Random Thoughts: The Chameleon vs. Perpetually-Typecast Actors

Well, clearly we have winner on the movie battle of the muscled men vs. Julia + her men vs. a nerd boy hero. The Expendables exploded at the box office with $35 million, with Eat, Pray, Love came out in a distant second with about 10 million less. I guess Sly’s gamble paid off, it could’ve easily gone completely the other way. Well, whilst Sly and Julia are going ka-ching, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim only came up at 5th place with a dismal $10 million. That’s a long ways away from its $60+ production budget, yikes!

The movie’s not on my radar until its marketing was kicked into high gear and suddenly it’s everywhere. Sounds like an original concept and even the critics embraced it, but why did it tank despite all the hype at ComicCon? HitFix had a long analysis as to what possibly went wrong, and at the top of the list is the lead actor: Michael Cera. Perhaps he just wasn’t ‘likable’ enough to audiences or as Julian observed from an Entertainment Weekly’s article comments section, it’s that perhaps people are tired of seeing him in a string of repetitive roles (as this article also suggests). Now, I haven’t seen enough any of his movies to offer an insight on that topic, but it brings up an interesting notion. This morning a local radio DJ mentioned a list of Terminally Typecast Actors, she didn’t say where the list is from, but it sounds a whole lot like this one. Well, guess who’s at the top of that list?

Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar in HBO's ROME

Obviously such lists are extremely debatable, I mean this one from ScreenJunkies even included beloved thespians the likes of Pacino and De Niro. I for one wouldn’t dispute such picks, but I know a bunch of people would. I guess when it comes to actors, consistency isn’t always such a virtue. It’s not like a restaurant where we expect our favorite food to be cooked the same way every time we go there. We don’t want our Pad Thai or what have you to suddenly be super spicy one day and utterly bland the next. But with actors, though we expect a consistent quality of performance, we generally want to see Actor A brings out a different set of characteristics from role to role. We want to see him/her be all bad ass in one movie, but then vulnerable and despondent the next. My friend Becky were talking about Irish character actor Ciaran Hinds the other day as she has just seen Persuasion. I bet most of you have seen the Irish actor in several movies, but don’t realize right away who he is. Those are the chameleons who ‘disappear’ into any roles. For me, those that fit into such category are Gary Oldman, Cate Blanchett, Edward Norton, Sam Rockwell, the list goes on…

Mark Strong as a Jordanian Prince in Body of Lies

Yet, there are actors who consistently deliver great performances playing a certain type of roles. One thing that came to mind right now is Mark Strong. He’s a great actor, but he’s become everyone’s favorite villain and by his own admission, he actually likes playing bad guys. When someone asked him, “Are you stuck in the villain roles?” He said, “Absolutely not. Swap the word ‘stuck’ for ‘enjoying.’ I’m enjoying them because they give me leeway to make them all different.” And it doesn’t even have to be a certain role category, it could be more of the essence of a character, i.e. tortured soul type or the brooding anti-hero. There are a certain set of actors that we prefer playing such roles because they do them very, very well. To me that would be Christian Bale, Viggo Mortensen, Daniel Day-Lewis, etc. Just to clarify, by no means do I suggest that these three actors are in the same category as those who play ‘repetitive’ roles. In fact, they’re proven to be adept at showcasing their range even if some of the roles they play share similar personalities.

So in that sense, ‘typecast’ doesn’t sound so bad. There’s nothing wrong with putting a fresh spin to a ‘classic’ role. I think as long as Actor A can still bring something new to the table even if the character is essentially the same, I don’t mind it so much.

Well, what do y’all think? Would love to hear your take on the topic… or perhaps you have your own theory why Scott Pilgrim bombed.

61 thoughts on “Random Thoughts: The Chameleon vs. Perpetually-Typecast Actors

  1. My theory for why Scott Pilgrim bombed is because it was placed in an already packed weekend.

    As for chameleons, another good one is Meryl Streep.

    1. Hi Anna! Yeah, that’s a valid argument I suppose, perhaps people see Expendables first and then SP the next. So we’ll see how it does in its following weeks.

      Oh right, Meryl is definitely a chameleon.

  2. Scott Pilgrim was put up against some big, more established blockbusters so that could definitely have contributed.
    I personally have come to the point where I actively avoid Michael Cera. Not only does he always play the same roles, but he was the last one to sign on to an arrested development movie. to me, that just shows a certain disrespect for the project that pretty much made him.

    As for your list, I was sorry to see the likes of Mortenson, Day Lewis, and Bale on your list of actors who are good as one role. They certainly deserve more credit than that. Maybe Mortenson, but Day Lewis has shown a lot of range from My Beautiful Laundrette to There Will Be Blood and even Bale transformed from The Machinist to Batman Begins! Great post though!

