Question of the week: Actors whose famous role you can’t shake


I just reviewed The Judge this weekend and I mentioned how RDJ is playing yet another variety of Tony Stark. He’s always the smartest guy in the room, and always have an arsenal of snarky remarks he can just throw at you at the best opportunity. I’m not just talking about the recent roles he does after Iron Man, but even when I saw Zodiac I still can’t get past his Stark persona. There’s always a hint of that self-assured swagger that’s borderline cocky but somehow still lovable, which is something an actor either has or doesn’t, it’s not something they can teach even at Juilliard or RADA. You know what though, I’m tired of his schtick. As Sati said in her astute comment, his cockiness seems to translate off-screen now that it’s getting on my nerves. No matter how lovable a character, an actor’s job is to be able to pull off a variety of roles convincingly, to make a conscious effort to *disappear* into whatever role they do. I think the bigger/more famous the character is, the more responsibility said actor has to shake that off.

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Now obviously RDJ isn’t the only actor with this kind of predicament, where somehow they can’t escape their most famous role. I think Johnny Depp can’t seem to shake off his Jack Sparrow image either. I’m not saying RDJ or Depp aren’t capable actors because they are, but perhaps their schtick just sticks in the mind longer than others. On the contrary, someone like like say, Christian Bale doesn’t always remind me of Bruce Wayne when he’s playing other roles post-Batman and I don’t get hang up on Maximus in Gladiator whenever I see Russell Crowe on screen.

I guess I’m just curious if anybody else feel the same, whether it’s RDJ or another actor.

So which actor(s) whose famous role you can’t shake? Or perhaps the question should be, actors who can’t shake their most famous role 🙂

68 thoughts on “Question of the week: Actors whose famous role you can’t shake

  1. Yeah, RDJ has built a character that follows everything he does these days. The one that comes immediately to mind was the albatross Anthony Perkins had around his neck after portraying Norman Bates in Psycho. No one ever looked at him again the same way, or differently.

    1. Yeah I think that character becomes more powerful than himself as an actor. Oh yeah I’d imagine Perkins will forever be known as Norman Bates! Sometimes there’s nothing an actor can do about it even if they tried their hardest to shake it, but w/ RDJ I feel like he doesn’t even bother trying.

  2. Stu

    Interesting post Ruth, and I’m glad that you mention Depp. I know the Pirates of the Caribbean role is iconic and people often mention Keith Richards, but I always thought he was still playing a version of Hunter S Thompson, so for me that’s the role he has never really shaken off, from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s a great story that Bill Murray – who also played Thompson in the early 1980s – phoned Depp in the late 1990s and said ‘Make your next role drastically different from Thompson, otherwise you’ll find yourself ten years from now still doing him.’ I’m not so sure he heeded the advice!

    1. Ah that’s the one role of Depp’s I haven’t seen yet. Didn’t he play a similar role in Rum Diary too? Yeah I’d imagine that one would be a role that’s hard to shake, but to most mainstream audience, I think people think of Jack Sparrow now when Depp is mentioned. Wow I didn’t know about Murray phoning him, sounds like he should’ve taken his advice!

      Oh right, Damon seems to channel Jason Bourne quite often in action movies, though he seems to be able to shake that role better than others, i.e. Behind the Candelabra.

        1. I haven’t seen it either, just some clips and trailer. Ahah well I don’t know about the hand-to-hand combat, I think there are other um, combat they’re involved in 😉

  3. Stu

    And also in relation to the original question…he had a lot of success before and has had a lot after too, but when I see Matt Damon in anything I often think “there’s Jason Bourne”.

  4. I don’t know… when I think of Johnny Depp I think of Ed Wood, Hunter S. Thompson of Edward Scissorhands. The Pirates movies are barely on my radar to be honest. I’m not sure he has that problem. TV actors seem to have a harder time say like the entire cast of Friends for example.

