That guy was in what now?

March 1, 2009 at 10:28 pm (A Pleasing Guestness) (, , , )

Hello all, Finn here for the first edition of A Pleasing Guestness! Some of you that don’t actually know me may recognise me from the comments. Hopefully, I can make an otherwise empty Sunday entertaining and thought provoking!

Today, I’m going to talk to you about movies, specifically, the way I view the relationship between actors and the characters they play in said movies. If you had to summarise the way I think of these people in a single sentence, it’d be something like “Actors are to movies like models are to clothing, it’s not about them, it’s what they display” but I think I need a lot more room to explain properly. So here we go.

All too often, I have conversations with my friends, family and acquaintances that go a little something like this:

Person: Have you seen <insert movie here>?

Me: Which movie is that?

Person: It’s the one with <insert names of one or more actors here>

Me: Que?

Now, in my defence, rattling off the names of actors in a movie is, I feel, a poor way of answering that question. I mean, were this hypothetical individual to say “It has Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn”, there’s probably at least 10 movies they could be talking about. Even if the pairing of said actors in said movie is notable, I believe confusion is easily avoided by giving a movie’s premise rather than who is in it.

But it says something important about me: I don’t know a thing about actors. A few years ago, I could not have named 10 off the top of my head. Even now, it would still take me some time to do so. I still get certain actors mixed up (eg. Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore) based on the movies they were in and the roles they play. I know very little about their personal lives, their careers or the awards they have received for their work.

Put bluntly, actors aren’t people in my head or at the very least, far less so than the individuals they portray on the screen. I engage with the latter, not the former.

It’s no secret among my friends that I have a crush on actress Tina Majorino, who played Mac in Veronica Mars and plays Heather in Big Love (also the love interest in Napoleon Dynamite, but we don’t talk about that). However, when it comes down to it, that’s not really the truth. I have a crush on Mac, the character and I’m sure I’d have no interest in Ms. Majorino if I ever met her in real life.

Essentially, I’m very capable of suspension of disbelief, perhaps moreso than any person I’ve met. I’m capable of completely disconnecting the characters in movies from the actors who play them and will often be completely unable to make the link between two characters played by the same actor. That particular ability has only come very recently.

Really, who could blame me? Characters are almost always more interesting than the actors who portray them. Who would you rather hear about:

  • Blade the half-vampire superhero or Wesley Snipes, the guy who was convicted for cheating on his taxes?
  • Mrs. Smith the assassin or Angelina Jolie, the woman who has adopted over 9000 babies?
  • Adrian Cronauer, a wisecracking army disc jockey or Robin Williams, a recovering alcoholic?

To me, the story is far more important than the reality when it comes to entertainment. When I start thinking about a character in terms of who they’re played by, it’s a sign that whatever I’m watching just isn’t drawing me in.

I don’t feel an actor can be wasted. I’ve noticed a tendency for people to be annoyed, upset or even outright angered that a particular actor doesn’t get the role they feel s/he deserves. This has been the case with Fallout 3 where high profile actor Liam Neeson did the voice for the main character’s father and only made a small handful of appearances in the game. There was also a minor uproar with Kung Fu Panda, when Jackie Chan and Angelina Jolie, arguably more prominent than main voice actor Jack Black, hardly got any lines.

Hmmmm, okay those were both voice acting examples. Not the best, since it’s much easier to completely miss the actor doing it. Let’s try this again!

A more in-depth example of what I’m getting at is an argument Julia and I have been having recently regarding the use of Maggie Gyllenhall as Rachel Dawes in Dark Knight. Julia’s view (feel free to correct me on this if you feel I’ve misrepresented it!) is that her use in the movie was poor because:

A) Throughout the movie she does nothing much, followed quickly by dying.

B) Her death prevents her from being in a later Batman movie where she could play a more prominent role suited to her talents. Thus, she’s effectively been wasted.

Now, as for A, I’d have to respond by suggesting that for a character like Rachel, it’s really par for the course. Because of the Mary Sue nature of Batman and Batman stories (man, I could write a whole other post on that one), if you’re a woman, you’re either a villain or a prop. That’s just the way it goes.

B is where it gets more complex. See, I don’t doubt that Maggie is a great actress (as you’ve probably guessed by now, I didn’t actually pay attention to her career before I saw Dark Knight) and would have been suited to all manner of roles in the Batman franchise. However, from my perspective, she’s certainly not the only actor who would be suited to such future roles. The characters will still be there and they have just as much chance of having someone just as decent, perhaps even better, than she would be.

That’s the thing. For me the important part is that the characters are there and doing what they’re supposed to be doing. I could care less who happens to be playing them just as long as they’re played well. The potential for an awesome story is not lost.

