acting note: be your character's champion
Some meta stuff to kind of remind me of what my goal/angle is when I'm playing a character like Erik.
Quick background for those of you who don't know me and what I do — I work for a talent development/theater education company and part of what I do is acting coaching. One of the programs that I teach at is an intensive recital program where throughout the year the kids get up and perform for each other and receive feedback from teachers, etc.
This Monday we had our Broadway guest artist come in, his name's Martín and he's currently on Broadway in On Your Feet!, and I've worked with him a few times in a teaching capacity because he visits us a lot, but I never really offered feedback side-by-side. This time, we sat next to each other the whole time and gave our feedback as a team which is awesome for the kids but also for me, because he's brilliant and has this wonderful serious, serene energy when he's teaching and his insights are fantastic (I have major impostor syndrome, though, wow).
Anyway, point is, we had a girl doing a monologue from the stepsister's point of view, and I asked her to describe her character, and she said that her character was "evil" and "nasty."
But this is what Martín said in response:
You have to be an advocate for your character.
Even if the audience response is to interpret that character as nasty, as an actor (and by extension, as an RPer) you have to be that character's champion, be the one who believes in them and believes their side of the story. I feel like this is obvious for anyone who acts, writes, or otherwise analyzes and presents a character to the world, but I felt it important for me to write this specific wording to myself.
And I think this can get kind of muddy in the sense of — well, okay, I have to think of my character as a good guy and make excuses for their actions or soften their actions in order to do that, but I think it's more a matter of justifying those actions from the character's point of view (not from anyone else's). On the outside, those actions might be 1000% inexcusable, and the character himself might know that his actions weren't the smartest, but very rarely does a character think of themselves as evil, even if they might insist they're a monster or they're bad.
This can sometimes translate into "My character's not evil and I'm going to prove it" or "That thing my character did, that wasn't so bad, why don't you love them now?" or "Look, if they cry a lot or have a tragic backstory that means what they do isn't awful" from an RP standpoint (in acting the script's usually written for you so being your character's champion is a little more restrained). I think there's a really fine line to walk between being your character's advocate and ignoring characterization and/or making excuses and finding that sweet spot is where you find great villainous/morally gray characters.
Edit, moving on: So what does this mean for Erik (amonginsects), specifically:
Acknowledge Erik's backstory in Auschwitz as both breaking him and shaping him into the person he is now — he's both a victim or and product of the Nazis, and a lot of healthy emotional development has been stunted as a result.
Remember that Erik has been without family or community for years before finding Charles and learning that mutantkind = his family. Couple that with being taught that he is of a master race, any slight against mutants is not only a slight against family and a throwback to his history as a Jew in Germany/Poland in the 30s/40s, but also humans' desperate scramble for power against the natural order of things.
Remind myself that Erik's wrongfully spent ten years in prison in solitary confinement, and was presumably locked up without trial. That kind of isolation has definitely affected him and screwed up more of that healthy emotional development, and only fuels his fire to continue fighting what he believes is the good fight (only now with more impulse control issues).
His goal is not selfish. He really does believe he's the champion of the mutant race and war is the only way to solve their problems — his interest in other mutants is real, his attempts to be a fatherly mentor are real, his acts of kindness are real. He isn't just a cult leader trying to pull people in so he can use them.
On the other hand, he will throw you to the wolves if he feels it necessary, because the cause is more important than any individual. HOWEVER, he will sacrifice you while saving himself, because he believes himself to be an exception to the rule. Some people need to survive and be the face of a movement, be the guiding force, and that's just how it is. There may come a day when he needs to sacrifice himself and be a martyr, but today's not that day.
He believes himself to be a monster, but that doesn't mean he believes himself to be evil. He's just aware that he's damaged because of what Schmidt/Shaw did to him, and he's aware that that damage can also be used as an asset, and that he's willing to throw his life into the cause of fighting for mutantkind because he has no other life left.
He's rather tongue-in-cheek about being evil, aware that he has a reputation. It doesn't bother him. Whatever. Haters gon' hate.