    As far as just movies go someone like Audrey Tautou starring in Amelie comes to mind. I think that role is still pretty hard to shake for her. I’d say Roger Moore hasn’t shaken (pardon the pun) the Bond role where as Connery most certainly has. Unless you grew up watching TV in England in the 60’s I’m not sure you can really say The Saint. Probably the single biggest child actor I can think of is Linda Blair (The Exorcist) She had a career in film and is still acting today but she certainly won’t be remembered for anything else. Roller Boogie, Chained Heat, Repossessed… I don’t think so.

    1. Oh yeah, I think the cast of Friends can’t escape their characters, esp. Aniston, but then again she’s not a versatile actress to begin with.

      Tautou will always be Amelie to me too. And Roger Moore barely does any other roles so yeah, he’s always the flamboyant Bond to most people. I think Connery and Dalton have done a better job in separating from the Bond persona tho, I mean I don’t always see 007 when I see Connery even in smaller roles like Finding Forrester, Indiana Jones 3 or The Untouchables. As for Linda Blair, I remember my hubby’s aunt who was a flight attendant saw her (years later) on a plane and she recognized Blair but forgot which film she was in. All she had to do is smile in a certain way and she knew immediately she was Regan 🙂

  5. Ted S.

    Good question Ruth.

    I’m not quite in agreement with you about RDJ since I’ve seen many of his movies before Iron Man and he seems to have that kind of acting style from early years. Heck way back in 1994, he played a reporter in Natural Born Killers and you can say he’s Tony Stark in that role too. And FYI, Zodiac came out a year before Iron Man. 🙂 As for Depp, as many have mentioned already, he’s still playing Hunter S. Thompson instead of Jack Sparrow in his recent movies.

    My choice would be Hugh Jackman, I can’t see him anything without thinking of him as Wolverine. Dave mentioned Roger Moore and I agree with him but I also can’t think Connery can’t shake his 007 root either.

    1. You know Ted, for me, Connery played so many good roles that they made me forget all about James Bond. The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October, Indiana Jones, The Rock, Time Bandits, Highlander and a personal favorite of mine Wrong Is Right. Roger Moore did The Saint series, which I’ve never seen and I can’t even think of something else he’s ever done. Also I grew up in the 70’s-80’s as a kid so Moore’s Bond came first making him the quintessential James Bond for me even though Connery’s films were truly the best Bond films of the lot. Blasphemy… I know. LOL.

      1. Agreed w/ you about Connery, Dave. I think the fact that Connery actually despises James Bond probably made him put extra effort to shed that image.

      2. Ted S.

        He’s perfect as Ramius in Hunt for Red October but to me everything else he starred in, he just reminded me of 007. Maybe that’s why he starred in Zardoz so people won’t think of him as Bond but that was an awful movie, haha! I agree that Connery’s Bond films were pretty great, with the exceptions of Dr. No, You Only Live Twice and Never Say Never Again. I’ve been saying this for a long time, had he starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that would’ve been a PERFECT Bond film. He even admitted that he regret not coming back and play Bond again after reading OHMSS’s script, apparently he loved it.

    2. Oh I know Zodiac came BEFORE Iron Man, I guess I should’ve said that in the post but I mentioned that film because even in films that came out before he played Tony Stark, I still see him playing that persona. So maybe it’s just his signature schtick that he brings into every role, including Stark. I guess I should see Depp as Thompson, I can see that he’d have trouble shaking that role as he apparently is good friends w/ the writer.

      I actually don’t always see Hugh as Wolverine, esp when he’s singing and dancing. I mean his real-life personality is SO different from Wolverine. He’s not at all curmudgeon or dour, in fact he seems the exact opposite of that character.

      1. Ted S.

        Yeah RDJ has always been like that to me, even in the 80s comedy Johnny Be Good where he as the sidekick and he’s basically playing a younger version of himself or Tony Stark as most people would say these days. I think the films that he may have step out playing his usual style were Air America with Mel Gibson, U.S. Marshals where he’s the villain and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. I think with the success of the Iron Man films, people just assume he’s been playing the same character since but not many have seen his earlier work.

        You know it’s hard for me to see Jackman in any other role without thinking of him as Wolverine, just like I’ll always think of Ed O’Neil as Al Bundy from Married with Children, lol.