    – Calhoun


    1. Oh no, no, no. By no means do I suggest that they’re in the same category as ‘typecast’ actors mentioned in the list, they definitely have range, no question about it. I’m just saying that certain actors can capture the essence of a certain type of persona/characteristic, such as tortured soul as one example, more believably than others. And to me, that is completely acceptable. I better clarify that in my post. Thanks Calhoun!

    1. Oh cool! Looking forward to it Sam, I’m sure you’ll be able to put it more eloquently than I did… by no means do I mention Mark Strong being ‘typecast’ as villain as a bad thing, as I don’t get bored seeing him play bad guys, which is a testament to his talent that he can showcase his range even in ‘limited’ types of roles.

  3. Also, re: discussion of Scott Pilgrim’s “bombing,” I can’t find the link now, but I think it was on Pajiba a while back that they discussed the relative “success/failure” of niche films like this one. Essentially, Scott Pilgrim was made by and for a specific audience, and the problem comes in when we all start trying to put it in the same sphere as the Expendables or EPL. It’s not. It doesn’t have a lot of big-market value, but you can bet that all the people who love comics or video games or fantasy, etc. are all going to go see it. Which they did. And most of the ones I know are talking about going and seeing it again. I don’t think the people who made it expected it to win the box office … it’s the other people paying attention to such things whose perspective is just a teensy bit skewed. 🙂 I’m willing to bet that it’s going to have legs, though, possibly better ones than Julia or Sly in this case.

  4. Ciaran Hinds! great example. hes in so many movies you dont even know hes in, just because he becomes the character he’s playing
    unfortunately, Gerard Butler is just in lots of movies.

    1. Oh Ross, you pick on my dear GB so much just to annoy me, don’t you? Well, it ain’t workin’ pal, you are entitled to your opinion. And no, he’s not in lots of movies… not enough actually 🙂

  5. Scott Pilgrim bombed partly because of Michael Cera, partly because of the lack of typical action/comedy staples in the trailer, and partly because there was an epic battle of the sexes the same weekend, and Pilgrim just fell through the cracks. Tragic.

    1. So did you see it? I’m just not certain from your comment whether you are in support of it or not. I don’t see it as falling through the crack at all, I thought there was a lot of marketing for it. I mean I noticed it even though it’s not exactly on my radar.

        1. Ah I see. Well that’s a pretty valid guess as a lot of people have been saying the same thing. To me the appeal is more in the guys playing the evil exes (Chris Evans, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh) and not Cera.

  6. Mike B.

    I totally agree with the premise that you can make too many of the same movies. Michael Cera really, really, really NEEDS to stretch some before I’ll be interested in his career. Now granted Sly has been making the same movie over, and over, and over again since the 1970’s, but hey, he’s ROCKY. I’ll give him a pass.

    1. Cera just never appealed to me for some reason, so I don’t really care whether he’ll show some range or not eventually. But yeah, some people can get away with it because their ‘style’ is fun to watch. So are you gonna see Expendables soon, Mike?

      1. Julian

        I still say he deserves more credit for the alter ego he played in Youth in Revolt(not the main character himself, but the alternate personality he created in his mind). It was unlike any role he’s done before, and IMO he played it perfectly. But i still think Cera is punished unequally when plenty of other actors/actresses do repetitive roles, but thats probably just me.

        Did you see my other comment? You didn’t reply to it, so i didn’t know if you saw it or not

        1. Being ‘punished’ is kinda a strong word, don’t you think? I mean, I think he’s quite lucky to be getting so many lead roles when other young actors with similar (or even better) skills are struggling waiting tables or whatever. If people don’t see such and such movies, I don’t think they do it to ‘punish’ the actors, they’re just not interested enough in seeing it for whatever reason.

  7. Julian

    I think i have more respect for those with chameleons, but i can still enjoy a role even if the actor/actress has done similar ones before. And as for Michael Cera, why do people always assume he is playing himself? I mean, Will ferral doesn’t get that same complaint(or at least to the extent Michael does). I still think Michael gets excessively punished for something plenty of other actors/actresses do. And a friend online who saw it said he didn’t do the same routine the whole movie.

    And i disagree with the list maker about on Youth in Revolt. The alter ego he played was unlike any other role i’ve seen him in, and the main reason why i think he has more versatility than he lets on. I actually think if he picks some more diverse roles, he could become closer to a chameleon.

