Likeness: What Makes for Successful Impressions

One trait I have inherited from my mother’s side is mimicry and impersonation. I’m grateful for this ability, and it is an almost-visceral need or habit when I hear someone with a particularly salient speech pattern, or see a celebrity or well-known individual with distinct mannerisms, to do an impression of that person. But I am not alone in this, as there are many voice actors, dramatic actors, comedians, and individuals who share this trait. TV shows such as “MadTV,” “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color,” endless viral videos, and comedy clubs all attest to the popularity of mimicry and people’s love for seeing their celebrities re-created. Sometimes, this is not comedic, as we can see a film like “My Week with Marilyn” or the series “The Crown.” What makes for a good impression? Contrary to popular belief, it is not simply “sounding just like” a person and replicating them exactly, but something much more. Let us explore.

The voice is, certainly, the most important part of an impression. But the voice is made up of components and is not one singular thing. The timbre of someone’s voice is often what lends itself most to a successful impersonation. Does their voice sit in the same place and have the same tone color as the person they are trying to imitate? For example, Alec Baldwin’s voice sits in the same low, raspy register as Donald Trump’s when he plays him on “Saturday Night Live.” The late Carol Channing had an unmistakable sound that’s funny to imitate. The physiology lends itself to creating the same sound. Another big part of the voice is the speech pattern. How slow or fast does someone talk? How do they pace their speech? Are there particular cadences, rhythms, ways they emphasize their words? Are there particular things someone says? A pilot on a British Airways flight I once took was a vocal dead-ringer for Hugh Grant, not only for the class of British accent, but also the timbre and the particular cadences. Naturally, it entails that an impression may involve an accent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s sound was unmistakably Brooklyn Jewish and Bill Clinton still hasn’t lost his Arkansas drawl over the decades. Tracy Ullman is a genius with her impersonations, for she is able to catch the speech of endless celebrities and accents with her flexible voice.

Beyond voice, there has to be an understanding of the type of utterances by the person one is trying to imitate. Trump’s bombastic, self-congratulatory language, and Queen Elizabeth’s small talk that is friendly but not personal, or a particular culture’s way of speaking insults are all examples of how one must use the meaning behind the speech to create a successful impression. In other words, this is creating character and not simply repeating sound. Unsuccessful impressions don’t understand the personality of the person speaking or the culture of the accent being done. One can speak in a British accent as an American, but if you don’t understand the nuances and subtleties of the way a Brit uses language, you won’t be successful. Conversely, Brits imitating the American accent overexaggerate the “Americanness” of our language and our enthusiasm, and it sounds forced. Granted, exaggeration can be an element of an impression. Think Jim Carrey as Joe Biden. Joe Biden will never go over the top as he is a leading political figure. However, Carrey always pushes boundaries and he knows where to go too far in order to create a humorous effect. 

We have to look next at gesture and the physicalization of the person we are trying to imitate. James Brown had his famous dance moves, sliding back and forth on the floor–something captured so well by actor Wayne Brady. Physical comedians have a gift of being able to imitate another person’s body language. How do they sit, move, gesture? George W. Bush’s frequent smirks, Barbra Streisand’s stroking of her hair with her long, manicured fingers, a Japanese woman’s bow, and the infamous Indian head nod are all things we would immediately recognize are central to conveying someone physically. There is the danger with this of gestures being reduced to tics. This is all too frequent on “Saturday Night Live,” which is not necessarily a bastion of good comedy.

Physical appearance is probably something most viewers would say is important to creating an impression when the impression is in acting. You might do a spot on impression of Chris Rock, but if you are a heavyset redhaired man, you might not be too convincing (not to mention potentially offensive to some black people). In “The Crown,” the characters do not closely resemble the royal family. The wonderful Helena Bonham Carter does not have Princess Margaret’s facial shape or piercing blue eyes, nor did Claire Foy recreate the Queen’s relaxed, polite expression, wearing an impenetrable cold, wide-blue-eyed stare instead. However, most of the cast does a strong job in portraying the royals as complex people and capturing their personalities. So one need not necessarily closely resemble the person being mimicked in order to capture them well. Cate Blanchett did a wonderful job as Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” despite the lack of the angular face and famous cheekbones, and no one would have said Michelle Williams resembled Marilyn Monroe before the film “My Week with Marilyn” though she did a wonderful job in the film. Certainly, an excellent hair, makeup, and wardrobe team can help, as can lighting and understanding how a person moves. Of course, we love best the people who actually resemble the people they are impersonating: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin was beyond belief and the Australian musician who is a double for Kim Jong-Un. There is something so primal and human about having a good laugh at someone who strongly resembles a celebrity.

Impressions can also be nonverbal. The Prince William and Kate Middleton wedding video parody was fantastic, not only because the cast closely resembled the members of British royal family, but also because the choreography was so apt for each character. Of course Prince Harry would gyrate his pelvis, Princess Anne would do a dance move like she was riding a horse, and the queen would smile and clap in a dignified way. So there is also the physical aspect of movement that helps to create an impersonation of someone in addition to the looks.

