What does your brain do with the information of seeing Batman’s Bane as Transformers’ Sam Witwicky‘s brother, Sam Witwicky courting Alice of Alice in Wonderland and the “brothers” being harassed by Peter Weyland with horrible hair? Surely that is not a scenario in any film, yet watching Lawless I couldn‘t help but associate Tom Hardy with Bane, Shia LaBeouf with Sam Witwicky and Mia Wasikowska with Alice. Guy Pearce has a number of memorable characters to link him to, Peter Weyland being one of the freshest in this viewer‘s mind (soon to be replaced with his despicable characterization of Charlie Rakes). All these performers do a remarkable job in Lawless, portraying characters very different from those mentioned above, yet it dawned on me as I watched them how much baggage an actor brings to the screen.
However wonderful or skilled the actors, however much they strife to transform themselves for a role – still the audience will have a recollection of them doing another part, and by that recollection bring a character into a film. A character that does not belong there, is in no means part of the world portrayed on the screen, and shares nothing with the material but the actor‘s body. Does Mel Gibson‘s portrayal in Braveheart not bleed into the perception of his performance in The Beaver? Let alone Gibson‘s off-screen persona? Can the audience distinguish the actor, including everything they’ve done before, from the role? Or will their faces forever bring back memories of their past performances?
The way to escape this unintentional citation to the actor‘s previous work would be to alter their appearance as much as possible. This way they seem to get a fresh slate, a trick that more often than not brings actors new attention and even awards (Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman are obvious examples of this). Sometimes just dying their hair, cutting it or growing a beard will be enough to create this fresh start, but once the audience sees past the alteration – recognizes the actor – the jig is up. From then on it becomes difficult, if the actor has done any remarkable work at all, to distinguish him from it.
Some actors in fact seem to rely on it, or at least the casting directors do. Because of this link in the viewer’s minds, if they cast e.g. Bruce Willis they don‘t have to sell the audience the idea that here is a tough motherfucker with a broken family and a great protective instinct. Just seeing Bruce Willis’ face (or more importantly his shaved head) already tells us this about the character in question. Likewise, seeing Johnny Depp informs the audience instantly that there’s a kooky character to be revealed (and/or the film was made by Tim Burton). When you’re instantly recognizable as a certain character, even if you are playing someone else, it is time to radically reshape your career (hint hint, Depp).
The off-screen persona of the actor can, in addition to his previous performances, get him roles or exclude him from ever being associated with them – Gibson is unlikely to be portraying a stable family man in the near future, Bill Murray is not easily cast as amorous and gentle these days and Lindsay Lohan will have to fight for any role at all, and will most certainly never portray innocence again, to name only a few actors marred by their personal lives. Meanwhile, Emma Stone is so darn likable she’s probably knee-deep in all types of scripts 24/7.
It seems that actors then have to tread a very careful path, not letting their personal life bleed into their work, and also not letting their strongest performances dominate the rest of their careers. But even if they do that, –like Tom Hardy has, for instance, simply by being ridiculously good in everything he appears in and managing to stay out of media-trouble-hell– they still bring their previous work to the screen. The audience will not forget or let go of their faces.
How that affects the viewing experience varies from viewer to viewer, of course, and is in itself a subject worthy of great research. For now, though, it makes for a great party game – what famous characters will meet (unintentionally) in the next film you see?