Character Bleed; or, What is Lorelai Gilmore Doing with Nate Fisher?
In a recent Twitter exchange, Derek Kompare and I were discussing the new NBC series Parenthood, and while there were several issues we disagreed on, his ultimate argument was incredibly visceral and personal: Lauren Graham didn’t work for him as a single mom in her thirties with teenage kid(s) who’s imploring her parents for help. Or rather, it seemed that for him Lauren Graham was too much Lorelai Gilmore to fully inhabit this new role – a role not fully alike, but ultimately too close.
Among actors, character bleed usually references the way days and weeks of playing a character can be difficult to shed right away. Method acting, in particular, is often caricatured as a full immersion that extends into the actor’s real life. I want to think of character bleed not as a function of the actor but rather as a function of our reception. In other words, character bleed is the aspects of a character that we as viewers bring to the text.
In a comment discussion about Treme here in Antenna, one of the most interesting things to me was the way we all brought our different viewer expectations and contexts to the show and to a degree expected others to have similar associations. So while I might realize that my interlocutors didn’t go to school in New Orleans and thus have a different sense of the city, it was much more difficult to talk about what watching Treme against The Wire brought to the text for every one of us. It’s not just that audience reception is multiply complex but that the same intertexts can create fundamentally different responses.
Likewise, seeing Graham as Sarah Braverman evokes for both Derek and myself her role of Lorelai, but whereas I emotionally view Sarah as maybe a little snarkier and wittier than she’s written in the show, for Derek the roles crash. The bleedover breaks the illusion, or maybe it’s simply snarky thirtyish mom with teenager overload.
As a fan scholar who is interested in media fandom and fan works, I’m all too familiar with this readerly/viewerly character bleed. Fans follow actors to new shows and often the fannish characterizations are indebted to earlier roles. Sometimes this is done explicitly in truly marvelous and imaginative narratives. Supernatural’s John Winchester here can also be engaged to Grey’s Anatomy’s Izzy Stevenson, since Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays both roles. Amnesia and undercover police procedures can explain how The Professional’s Ray Doyle is indeed the same character as The Chief’s Chief Constable Alan Cade, both played by Martin Shaw. And Stargate Atlantis’s John Sheppard can have a past that includes being Murphy Brown’s much younger lover of one episode or that connect him to his FBI past in the TV movie Thoughtcrimes (all three characters played by Joe Flanigan).
But more interesting are actually the implicit and possibly unconscious bleedovers where characters get written with particular habits that may indeed be attributable to another character. If Ray Kowalski in Due South fan fiction smokes a lot, I lay that mostly at the feet of Callum Keith Rennie’s role of burnt out punk rock star in Hard Core Logo. Likewise, SG-1’s Jack O’Neill is often characterized at surprisingly adept at McGyvering his way out of situations, which may very well be the result of both roles being played by Richard Dean Anderson. The actors themselves may bleed over into their characters’ fannish representations as in the multiple present day Merlin AUs in which Merlin is written as a vegetarian, one would assume because Colin Morgan is.
Whereas these character bleeds are writ large via collective community assumptions, all of us certainly have these moments where our previous encounters with the actors and the characters they have embodied influences our affective responses. At heart then remains the question as to how much of a character is steeped in the writers, the actors, and how much we bring to it as viewers.