    1. I’m afraid I can’t argue for or against Cera since I don’t know much about his work, Julian. But yeah it is interesting why some actors, like Will Ferrell you mentioned, can get away with being typecast more so than others. I do get tired of seeing him being the obnoxious/outrageous/hyper character that he does in nearly every movie, so you’ll get a complaint from me about him, especially when he can be so good in understated roles such as in Stranger than Fiction. But like I said before, he must get paid more to play silly.

      I agree that the blame often lies in the kinds of roles an actor picks. Even if they don’t have as much range as Meryl Streep, at least if they’re willing to get outside of their comfort zone, I give them props for their effort. Seems to me that Cera just needs to do that if he wants to have a lasting acting career.

      1. Julian

        Yeah, i guess Michael isn’t for everybody. Still, i think Scott Pilgrim should have done better. Maybe it will get a resurgence due to the good reviews or something. And i just thought of another perpetually typecast. Helena Bonham Carter. She almost always plays a psycho woman(from what i’ve seen anyways)

        And i think amanda seyfried could fit into the chameleon category. When i saw the previews for CHloe, i wasn’t sure she would be able to completely separate herself from her role in jennifers body. But after seeing the movie, i feel she pulled off the role perfectly. Although if you do watch it, i would highly recommend watching the deleted scenes. Its only 2, but they contain a lot of character development that was unfortunately cut out of the movie

        1. Ah yes, Helena does seem to play the unhinged woman a little too well. They should’ve cast her as Bertha in the Jane Eyre remake 🙂

          I haven’t seen the trailer for that, but from what I heard that is a complete departure from the good-girl role she plays in Dear John or Letter from Juliet or Mamma Mia. Good for her.

  8. I have no problems with actors who keep doing the same thing over and over again. Most movie stars actually do. Michael Cera is an extreme case because there is actually NO variation whatsoever in his characters while most movie stars are smart enough to mix it up a little bit and change their appearance, add quirks and mannerism or play a somewhat different variation of themselves.

    There is nothing wrong being the same character over and over again but it will dramatically shorten your career. At the end of the day, if you are typecast, you will quickly end up being a footnote in the industry and that’s exactly what’s happening with Cera and countless others.

    1. I feel the same way, Castor, sometimes that’s what we like about a certain actor, that they have a ‘signature’ style if you will. There’s a big difference between that and playing the same thing the same way over and over, which seems like what Cera is doing.

      Again, some actors can get away with it more than others. Take Bruce Willis, I feel like he’s playing the same tough guy role in RED, basically a retired John McClane, but I like him doing that so I don’t mind it so much.

    1. Yeah, I wasn’t too keen on his role in The Young Victoria. I mean it just wasn’t sympathetic nor interesting. Amy Adams is very versatile indeed. To see her in Junebug and then Enchanted is just hard to believe it’s the same actress!

  9. Alice

    Well, some actors are good, and some just aren’t. Oh, and there are the ones who just play themselves (Jack Nicholson). If an actor/actress keeps playing the same kind of character, well, they’re not so much typecast, as, uhm, bad “actors”. Since the logical definition of an “actor” is that they can “pretend” to be other people. The focus here being on the word OTHER, as in MORE THAN ONE.

    Okay, it’s somewhat over-simplified, but I honestly can’t remember an actor who is both good at what he/she is doing AND keeps playing the same type of character. :/

    That being said, I think Michael Cera is rather terrible. He was okay in “Arrested Development”, because one could think that was what his character was like (also, the focus was not just on him), but he’s playing a bad, watered-down version of George Michael in EVERY movie he’s ever been in.

    1. Hi Alice, yeah I think the same way about Jack, but of all people he can definitely get away with it.

      “…the logical definition of an “actor” is that they can “pretend” to be other people” Exactly. But just like any other business, some people might not be in it for the sake of the art form. Perhaps there are actors out there who could be more versatile, but choose to do the same type of roles because the pay is better (case in point: Will Ferrell).

      As for Cera, I never once thought people like Arrested Development because of him. Now Jason Bateman on the other hand, he somehow plays a similar role quite often but he’s just so darn likable I for one don’t mind it.

  10. Evad

    As for the perpetually-typecast actors, good ones are Isabelle Huppert and Tony Leung. The former often (almost always) plays enigmatic, emotionally distant characters, but she plays them to perfection every single time; the latter often plays quiet, brooding anti-heros with a dark side. Great actors, period.

    1. Great example, Evad. Leung is one of the best Asian actors working today. Brooding, dark anti-hero is such an interesting role to play that if one can master it, people actually want to see that particular actor repeat his/her performance.

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  12. kidding right?

    Perpetually-Typecast Actors? Your kidding right? There may be a spectrum but all actors who become celebrities and get resused for their look and cache and being Perpetually-Typecast.