  6. I definitely agree with you on RDJ, Ruth, although I wouldn’t say I’m quite sick of him yet. I still enjoy his persona, but would really, really love to see him do a film sometime soon that feels incredibly different than anything he’s done before, because I think he is capable of doing that and it’s time for him to break out of his comfort zone a bit. I’m hoping for maybe one more movie for him to close out Tony Stark’s story, and then hopefully he will move onto some new projects that can stretch him more as a performer. Great post, Ruth! 🙂

    1. I’m not sick of him per se, I’m just not as enamored w/ his persona as I once was. I think he’s getting too complacent in his *job* now, I mean he gets paid millions of dollars for basically playing a version of himself. Sounds like he and the studio is gonna milk Tony Stark for all it’s worth w/ the recent news he’s joining Captain America 3.

  7. Great question, Ruth, and I agree with you and the others regarding RDJ, Johnny Depp, and Anthony Perkins. You could add Sean Connery and Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne and Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood –all of them have made fortunes for playing the same personality over and over.

      1. Ted S.

        I agree with you 100% about Bruce Willis Cindy, that man has been so lazy the last decade or so and he seems to just want the big paychecks.

        1. Yes. Well, if you can’t really act other than to be the thin lipped hardass and it makes you millions, I suppose I would have a hard time giving it up. You opened up the gates–might as well as add Stallone and Schwarzenegger, too.

    1. Cindy while I definitely agree with you on RDJ, Eastwood, Freeman, Wayne, Carrey, Bogey and Connery, Willis… and throw Kevin Costner in there for good measure… I’d have to disagree with you on Depp and Perkins. See Perkins in The Silence of the Lambs movies, Magic, The Elephant Man, Nixon and Hitchcock. While I can see a lot of his stuff being similar, especially lately, those roles above were certainly not typical. I agree with everyone about Depp doing a LOT of the Hunter S. Thompson/Keith Richards thing lately but Ed Wood, Edward Sissorhands, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, Donnie Brasco, Sweeney Todd are pretty disparate characters, wouldn’t you say? He does seem in a bit of a rut lately though. Sadly the last thing I liked him was Rango.

    2. Hi there Cindy! Seems that some actors could get away w/ playing the same personality over and over. That’s why I admire actors like Crowe, Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis and of course, Toby Stephens who can play a myriad of characters convincingly. I hate that some people only remember Toby as the Bond villain as he has never even done anything similar to that role in his career.

      I’d say Bruce Willis is in the same camp as RDJ in that he’s gotten too complacent w/ himself that he doesn’t even try to act anymore.

  8. Hi Ruth. Great question. I’ve never been a huge fan of RDJ myself but a friend of mine goes mad for him! I just watched The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and what strikes me most about him is his ability to truly ‘become’ his characters. As you say he completely disappears into the role. When you watch Parades End you don’t see Sherlock and when you watch Sherlock you don’t see Julian Assange. Everything down to his vocal inflections in The Imitation Game is entirely unique.

    1. Hi Natalie! I’m not either, to be honest, though I enjoyed him as Tony Stark when it first came out. It was fresh back then but now it’s so ho-hum. Yeah I think Cumberbatch is quite versatile. He’s sooo good in August Osage County in a tiny role, but he’s the most memorable of the bunch I think.

  9. I really hate laziness. i mean I’m not lazy at my job and I’m hugely underpaid, these people earn millions and are supposed to be artists to top that so they should at least be loyal to the studio – which RDJ isn’t by suggesting they have to hire Gibson or he won’t do a movie, Gibson’s involvement would hurt the picture and Downey seems to think he is the only person involved, whereas thousands of jobs go to making movies like his blockbusters – and they should at least try to challenge themselves not bring in minimum effort and cash in the checks. Depp at least does all that lovely other stuff like all the charity thing and appearing all around humble while Downey is acting like a diva.

    I really hope he is not gonna have a meltdown because him recovering from alcoholism is a miracle but him recovering from serious drug addiction makes it a double miracle and here he is an inspiration. But he seems to be getting a God complex now and this is when people think ‘I can do whatever I want’.

