I Want to Break Free
When I was 11 years old, I went with my brother to see The Truman Show. It’s a moving film about a man who literally lives in his own little world and longs to escape from the path decided for him. Unfortunately, being 11 years old at the time, the depth of The Truman Show’s storytelling went over my head, and the cause of my lack of understanding could be attributed to the film’s lead. Having grown up with movies like Dumb and Dumber and The Mask I knew Jim Carrey as a comedic actor. For the majority of us he was the biggest star of slapstick comedy in the 90s, so when I saw him in The Truman Show playing more of a dramatic role I didn’t appropriately respond.
The film’s director, Peter Weir, was making a subversive statement about cultural personas. Casting Jim Carrey in defiance of audience expectations complimented the meta-narrative’s themes of personal freedom and choice. Truman wanted to be his own person, and Jim Carrey wanted to be more than a funny man.
An actor’s career can become pigeonholed into certain genres or roles whether by accident or design. Based on their body of work or physical appearance actors are regularly typecast, and breaking out of an expectant, popularized image can be problematic. An actor may have doubts about whether they can work outside of their comfort zone, producers and directors may be reluctant to cast them in unfamiliar roles, and audiences may not appreciate their moving away from their usual output.
Actors and filmmakers who take the daring leap together hope to surprise and subvert viewers’ assumptions that they are more than one rigid character type. That they have a yet-untapped range of acting talent waiting to be revealed.
Jim Carrey was not the first comedic actor who wanted to go straight. Best known for his roles in Mrs. Doubtfire and Aladdin, Robin Williams was a comic powerhouse with boundless energy, but he was also an excellent dramatic actor. In the 90s, Williams took the lead role in films such as Awakenings, but also played supporting roles, including his award-winning turn in Good Will Hunting. And in the 2000s he assumed much darker roles in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia and Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. His legacy as a multi-talented actor was borne out of his wanting to expand beyond his comic roots, and facilitated by talented filmmakers (like Dead Poets Society’s director, Peter Weir, once again) who were willing to give him the chance.
Genre actors are among the most notable examples of typecast performers wanting a change from their usual fare. Famous names in the horror genre have had mixed success trying their hand at different material — some found it impossible. Christopher Lee lived with the spectre of his repeating role as Hammer’s Dracula for decades, and Jamie Lee Curtis, fresh from her performance in Halloween, became the slasher genre’s ‘scream queen.' Both later found careers outside of the horror genre, but where they were successful many others were not similarly rewarded. (Despite his efforts Bela Lugosi never escaped from his iconic turn in Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Dracula. He was famously buried dressed in costume.)
Comedic actors, horror and slasher stars, action heroes, western legends: many have tried and failed to cross over into new dramatic territory.
The motivations for an actor to break out against typecasting can be professional as well as personal. Career stagnation and audience fatigue may drive them into pursuing new paths as they age or a cinematic trend goes out of fashion. Entering mainstream filmmaking may be more lucrative and provide more peace of mind when compared to the low budget independent scene.
An actor’s typecasting is often linked to their appearance. Popular names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Vin Diesel are most associated with action movies because of their large, muscular physiques — seeing their presence outside of the action genre can be jarring to viewers watching toned-down and dramatic films, where their knowledge of guns and fight choreography counts for nothing. (Though, in fairness, Stallone has proven his acting talent more so than either Schwarzenegger or Vin Diesel.)
Actresses who have been presented and viewed as sex symbols may struggle to land roles that are less concerned about objectification than they are with their acting abilities. They will more likely be offered roles that show off their exposed bodies because that is what they’re known for above anything else — acting skills are secondary to looks. Skimpy outfits, model-like posing, shameless male fantasies: actresses are continuing to be treated by filmmakers and audiences more as eye candy than as contributors to the craft.
Actors from minority backgrounds are frequently cast in stereotypical roles and are rarely seen in more generalized parts. Black, brown and Asian actors have been limited to filling roles that require a certain likeness that may be culturally insensitive or racially offensive. (Kal Penn has posted many of his casting calls on social media to reveal how writers and filmmakers have poorly represented people from marginalized groups on screen.) If a screenplay is nondescript about a character’s appearance minority actors may still face an uphill battle; the assumption being that unless colour or ethnicity is explicitly mentioned their presence isn’t necessary. Rather than limiting themselves it is the industry that is stopping non-white actors from escaping typecasting.
Similarly actors who live with physical and emotional impairments are hindered by what roles are offered and denied them. There may be parts that describe a character being confined to a wheelchair or living with autism, for instance, that would benefit from having suitable actors. However, those same actors are largely dismissed and excluded from playing roles where disability isn’t central to a character’s identity — the figures behind the scenes won’t allow them to play ‘normal’ people. To add insult to injury filmmakers will often hire able-bodied actors to play disabled characters, potentially spreading misinformation and reinforcing negative connotations about physical disability and mental health via film and television.
In recent years there have been efforts to remedy the way socially-impaired people are viewed in popular media and employed in the industry. One of the most promising changes in mainstream film can be seen the in career of Peter Dinklage. Like other actors of short stature, including Warwick Davis and Kenny Baker, Dinklage had previously been cast on the basis of his height. But thanks in great part to his excellent portrayal of Tyrion Lannister in HBO’s Game of Thrones, he has broken out of the ‘little person’ bubble that has limited so many others. With films such as Low Down and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dinklage is being cast on the merits of his acting talent and irrespective of his dwarfism. His example has given inspiration to others who are disadvantaged in society to have their likeness seen in popular culture, not as exceptions or outsiders, but as equally gifted artists.
As difficult as it may be for actors to avoid and escape typecasting there is a risk involved should they get their wish: what if it doesn’t work out? When a genre actor or a ‘pretty face’ decides to carve out a new path for their career they may foolishly be exposing the limits of their talent. What if audiences and critics lambast an actor’s change of direction? What if the changeover is viewed as a mistake? Where some typecast actors will reveal new and hidden depths to their repertoire, others will only damage their credibility. I won’t name names, but not every comic actor can be as versatile as Robin Williams or Jim Carrey — even they messed up sometimes (What Dreams May Come, The Number 23) — and not every action star can deliver a performance that carries pathos and nuance.
Should an actor fail in their efforts to transition away from typecasting there are a few options available: persevere, quit, or go back. Many actors happily and begrudgingly return to the personas they’re best known for; they may even provoke change from within (John Wayne’s performance in The Shootist springs to mind). But as an audience we should open ourselves to an actor or group’s wanting for change. There is a vast array of acting talent in the film community, some of which is unfairly obstructed by popular reception and controlling industry figures. We need to loosen up and let performers take risks.
We should give them that chance, and if it doesn’t work out let it not be said that each of us didn’t at least try.
Coming soon: Popular Culture Incognito