    If we did not recognise their mugs we would say WHERE THE HELL IS THAT ACTOR I LIKE WHO THEY SAID WAS IN THIS FILM????

    New unknown actors/actresses are the only true

    Films have turned into a gawking useless celebrity zoo. Nuff said.

    1. Albert

      You’re the one that must be kidding. A chameleon actor is one who can alter his personality, his looks, and even his voice from one film to another, enough to make you truly believe you are seeing different characters. Watch Laurence Olivier play Hamlet, Richard III, and Othello, and you will find it hard to accept that you are seeing the same actor in all three roles. Or watch Alec Guinness play Fagin in the 1948 “Oliver Twist”, Col. Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, Prince Feisal in “Lawrence of Arabia”, and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the 1977 “Star Wars”, and you will see how different one actor can be in these roles. Those are acting chameleons.

      Spencer Tracy hardly ever altered his looks, and never altered his voice, but had enough acting ability to make an audience believe that he really was all the characters that he played. Katharine Hepburn is the same; so are James Stewart and Henry Fonda.

      Kenneth Branagh never alters his voice, and seldom alters his looks, but there is no doubt that he is a great actor because he makes you believe what he says and he gets under the skin of his characters.

      1. Hi Albert, thanks for pointing out how absurd it is to think that only newcomers are chameleons. Great examples you have here and I absolutely concur.

        As for the actors who don’t alter their voice/looks, those you mentioned here obviously are so masterful in their craft they hardly need to. Tracy/Hepburn are definitely the golden couple of Hollywood’s golden years, they’re movie stars whose talent more than live up to their celebrity… unlike y’know, Brangelina?

        1. Julian

          I think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are good actors. Yes, i tend to recognize them in movies, but i almost always enjoy there performances. I think its possible to recognize a actor/actress and still be immersed in there performance

          I don’t know if you read my last comment, but i think Amanda Seyfield has shown good versatility so far. When i saw the previews for CHloe, i wasn’t sure she could pull off the role. But after watching it, even though i recognized her in the movie i was still immersed in her performance. Although, i think the 3 major stares in the movie(Amanda, Julianne, And Liam) all count as chameleons in my book.

          1. I’m sure they are, Julian, I just think their fame makes me tired of seeing them BEFORE I even watch their movies. It’s not necessarily their fault but it is what it is. I think I like [read: tolerate watching] Jolie a bit more that Pitt for some reason.

            I haven’t seen enough of Amanda’s performance to have an opinion one way or the other. I do think her look is quite unique and I give her kudos for choosing roles that’s out of her comfort zone.

    2. Apathygrrl

      To: kidding right,
      I have to disagree with you on a lot of your points. New & unknown actors are not the only true chameleons. Perfect example: Gary Oldman is the greatest character actor alive. He looks completely different in every movie he is in. He has this tremendous ability to envelop himself in the character he is playing that you rarely recognize him.

      I actually have never once said “Where the hell is he?” like you suggested above. Instead, I simply watch the end credits to find out which character he played. It’s not that hard. I’m usually pleasantly surprised & impressed, instead of angered like your post seems to suggest.

      1. @ Apathygrrl, high five on your thoughts about Gary. His versatility is legendary indeed. Why he hasn’t gotten a single Oscar nom is beyond me. Same with Christian Bale.

    3. “Films have turned into a gawking useless celebrity zoo” I’m sorry you feel that way, what movies are you watching???

      There is a difference between unknown and unrecognizable. Unknown actors are simply not recognized because they haven’t been in many movies, but the seasoned thespians who are true chameleons (such as the ones I mentioned in my post) have been in tons of movies, yet people still don’t immediately figure out who they are.

  13. Joe Blow

    Kelly MacDonald – knew her well when i saw No Country but had no idea she was playing Carla Jean. Could’ve sworn they got an unknown from the south for that role, not the brilliant Scottish actress they did get.

    1. Oh, she’s in the Girl in the Cafe, right? I’ve always wanted to see that movie. I probably won’t see No Country, but she’s got some kudos from her performance there so no doubt she was good.

  14. harpier

    Scott Pilgrim definitely underperformed, but I don’t think it’s as tragic a story as many box office reporters have made it out to be. With solid critic reviews and excellent viewer scores, it may have unsuspected legs–and will certainly sell healthily on DVD, though this may be little consolation to the studio. As someone who saw it, loved it, and has encouraged anyone I know to do the same, I think wide audiences didn’t really know what to do with it (and clearly preferred the just-what-they-look-like testosterone-fueled muscle movies and self-ingratiating chick flicks), but I suspect that the frenetic style and pop-culture saturation will take off in the next few years. Cera’s role as Scott Pilgrim is, in my mind, substantially different from most of his others–for most of the movie he’s a consummate jerk–but nothing in the advertising featured this. And there’s enough Cera-hate to dissuade many from seeing the movie, though it was doubtless an confluence of factors that caused its underwhelming opening numbers.