    1. Hear, hear Sati! Yep, seems that the ppl who work hardest are underpaid 😦 Seems the same goes for underrated actors like your Stephen and my Toby who I gave their all to every single thing they do, even in the smallest role they’re phoning it in, yet they probably only make a tiny fraction of what Downey makes in a week! I honestly can’t care less about those Iron Man movies, I’m not even all that excited for Avengers 2 to be honest.

      Well that’s the thing, he’s blessed to get a second chance in his career and personal life, but NOBODY is invincible, so he shouldn’t act like he is.

    1. Ah yeah, Wood is always Mr. Frodo to me. As for Shatner, I think he doesn’t seem to want to escape that persona, I mean all those ST conventions brings him so much moolah 😉

  10. Right now, that would fall into Johnny Depp which is a very popular answer. Especially as it becomes clear that nearly every role he’s played since being Captain Jack Sparrow is always having him be the weird guy and always do some kind of variation to the point that he’s not really acting anymore. The same can be said about Vince Vaughn where he has been playing the lazy, talkative schlub for more than a decade now and it’s tiring to watch.

    1. Yeah Depp is hidden behind a goop of makeup again in Into The Woods later this year. I miss him playing a normal person as he’s actually a fun actor to watch. As for Vaughn, I haven’t seen enough of his movies to have any opinion on him. He’s joining True Detective tho right, so maybe now he tries to do more dramatic roles.

  11. rollonthemovies

    Daniel Radcliffe and most of the cast will probably be stuck with Harry Potter, I imagine, but now that you mention it, that phenomenon is rather rare for me, because I think it is just so apparent now since Depp has done a lot of the quirky stuff after POC, so essentially to me it feels as if he, and to an extend Downey, maybe ended up copying themselves.

    1. I actually think Radcliffe has done an admirable job in trying to shed his HP persona. But given how hugely popular it is and there are 7 movies, he has to try harder to do so. I haven’t seen anything he’s done post Potter though, just from the trailers/clips but I think he’s more versatile than meets the eye. Plus he’s still young so he has time to do a lot more roles to detach himself from Potter. Yep, a lot of the actors often just copy themselves over and over, and that’s why it’s so tiresome and irritating given how much $$$$$$ they make doing so.

  12. I do agree with Johnny Depp there, his schtick has been pretty old for a good minute though. Lots of actors do this though, where they essentially just play the same character in everything, though I don’t always have a problem with it necessarily. For instance, Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Samuel Jackson, and countless others all have a tendency to just play the same role over and over again. I dunno, I guess just sometimes I don’t mind, then other times it can get obnoxious. Nice topic here, Ruth. 🙂

    1. Hi Chris! Yeah I guess the same could be said about a lot of actors playing a variety of whatever it is they’re comfortable doing. I feel compelled to discuss this because it was becoming a distraction when I saw some of these actors on screen. Sometimes I don’t mind either, like Sam Jackson still makes me laugh because he’s always playing Sam Jackson, ahah. Btw, I’m forgetting Liam Neeson who’s playing similar characters he did in Taken nonstop [pardon the pun] 😉

  13. Matthew Fox will always be Jack from Lost to me – although he is completely unrecognisable in the pretty rubbish 2012 film Alex Cross. Kiefer Sutherland too, he always reminds me of Jack from 24. I find it’s actors from TV shows who tend to find it more difficult to shake off a role, particularly when it comes to them venturing into the world of cinema. The cast of Friends are other examples, though Aniston has admittedly done well for herself.


    1. Oh I’m with you about Kiefer Sutherland! He’s always Jack Bauer to me and I think you’re spot on that TV actors seem to have a harder time shaking off their characters but I suppose they usually play them for much longer timespan than film actors. Aniston somehow does well playing the same type of characters so either she’s very smart or just very, very lucky. My guess is the latter.

