Lately I've been experiencing a long, slow revelation -- more like a sunrise than a lightbulb going off -- about myself and my craft.
I've tended to complain that the characters I play are very passive. Rather than making things happen, things happen to them, and they have to react. I marvelled for a while at just how consistent this was, that I kept being cast in these passive roles, when it eventually dawned on me... the characters aren't necessarily passive, *I* am, and I inject this passivity into my characters.
In my classes with Austin Pendleton, he described my approach as "bringing the mountain to Mohammad," meaning, I think, that he noticed that the characters I played in the scenes I did for him tended to have my personality traits and physical tics, even if they weren't particularly what the playwright had envisioned, yet I still managed to make it work. Usually. (Don't ask about the train wreck that was my attempt at Stanley Kowalski)
We don't disappear into our characters; our characters tend to disappear into us. People with strong, forceful personalities tend to inject that forcefulness into their characters (like Patrick Page, the best Iago I ever saw). People with ebulient, bubbly personalities tend to make their characters chipper and perky. This also is the case for generally inassertive milquetoasts like me. We tend to make our characters inassertive and, well, squishy. It gets cyclic, since casting people tend to assume that these are the only types we can play, thus we get cast accordingly. For me, my greatest thrill is to break out of my squishy typecasting and demonstrate that yeah, I have range, and I can play kings, assholes and villains too.
A few years ago I played King Philip (the young French king) in The Lion in Winter, and I grew a beard and wore a long wig which completely altered my look. Chip Noon made my decade when he told me how he remarked to himself, "Wow, that guy's pretty good. Who is he? (reads program) Oh my God, that's John???" This was one of the first roles where I got to really push myself into some new territory, transcend my own limitations, and actually act. I have an id. It's an impish little shit, and I need to let it out more. Onstage and off.