For Actors From Paul Bettany to Jonathan Majors, Performing in Period Pieces Offers New Perspective on the Past

The 1970s-set original movie “Uncle Frank” connected lead actor Paul Bettany more empathetically to his own father’s experience as a closeted gay man in that era.

“I had a curated version of his life,” Bettany explains. Immersing himself in the period gave Bettany “a clearer understanding of the pressure that he felt upon him, and a forgiveness for him, in that I never really got to know him in the way that I’m sure he also would have wanted me to, had he been less encumbered by the guilt and shame that he was feeling surrounding his sexuality.”

While the way this Amazon Prime Video project shifted Bettany’s perception of his patriarch is specific, he is far from the only actor whose Emmy-eligible roles became deep-dive history lessons that both powerfully connected them to and often re-framed their opinions of other places and times.

Bettany had this experience on his Disney Plus limited series “WandaVision,” too. Channeling sitcoms through the ages was a delightful, sometimes daunting tutorial in evolving television culture and techniques, such as performing before a live audience. “You’re projecting to the audience and not the camera, which is what we’re used to,” he says. “It gave it a very strange and anachronistic quality that I don’t think we could have simply faked.”

“Lovecraft Country’s” Jonathan Majors professes fondness for the romanticized Americana of the 1950s, but notes he attained a more visceral sense of the ugly realities underneath in the era’s Jim Crow-era South when working on the HBO drama. “These are things that I understood historically,” he says, but “stepping into the world made things a lot different, because to experience that, the experiential memory of that, is deep.”

“You have to surrender to the discomfort,” he continues. “To experience it on a physical level, a spiritual level, it gives you a certain amount of wisdom as you move through the world.”

Similarly, “The Good Lord Bird’s” Ethan Hawke visited reallife abolitionist John Brown’s farm and graveside, which not only helped shape his vision for his version of the man, but also opened his eyes to just how much Brown’s whole family was doing in the movement.

“They were teaching escaped slaves to farm,” he notes. “The whole family was involved in the abolitionist movement and had been radicalized by it, seeing the injustice of slavery very close. It all started to be really real to me when [I] walked on that land, and I really tried to take that with me.”

For Forest Whitaker, the turbulent, transformational landscape of America’s 1960s civil rights era in Epix’s “Godfather of Harlem” provided a key opportunity to reflect and underscore today’s similarly volatile churn, “to act as a prism for looking at yesterday and today.”

Meanwhile, because “Pose” actor Billy Porter personally lived through the HIV epidemic that devastated 1980s and ’90s New York City, “every day going to work was like being re-traumatized,” he says. But telling that story from the perspective of a person of color carried him through, Porter says, “to be a vessel, and to hopefully help some people heal — help people figure out how to process our collective trauma that those of us who are of a certain age actually never had the opportunity to do.”

But sometimes TV time travel is simply magical.

For Matthew Rhys — long fascinated by Los Angeles’ early-modern history — HBO’s 1930s-set “Perry Mason” was “a moment for me to realize boyhood dreams of watching old movies, getting to live out something that I had grown up watching. When you’re given that much scope and scale, your imagination doesn’t have to do anything. You’re in it.”

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