Creating the character is central to an actor’s preparation in any medium. As part of this it’s worth giving some thought to your character’s name. It won’t have been chosen randomly and will probably provide clues as to the writer’s intention.
In life, we may not get to select our given name, but we do have some choice about how we use and adapt them. Plenty of people change their names as they grow up, shortening them or adopting a nickname or in some cases taking an entirely different name. In my teens I made a choice to be Bill, rather than William. My reasons were pretty banal but the decision felt significant and was to do with finding my own identity. Exploring a character’s choices about his or her name can open a window into their inner world.
In From Stage to Screen, I use the screenplay Body Heat (you can find it on dailyscript.com) as a case study in preparing a film role, so let us look at a couple of names from it now to see what they tell us.
Specifically in the book I explore how one might prepare to play the two-scene part of Teddy Laursen. Teddy is a small-time crook, described by the writer as a ‘rock ‘n’ roll arsonist’, who shows the protagonist, Ned Racine, how to set a fire.
The name Teddy has childish connotations and not only through its allusion to teddy bears. Assuming he was named Edward, then even if his parents called him Teddy, our man could have chosen as he grew up to be known as Ted, Ed, Eddie or some other derivation. But he didn't. Perhaps the name was given to him by friends or maybe he just liked the name Teddy? Whatever you decide, Teddy Laursen has, consciously or unconsciously, settled on a name that inherently suggests childhood and vulnerability. This makes an interesting counterpoint to his chosen lifestyle.
We have less choice about our surnames. We are pretty much stuck with them until marriage, at which point women are faced with the choice between sticking with their family name or taking their husband’s. This decision, of course, says a lot about personality and political beliefs, so a writer who indicates what choice a married woman has made is giving you a steer. Or you can construct your own backstory around this.
The name ‘Laursen’ sounds Scandinavian to me. Perhaps Teddy’s family originally came from Sweden? Given that there is nothing else in the script to suggest this, I think it's up to you to decide whether this is useful or relevant. If you substituted the name Johnson, would it change anything? I think not. It's perfectly possible that Teddy originally had several more scenes and possibly a subplot of his own, involving his background, which got cut. This is quite common in the development of a script and a name or character trait that seems to have been chosen very specifically, but mysteriously, may simply be a leftover of this, which you are therefore free to ignore.
The name of the film's protagonist, Ned Racine, offers plenty of clues about the character. ‘Ned’ is also a derivative of Edward. Again it has a simplicity and a childlike-quality to it, but perhaps there’s something darker than ‘Teddy’. The very fact that the writer has given both men names that come from the same root may be significant. Is Teddy in some way an alter-ego of the protagonist?
The name ‘Racine’, definitely, has an edge to it. Not only is it the name of the seventeenth century French writer of tragedies, but there's something darkly sensual about the way it sounds in the mouth with its sibilant S, long ‘i’ and echoes of the words ‘racy’ and ‘obscene’. It comes as no surprise that its owner is destroyed by sexual obsession.
Almost nothing in a script is there by chance. Good writers are expert at planting things in the audience’s subconscious. Names can reveal things about their intentions and can offer you a way in as you attempt to turn words on a page into a three-dimensional person with desires, fears and a history. If nothing else, it can be worthwhile to pause and register what your character's name suggests to you. If it seems useful and relevant - run with it.
Remember, though, that there is no Holy Grail of correct interpretation that you must pursue. Theatre has a tendency to revere ‘the writer's intention’. Film and television don’t, partly because filmmaking involves collaboration between many more creative disciplines, so change and evolution of the screenplay during production and post-production is normal. Ultimately the writer provides some words on a page. They are fantastically important as the genesis of the dramatic work, but the character does not exist until an actor takes those words and creates a human being from them. Exploring their choices about their name can help you bring them to life.