So here's the thing. Often whenever we think of a set of products, it's the brand we came into contact with first, the brand that got into our mind first, that we purchase at the checkout. Sometimes a brand owns the idea of a product so much, that it becomes the product itself!
Think "can somebody pass me a kleenex?" "I feel like a coke", "Has anyone got an iphone charger?" These companies don't sell tissues, cola or smartphones they sell Kleenex, Coke and iPhones and they own them so strongly in our mind because of focus. They're known for it. This can be the same with acting. It’s why actors who have gotten work, tend to get more of it. They own a place inside the casting directors mind, so they’re first in line when the casting director wants to buy a new performance.
At the moment when I think of most actors, and this is just my opinion, but I think they want to be all things to all people. They want to be Michael, Actor, leading man, everyman, capable of playing every role in history! The problem is we can't play every role and we're doing ourselves a disservice to the roles we could actually get, by thinking that way. Let me explain:
When I first came to Sydney I was very much of this mind set and it’s still something that I contend with most times a casting comes up. Not only was I not embracing the things that made me unique, I was actively playing against them. (After all I was trying to portray the role of the everyman and I couldn't do that if I played parts that you’d expect from someone who looked like me). My type. A bit of background on me is that people often say I have a great voice, a commanding presence and am very intense. I played a lot of kings and dictators at Drama school. But rather than carry that into the real world and go for those kind of intense, dramatic, dare I say deranged characters in my niche, with their size, gravitas and dogged determination, I wanted to explore my goofy, soft, romantic side. (Think John Krasinski in Away We Go, or Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris)
Now I'm not saying that if you look a certain way you can't play certain characters, or that playing against type is a pipe dream or a death sentence. I came very close to getting a lead, in a feature, playing that romantic goof I was after, but I was swimming up stream. Which meant I was missing opportunities on the way down. In auditions where multiple characters were on offer, I would put my hand up to read for the characters likely to go to an Owen Wilson or Jesse Eisenberg type, as if I was trying to prove something to a casting director I’d never met before. All the while my agent would be scratching her head like, "Are you sure you don't want to go for the Liam Neeson, Chris Hemsworth, Clive Owen, Jon Hamm character instead?"
In the early stages of your career, the last thing you want to do is confuse people. You want to give them a rock solid idea of who you are and what you can do well. You want to embody it in the primary scene of your showreel, use it to play to your strengths in auditions and go hard for the roles that fall into your niche. A second opinion on exactly what you do well can be helpful, because this can often be a journey of self discovery and our strengths can often turn out to be different from the ideas that we have inside our head.
The main point is that when the time comes for a casting director to put a brief together on a specific project, you want to own a word inside that casting directors’ mind. Much like Kleenex, this requires focus. If “sex on legs" is what you do well, you want that person to read: sex on legs and think your name. You want to become synonymous with your strengths as an actor. You want to own your Niche!
The good news is that it's not that difficult to reinvent yourself when you gain notoriety. A number of working actors have been there and done that. It usually only takes a couple of films to turn a perception around. Look at Matthew Mcconaughey. The undoubted King of fluff and ‘shirts off’ romantic comedy, where his abs did more acting than his face did. Well at least he was… Until he flipped the film world on its head, with the phenomenon that is now known simply as ‘The Mcconaissance.’ A phenomenon which started with his role in the movie “Mud”, gathered momentum during “True Detective” and reached Oscar winning glory with his role as Ron Woodruff in “Dallas Buyers Club”. Who knows what’s yet to come.
There’s also no shame in having a career where you simply nail your Niche. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done it for over three decades. People told him he would never make it in the movies, but he trusted in his vision, that the time would come when someone would appreciate what he brought to the table. After he made his first multi million dollar blockbuster “Conan the Barbarian” director John Milius said; “if we didn’t have Schwarzenegger we would have had to build one.” Further to that James Cameron on Terminator said; “If we didn’t have Schwarzenegger, we wouldn’t have been able to do the movie, it was only because he sounded like a machine, that it was so believable that he played a machine.” The very things he was told would be an obstacle to him became an asset, because he owned his Niche and didn’t fight it and try to be something he wasn’t.
P.S. It might shock you to find out that Arnie’s most profitable movie, which came out mid way through his career, wasn’t actually an action movie at all… It was “Twins”! This again was testament to Arnold’s ability to back himself, because he knew that an action star doing comedy was seen as unknown quantity to producers. So he, Danny Devito and their director for the film, agreed to do it for free, providing they got a large back end of the profit. Which turned out to be more than any of them had been paid for a movie before in their lives. Just goes to show, if you build the trust first, in nailing what you’re perceived to be good at, down the road, anything is possible.
Thanks for reading, hope this helped. Leave your comments below.
Film and Theatre Actor Based in Sydney. Creator of Script Gym. Lover of Stories.