Finally, the impersonator needs to capture that elusive quality known as essence. This is why, even when someone does not exactly resemble the person in question, they are able to give you an impression so convincingly. It’s a question of understanding what makes someone tick me: what do they say, do, how do they react? If Woody Allen was being interviewed, an impersonator might have him start off by trying to clear his name from the MeToo blame and go off on a tangent about all the women who told him he was a nebbish. The late genius Phil Hartman’s SNL skit as Bill Clinton jogging into a McDonald’s and sampling the other diners’ meals was perfect, because it juxtaposed Clinton’s keen intellect and knowledge of global affairs with his appetite for fast food. Naturally, this is not something the president would have done, but it was just so fitting and in character with Clinton!

Of course there are unsuccessful impersonations. Usually these are because someone does not resemble the original person, is trying too hard, or makes a caricature out of the original person when not in a highly comedic setting. Personally, I found Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy quite bad, for her accent was forced, she had no resemblance to Jackie, and she captured none of Mrs. Kennedy’s strength and iron will that was masked by her graciousness and seemingly delicate manners. Though graceful, Jackie Kennedy was no shrinking violet. Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek was something I never found funny, because Alex Trebek is not stiff and mannered in the way Ferrell portrayed him.

All of this falls under the umbrella of acting, an art form that is not easy to do. It takes a lot of skill, a lot of understanding of all the choices that one has to make. Doing impressions is certainly a lot of fun, and something that is universally funny, part of the human experience. After all, who hasn’t been accused of being a “copycat” at some point in their childhood?!

In/On Character

One phrase or oft-repeated concept that a writer might see on agents’ websites is that they are looking for character-driven fiction or strong characters. We might comment on someone we know who has a lot of quirks and a colorful personality as “a real character.” Children (both old and young!) love fantasy and mythological novels and media such as Harry Potter or The Game of Thrones because they delight in the archetypes and gods and goddesses and wizards and mythical figures that we do not see today in our very prosaic, pragmatic world. Someone might dismiss a novel as boring because of flat characters, or find a Hollywood blockbuster dull because the characters are nothing unique. In the opera world, we have to play a character and draw upon a number of conventions, as well as what the music indicates. Actors have to create a character without the tool of music, generate an entire human being who is separate from oneself, but that still draws upon him or herself. An icebreaker question at parties or literary events might often be, “Who is your favorite character from a book or movie?”

Why are we obsessed with characters, and take them so seriously? Why do some people hate a novel because the protagonist is “not nice” or unlikable? Why is there a whole industry of costumes and paraphernalia for us to purchase to dress up in for Halloween or other events? Why do some irrational fans detest an actor or actress personally, when he/she is merely playing a role? Why do virtually all religious traditions have sacred stories With characters of great religious figures that we refer to even thousands of years later? What does all of this mean?

Character gives us a starting point, someone to identify with and therefore we can launch the narrative. Many literary theorists would say that characters drive plot, or that plot really is just characters and what happens to them. We become attached to a character and go on a journey with them. I think roundness of character relates a lot to specificity. Nobody is one-dimensional, and what endears us to people is their quirks and various facets. How do they react in different situations? Because no two people will react in the same way to the same stimulus.

On the page, someone who is unique will grip our attention rather than “someone we have heard of before.” In highly plot-driven fiction, there is the danger of characters being flat, because they are there to serve the story’s (and therefore, the author’s) mission. Conversely, in literary fiction, plots can lag because nothing really happens, but we get a sense of real, rounded people. The best writers accomplish both. This is not an easy task, because creating complex characters is in itself an art, and then creating a strong narrative arc is also a challenge. In my work on literary retellings in the last semester of my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I found that the most successful retellings drew upon characters and themes from the original Urtext, so to speak, but fleshed them out or were able to take on a new life of their own in the retelling. John Updike and Jean Rhys were both successful in this regard with their novels Gertrude and Claudius and Wide Sargasso Sea, respectively.

In opera, as an emerging professional soprano, I am learning the importance of committing to character. This is a greater challenge than it is in straight acting, for we have the additional layer of music. To create the music ourselves, from our body, takes a tremendous amount of technical mastery and attention. The integration of character and music takes time. The majority of opera performed today, the arias we learn, are from much earlier historic times and from Europe. Therefore as American singers, we have arguably extra work with imagination and understanding the literary conceptions from earlier times. And, just as in straight acting, we are often playing or inhabiting characters that are very different from ourselves, And we must make that leap to completely immerse herself in character and lose all self-consciousness, which is the enemy of creating character in performance.

Literature and acting are two of our oldest creative impulses as human beings. We observe and we re-create. We like to tell stories, and any individual who jumps out at us as unique makes for an interesting character. We also like to observe and have the innate faculty of seeing and reflecting. As long as there are human beings, as long as we are social beings who interact with each other, there will be the phenomenon of character. And we wouldn’t want it any other way.