A far greater crime in my view is the wastage of a character. Particularly in movies that are based around existing source material, such as comic book adaptations or historical events, squandering a good character can ruin the story, put off those who know the original and remove a potential sequel idea. Take, for example, the use of Sir Francis Drake in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (a movie that had many things wrong with it, but this is one of the most prominent is my mind). They took a well renowned historical figure, a guy who was important to the events the movie (supposedly) centred around and a goddamn pirate and proceeded to give him half a dozen lines and about a whole minute of screen time.

The most egregious and personal example I’ve seen in recent films is Spiderman 3 and its use of Venom. Anyone who knows even a bit about Spiderman, whether that be the comics or the cartoons will know Venom. They’ll know his status as a major villain second only to the Green Goblin in Spidey’s rogue’s gallery. So why does he show up as a filler villain in the last 20 minutes of the film, only to die at the end? He could’ve easily had an entire film based around him, yet they have him playing second fiddle to Sandman. Why did it have to be him?

Now, I certainly don’t mean to suggest that people who are annoyed by the way actors are used in games or movies are Doing It Wrong ™. Everyone has people they admire and it’s perfectly fair to feel somehow wronged when it seems that person’s talents have been wasted or misused. I guess what I’m trying to get at is such outcries, voiced to me, will fall on deaf ears. There’s a high chance I won’t even know who the hell it is you’re talking about. I was too busy watching the kickass fight scenes and laughing at the jokes to notice that the person playing the badass villain was the neighbour in another movie.

Okay, so maybe I have been rambling a bit. But hey, it was a set of thoughts I needed to get out there and that’s what this blog is supposed to be all about isn’t it? Maybe the comments will shed some light on points that caused some confusion.

In any case, thank you, A Pleasing Fiveness, for having me! This is Finn, signing off!



  1. percy said,

    Thanks for the post, Finn!

    I agree with Julia’s assessment of Rachel’s character, I must say. It is one of the few points of “oh I don’t know about that” which emerge from me when I watch that awesome film.

    I have a possibly related braineffect, and it’s really kicking in as I’m watching Dollhouse. Helo is there from Battlestar, Fred from Angel, Faith from Buffy, Badger from Firefly, and more… all of these actors in one place makes me feel a bit weird. It’s more like “Oh, here’s Fred pretending to be someone else” – I’m very conscious of the ways the actor is trying to be different from the last time the fans saw them. Once I see a character played by and actor, I attach that actor to that character in my brain and it just won’t let go!

    Which is weirder still, in that it doesn’t really happen for other actors, mostly those in films. Maybe it’s just because I watch the TV characters for 40+ hours and they just slot so well into the plot, whereas movies only have about two hours worth of brain-embedding….

  2. chromefist said,

    OVER 9000!

    I dunno, can a boring old assassin compete with a serial adopter of such magnitude?

  3. juliadactyl said,

    I had no problem with Maggie Gyllenhaal being cast as Rachel Dawes initially, because I assumed it meant that they were going to do something amazing with the character, because Maggie could carry it off in a way that Katie Holmes never could.

    I don’t think an actor automatically makes a movie, the role has to be well-written, too. Ledger’s Joker, for example, was amazingly well-written, but you have to admit that not many actors could have taken the role to what it became with Ledger. It’s really not just the way the part is written – Adam Sandler, for example, couldn’t have carried it off. Vince Vaughan. A huge amount of big-name actors really couldn’t have done what Ledger did with that role. Acting is more than just showing up and reading some lines.

    Gyllenhaal is an actress with talents similar to Ledger’s, much more talented than many of her peers, I believe, and while I don’t care that the character was shit, I’m sad that they cast her because it means she now can’t be cast in a more interesting role where she could do something akin to what Ledger did.

    If they’d cast Ledger as, I don’t know, a cop or something in the first film – a bit part that didn’t require even the slightest bit of his full acting range, we would’ve been bereft of his marvellous performance as the joker. I think Maggie could’ve played a lot of the female batman villains amazingly well, (I think Harley Quinn would’ve been perfect for her) and done a better job than a lot of other actresses, whereas a lot of other actresses totally have the range for the easy character of Rachel Dawes.

    It’s like, I don’t know, using a racehorse for kiddie rides at birthday parties. For me, it really is an issue of talent. Rachel Dawes’ part was small, but if it had been interesting, I wouldn’t care. But it was shit, and required none of the amazing subtlety that Gyllenhaal has, and now they can’t use her in a role that could’ve utilised her talents properly.

    Also, seriously, you gotta watch Secretary.

  4. Danoot said,

    I’m pretty similar – I don’t really know who is an actor, and “you know, with Robert DeNiro and that other guy” is of no help to me whatsoever.

    On the other hand, sometimes when I do recognise actors I do get the ‘dude is the same guy’ vibe. See: The Big Hit, The Departed (seriously guys we should watch these movies).

    Also, I just realised that, during The Spirit, Samuel L Jackson dresses up like a samurai with big-ass fake sideburns… Kind of like this dude, who is Samuel L Jackson animated as a samurai with big-ass (not fake) sideburns.

    good times!

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