      1. jackdeth72

        Hi, Ruth and Consumed by Film:

        I would suggest you give ‘Dark City’ with Rufus Sewell a try for a different take on Keifer Sutherland. Where he quietly goes over the top as the city’s nightmarish, dedicated, a bit scary and matter of fact Mad Scientist. Bad accent and all in the tales final reels!

        Though, with ’24’. Mr. Sutherland has kind of pushed himself into a niche. That I’m pretty sure he can act and find his way out of.

        Also, give ‘Snatch’ a shot. For a very not Brad Pitt, Brad Pitt!

        I also prefer Bill Murray’s Dr. Hunter Thompson in ‘Where The Buffaloes Roam’. To Johnny Depp’s later take on the gonzo journalist in ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’.

  14. Love the topic, Ruth. Like some have said, RDJ has been doing that same persona since long before he played Tony Stark. It’s just more noticeable since that role is so popular. However, I’m not mad at him for phoning it in, or am even sure he’s doing so. True, he’s not stretching himself, but he’s reached the level where he gets parts because studios specifically want that persona. Lots of people named in this thread plus some others are at that point. I can add the names Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Will Smith, Ice Cube, Owen Wilson, Kevin Hart, and Denzel Washington. Sure some of them are better actors than others, but all of them get plenty of roles that fit their personas. Sure, I’d love for every actor to challenge themselves like Daniel Day Lewis it won’t happen as long as people keep becoming movie stars based on a few of their most likeable qualities.

    1. Hey thanks Wendell, glad to see you participating 🙂 Yeah I guess that’s the case w/ RDJ, it could just be his own persona that he projected onto Tony Stark so that’s why it’s impossible to *escape* that. All the names you mentioned definitely has played a variety of whatever it is they’ve done that made them famous, it’s like they bottled it or something and use it over and over again. That’s why my fave actors usually are the lesser known ones who have played a wide variety of roles and can look/sound VERY different from role to role.

      I guess the method actors like Day-Lewis and Christian Bale are still quite rare.

  15. jackdeth72

    Hi, Ruth:

    Robert Downey Jr. has been on a “variation of the theme” stint for better than a decade with Holmes and Stark.

    I’m going to take a different track. With Steve Martin. And his role as high end. smooth as silk con man, Julian “Jimmy” Dell. Who leads naive mark with a latch on the multi million dollar “process” on a merry chase. With the aid of Rebecca Pidgeon (Mrs. David Mamet) in Mamet’s ‘The Spanish Prisoner’.

    Mr. Martin does drama extremely well and excels in veiled obfuscation and talking all around the topic. Without ever mentioning it by name. Going from oblique “friend with a tale” to lure Mr. Scott closer and deeper in. To setting up an off shore Swiss account with a small amount that proves damning later.

    To finally quietly breaking bad while threatening Mr. Scott at gunpoint towards the film’s end. A marvel of verbal thrust and parry. Wondrously timed while revealing nothing. And leaving with the later belief that Mr. Martin should never have strayed. And stuck with drama!

    1. Hi Kevin! ‘Variation of a theme’ – now that’s a term I should use for a lot of these actors, it’s like a composer making similar type of music over and over, ahah.

      Ah interesting about Steve Martin. I guess I always see him as that nervous, a bit curmudgeon persona in Father of the Bride in everything I see him in, even the more serious drama Shopgirl.

  16. Very interesting topic, Ruth! Yeah, I totally get that with RDJ. It’s actually kind of annoying to me, and it took away from the Sherlock films, IMHO. It was like watching RDJ and Watson go crime-solving, not Sherlock. Not to mention his horrible British accent, but that’s a whole other complaint. I agree that he just doesn’t shake it off. And although I do think he’s perfect as Tony Stark, I don’t think he’s been as enjoyable to watch in movies since he’s just playing himself or a version of Tony Stark all over again. I would say one exception would be his role in 2009’s The Soloist. I did enjoy seeing RDJ in that, even though the movie wasn’t exceptionally amazing by any means.

    Great post! It certainly gets me thinking of other actors who have this issue, although RDJ appears to fit the bill most.

