It may be the worst Catch-22 actors face.
After years of struggling, trying to establish themselves as multifaceted performers, they hit the jackpot and land a steady gig on a popular TV show — and find themselves stuck doing the exact same role for years on end. Worse, when the series finally wraps, they may find themselves in a typecasting holding pattern, desperately trying to prove to people that they can do more than one kind of character.
“Once you’re known for a certain genre of work, that’s just how people see you,” says casting director Joseph Middleton (“Old School,” “The Bourne Identity”). “It’s hard for people to wrap themselves around the notion of a person doing something else.”
Cost, of course, also plays a factor.
“A lot of producers want to be sure their actors can deliver,” says Kathleen Letterie, executive VP of casting at the WB. “They usually like to rely on the safe choices, rather than be daring and hiring someone completely different from what they had in mind. It’s very risky — it is, after all, very expensive and time-consuming to have to recast a show.”
That’s not to say that actors have to eternally be locked into doing certain roles. Bruce Willis famously reinvented himself as a hard-boiled action hero as his quippy series “Moonlighting” was going off the air.
More recently, “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston shed her glossy TV persona for a low-key turn in the critical hit “The Good Girl,” in which she played a down-and-out Southern retail clerk suffering through a loveless marriage.
“I had really only seen Jennifer as Rachel, or playing characters in movies that were similar to that character. Still, we were excited when (writer) Mike White presented us with her name,” says “Good Girl” casting director Joanna Colbert. “We thought she could do it, but it still took something of a leap of faith. I think that’s something Jen will admit as well. Fortunately, she went beyond our wildest expectations.”
“Good Girl” director Miguel Arteta agrees.
“Jen was amazing; Mike and I both had a good feeling about her. You have to cast on your hunches. (Director) Sam Fuller told me that. I first met him in 1993, and I remember him getting right in my face with that big cigar he always had and saying, ‘Always cast on your hunches!’ Also, when you feel that the person up there has something to prove, it makes it much more interesting — it creates the feeling of live theater, in a way.”
Actors, however, shouldn’t merely rely on outside-the-box thinking from directors and producers to get them the parts they want, says Colbert.
“Creative casting is fine — like casting an all-American movie like ‘L.A. Confidential’ with Australian actors — but actors have to work harder to be creative themselves,” she says. “A long time ago, a lot of people couldn’t see past Sally Field as anything other than the Flying Nun. She came in to read for ‘Stay Hungry,’ walked into the room as a complete sexpot, and got the part.
“If I were a guy like David Hyde Pierce, who’s been established as this prissy blueblood on ‘Frasier’ for so many years but probably wants to do something different, I would do everything I needed to show people my talents and how capable I was of handling something else. It’s all about re-establishing yourself. Actors should see that as a challenge, an opportunity.”