    1. I’m just wondering if they should’ve focused more on Edgar Wright in their marketing as much as on the cast. Wright’s got quite a following from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and I for one would give this movie a chance because of him, and despite Cera, NOT because of him. You might be right that it might have a pretty healthy dvd sales, though given the cost of making this, the studios probably ain’t gonna see as much profit as they would like.

  15. Apathygrrl

    Sorry, I just had to say that.
    In fact, Gary Oldman is so good at completely disappearing into his roles that a term has been coined. This is known as “The Gary Oldman Effect”. This occurs after watching a movie/tv show containing Gary Oldman, but you didn’t previously know that he was in it until you are watching the end credits (or search the net for the film’s credits), at which point the surprise at the discovery that a character was played by Gary Oldman causes you to exclaim “Holy Sh1t! That was Gary Oldman??”
    The Gary Oldman Effect can also apply to other actors who are nigh unrecognizable in a particular role, i.e. “Holy Sh1t! That was Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder??”
    The opposite of the Gary Oldman Effect is known as “The Christopher Walken Effect.” This occurs the moment Christopher Walken appears on screen in any movie/tv show that you didn’t know he was in, prompting you to exclaim in surprise “Holy Sh1t! It’s Christopher Walken!!”

    1. Ha..ha.. LOVE your enthusiasm girl, and you did not waste it on an unworthy talent 😀 Yeah, I sometimes say to some actors who play against type as ‘hey, he/she pulled a Gary Oldman!’

      Yeah, Walken is such a larger-than-life persona that he tends to overpower his movies. Even in small indie flick like Maiden Heist where he plays such a low profile, meek character, he’s still got the quintessential Walken style. He’s so fun to watch though.

  16. Dale

    Ooh I think Kate Winslet is one who just disappears into her roles – even down to her voice and the way she moves.
    ANd she’s chosen so many different types of films as well…

    Yeah I’m a Kate fan!!!! 😀

    1. I don’t know about her voice, but Kate does have a way of inhabiting the roles she’s playing. I was floored by her performance in little known ‘dirty’ comedy Romance & Cigarettes where she plays a red-head lover to James Gandolfini. She was so crass and filthy it’s a far cry from the proper woman Rose she’s famous for. Fantastic in The Reader as well, plain but still beautiful.

  17. harland sylling

    If you want a really good chameleon/ character actor than look no further than Alfred Molina nuff said

    As for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The reason it tanked at the box office, because it was a niche film it only pandered to a certain demographic audience, and I for one am part of that said audience. Everybody else could care less about this movie, it wasn’t aimed at them. That is where The Expendables and Eat,Prey,Love show up because it takes those swaths of people in broad general terms. Everybody who did want to see this film just downloaded it live everyone else did, only old people went and seen the other two film because they don’t know or care of anything else that is not readily available or looks unfamiliar.

    1. Alfred Molina is a fantastic example. I first saw him playing an Iranian husband in ‘Not Without My Daughter’ and I had no idea he was English! But then he constantly play people of various ethnicity believably, which is what Mark Strong seems to be able to do also.

  18. Ashley P

    Amen to mentioning Gary Oldman. He’s a brilliant actor who makes every role his own and has managed to avoid being pigeonholed by Hollywood. Yeah he often plays baddies/heavies, but he never plays a certain TYPE of bad guy, he brings something new to the table every time. In “Leon” whenever he takes his pill, crunches it and twists his neck in that uber-creepy manner I get goosebumps the size of golf balls! He brought tenderness, mania, passion and romance to his portrayal of Beethoven in “Immortal Beloved”. And can you imagine a better Gordon than his portrayals in “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight”? His early work isn’t to be missed either. Films like “Meantime”, “Prick Up Your Ears”, “Track 29”, “Sid and Nancy”, “Chattahoochee” and “State of Grace” are a MUST for any Oldman fan 🙂 There are so many other awesome roles as well, but I think I’ve written enough about the awesome Mr. Oldman.

    1. Well you certainly have good taste Ashley, Gary Oldman is an actor’s actor indeed. Even his fellow thespians regard him as their favorite actor and he certainly inspire other people in his profession. He’s also amazing as Dracula… the quintessential tortured soul ‘monster’ that is romantic as well as terrifying. The depth he brings to such a classic character is well, awesome! 😀

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