess Warrior, go here ( If you want to watch it with MST3K type commentary, come on over to my place! Just bring a bottle (or three) of wine ‘cause I can only stand to watch it while tipsy.

I’ve done a few projects where I wrote or co-wrote the scripts. Murder for Hire is a good example, as is a horror/sci-fi film called PALE DREAMER. We cast it, made a trailer and got a lot of interest in the project, but the film never did get produced, more’s the pity. Although the part of Jeanette was not originally written for me, I knew I wanted to play it even while we were writing it. Strong, ornery women are the most fun to play and I was cast opposite Ken Foree (if you’re a horror geek, you’ll recognize his name as the lead in George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD). Also cast were Josef Pilato (another Romero favorite) and Brinke Stevens (former Marine Biologist turned Scream Queen). I was in heaven. Yes, I am a horror geek. Anyway, the trailer (co-directed by Brian Thomas – also co-writer – and Jeff Varga – also the producer) is linked here for your viewing pleasure, .

I could blather on about character, acting and writing for hours, so I’d better stop here. Besides, if I give away all my stories, there’s no point in anyone reading my books. I do tend to draw on real life quite a bit. Anyway, thank you, ladies of Pens Fatales, for having me as your guest!

Note from Juliet Blackwell-- check out the Pale Dreamer trailer. Classic!


Julia Buckley said...

Great post, Dana! And my husband will be thrilled by your DAWN OF THE DEAD connection, so I'll be sure to send him over here. :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh my Dana....a whole new side of you to explore. Yowza! Always knew there was something sizzling roiling about under that demure (heh) exterior....

- your fan, always

Camille Minichino said...

I love that idea of a walk-on character creating a detailed backstory for himself! I think the best writers do that (though I'm having a hard time creating a backstory for a new main character right now!)

Dana Fredsti said...

Julia, your husband is a zombie/George Romero fan too? Sweet! We're a strange bunch, but we mean well. :-)

Sophie, I'm gonna send my mom to read this just so she can see someone refer to me as 'demure.'

Camille, SO many actors do that! Sometimes it works, sometimes it brings a whole new dimension to the scene (usually with the director telling said actor to tone it down...) I actually think it works better in writing because the characters aren't (usually) trying to hog the limelight.

Thanks for having me as guest, you gals! I love this blog!

Dana Fredsti said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hagelrat said...

One day I will find a copy of this movie! Love the post D.

Dave Fitzgerald said...

And she's she not kidding when she says she was channeling Tim Curry - Forget Capt. Kirk - she's pure Frankenfurter in this flick!

Dana Fredsti said...

Adele, you'll just have to come visit me if you want to watch it. And bring wine!

Isabel Roman said...

NO Rollo’s in the craft service area But I LOVE Rollos! LOL, sorry. I'd bring the wine just to watch it, but I ah...I'll just bring the wine and we can skip it? But for you, I would! :)

Great blog, Dana, I didn't realize you're so versatile!

Lisa Lane said...

Dana, you are one of my newest heroes! Your Inner Kirk -- fantastic!

It really is fun how much in common people have in all of the arts ... the "motivation," the "inspiration," and the "muse" are all incarnations of the same creative force.

The PRINCESS WARRIOR dialog was so over-the-top! Thanks for sharing that! The next time I visit the Bay Area, I'm hounding you for a peek--and I'll bring plenty of wine. ;-)

Lisa Hughey said...

ummm, was his character afraid of caramel? :)

Dana--thanks for the insight into the movie business-very interesting and fun!

Jack C. Young said...

PW also has the longest, most boring car chase of any film I know. The cops just had to look for the slowest motorcycle on the street. But your inner Kirk/Frankenfurter was RIGHT ON!
I also liked the lightsabers which could fire disintigrating bolts as well as cut your opponents in half. LOL. ;-)

Other Lisa said...

Yes, I need more info on that Rollos bit. Was he just trying to take it one step further than no brown M&Ms?

Vivian A said...

Dana do you still get residuals on "Princess Warrior?" I know fans of B grade movies, think "Lair of the White Worm" who would probably love it.

You definitely do use the entire palette of life darling. "Dawn of the Dead" is also a favorite of my husband too.

Fabulously entertaining blog, but when are you ever not Dana? Ciao bella.

Dana Fredsti said...

Heh. Isabel, D loved Rollos too. He was worried he'd gain weight if they were on set. If he hadn't mentioned them, I never would have thought to buy them. And if he hadn't been such an utter ass. Thank you, btw!

Dana Fredsti said...

Okay, it's telling me over and over that I can't post a comment, which probably means the same comment will show up 5 times in a row... but let's try again 'cause there are more comments to answer!

Other Lisa and Lisa H., D LOVED Rollos. He didn't want them on set 'cause he was afraid he'd gain weight. If the idiot hadn't mentioned NOT having them, I never would have thought to buy them. As it was, red flag to bull time...

Vivian, I never got residuals on PW. I did and do on Army of Darkness now and again,though. And thank you for the compliment!

Lisa L. and Isabel, come on out! Just be ready to mingle with felines. :-)

Jack, you are a brave man to have watched PW. I hope you had a drink while viewing!

Lisa Lane said...

Hubby and I get along GREAT with felines! Poor hubby is allergic, but Kitty and Kadie don't mind, and Benedryl is an amazing drug. ;-)

Wish we got out to California more often. I have friends and family all across the state. Moreover, I miss the beach, lol, even the windy, cold Bay Area beaches!!!

Courtney Sheets said...

I can't get over your hair!
And I think I probably worked with Mister No Rolos...LOL

Dana Fredsti said...

I always have Benedryl on hand, Lisa, so come on out and visit the windy, cold beach! I'm four blocks from it, so you get PW, kitties AND beaches!

Courtney, I couldn't get over my hair either. Mommy Dearest make-up and Secretary hair... *shudder*...

Hagelrat said...

So it's agreed, when I finally make it across the pond I should bring wine and we can all descend on Dana for a movie night of Terrible Films that Dana is in. ;)

K. A. Laity said...

As a proud owner of PRINCESS WARRIOR, I'm just waiting until I can get it autographed by the star.

You know, as soon as you said the "No Rollos!" I was picturing Jim Broadbent in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY and his battles with food. Hee hee.

I could never put up with the punishing life of auditions as an actor. Kudos to you for sticking it out, but yeesh -- no thanks.

[Hmmm -- I may be getting a duplicate post, too]