    1. Hey Kris, sorry for the tardy response, been busy today w/ work & TCFF duties. Yeah I do think the same schtick does take away from the movie for me too, as you just can’t get past that one character. Ha..ha.. I actually thought his British accent is ok, but it’s more his mannerism that bugs me. I have seen The Soloist but despite the good performances, the film itself bore me. The story was intriguing but the execution could’ve been much better IMHO.

      1. Hey, no prob! Hope you are having a lot of fun and seeing some great movies at TCFF! 😀

        Yeah, he’s very RDJ-y, haha, for lack of a better word. I don’t remember The Soloist well, so I probably wouldn’t consider it a memorable film. I can see that!

        1. Oh TCFF hasn’t started yet, it’s tomorrow all the way to next Sat 10/25. Just posted more indie films that’ll be playing there. Today I’ve just been working on scheduling interviews w/ some of the talents who’ll be in town. Hope you’ll stop by & check out the coverage 😀

  17. I remember when I got around to watching the Sherlock films, I noticed right away the similarities to Tony Stark. It didn’t bother me, but now that you mention it I’ll be watching out for it in RDJ’s other/future roles. And that stuff about RDJ coming back for Iron Man only if Gibson directs it rubs me the wrong way if there is any truth to that. Another actor is Will Smith, whenever I see him in a movie his Fresh Prince persona is in the back of my mind.

    1. Yeah I feel the same way too, though I guess Stark & Sherlock do have similar qualities being the smartest guy in the room and have a big ego, ha..ha.. Yep WIll Smith is kind of a one-note actor too, with only occasional acting talent being displayed when he wants to.

  18. Hmmm…Tough question. I don’t watch much recent RDJ movies so I can’t say much about him

    For me, probably Bad Pitt, he struck me as himself in every movie I watch with him in it (not much tho). Other than him, some Japanese actors which I don’t need to mention because you wouldn’t know them anyway 😉

    1. Yeah, not a fan of Pitt either, he was actually the worst part in 12 Years A Slave. Nothing he’s done excites me anymore. Ha..ha.. sorry Nov but you’re right I wouldn’t know anything about those Japanese actors.

  19. Completely agreed, Ruth. Downey Jr. and Depp are two who have gotten stuck in a successful character. A lot of that, I think, is their choices, though. Some actors go out of their way to play different sorts of characters in different sorts of movies (think Bale, or McConaughey or Amy Adams) don’t.

    Another actor I think fails to shake his most recognizable characters: Tobey Maguire. He’s always Peter Parker.

  20. Nice article and question! Personally I’m not a big fan of Robert Downey Jr. He lost me after Iron Man because his public persona was trying too hard to be like Tony Stark. If it’s either his genuine personality or one that he is putting on for show, he reminds me a lot of his character Tropic Thunder; too many characters converging on a lot of levels and he can’t keep track of them all. I think there are a lot of actors who are known for one role specifically or end up getting typecast, but like RDJ there are some whose roles just become bigger than they are either by association of popularity or the actors just can’t shake off those roles.

    1. Hi Katy. Y’know, I’m so bored w/ RDJ’s shtick as Stark too. Seems that he can’t seem to shake that role now. He’s a good actor though, maybe he’ll get his mojo back somehow if he really puts his mind to it.

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  23. I think it’s hard to shake RDJ as Tony Stark because he keeps playing him over and over again. He’ll end up playing Stark more times than Johnny Depp has played Jack Sparrow.

    I always associate Robert Pattinson with Twilight, but his performance in The Rover has me confident that he can move past that. I think Daniel Radcliffe is doing a good job of moving past his Harry Potter image as well.

    1. Yep, I think he himself can’t shake off Tony Stark and yep, he plays that character so often, probably more than Depp as Sparrow. But compared to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, I feel that Jackman does a better job detaching himself from that character even though he’s done it so many times, too.

      I don’t know if I’ll ever see The Rover but I think Pattinson is an ok actor. I like him in Remember Me but he’s rubbish in Bel Ami so the jury’s still out. Radcliffe is a good actor though, he’s done an amazing work in moving away from his HP role.

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