Monday, January 15, 2007

Ode to Working Actors

Today I browsed through a very interesting book on casting from Barnes and Noble. I read the entire first chapter and I learned that there were essentially 6 types of categories of actors according to these casting directors who wrote the book. You can drop down in categories if you haven’t done significant enough work in a while. The authors note that the following categories apply for movies. A successful TV star like Amanda Byrnes, Topher Grace and Wilmer Valderama, Frankie Muniz or George Clooney when he was just starting out in the movie business, is much lower on the ladder:

1. Unknowns-Pretty much nobodies, they could be fresh out of college

2. Working Actors-These are guys that highly astute film buffs, fans of a certain niche (like Star Trek fans might be more familiar with Armin Shimerman than the general public, for example, or fans of Mr. Show might know Bob Oderink and David Cross) might know of. They find steady work and pop up in a lot of films as character actors and you’ll often recognize their faces before recognizing their names.

3. Names-People know their names

4. Stars-People know their names and they must add clout to a film

5. A-Listers-If one of these people like Harrison Ford or George Clooney or Rene Zellweger signs onto a film, than it’s enough to get the film greenlit

6. A Plus Listers-Not only will their name attached to a film project equal a green light but they are almost guaranteed to make you money. To be an A-plus lister, it’s not just about acting but usually you or your agents have a keen eye for good material as most of your films are big hits (i.e. Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson although it will be interesting how his anti-Semitic tirade will affect things). Surprisingly enough, the three most bankable actors statistically are Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Mike Meyers. With Austin Powers and Shrek, Meyers has a very high average, although that might be a misleading statistic since it’s easier to be bankable if you’re doing a lot of sequels.

Examples of working actors:

-Anthony Heald (Boston Public, X-Men 3, 8 Milimeter)

-Virginia Madsen before her Oscar nomination, Mercedes Reuhl (she actually won an Oscar in the early 90’s but she fills out mostly guest star roles)

-James Cromwell-I’d call him borderline. He was in Babe, played the villain in LA Confidential and played the president in Sum of All Fears, but do more than 3 out of 10 people on the street know him by name?

-James Rebhorn-This guy always plays the bad guy from Dave to Scent of a Woman to the last episode of Sienfeld as the prosecutor

-Speaking of people who played the president, Bill Pulliam

-Johnothan Pryce (A Bond Villain, Evita, back in the 80s he was actually a star)

-Sean Bean (The Island, Goldeneye, Troy)

-Jonothan McBraye (Guest spots on Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Talladega Nights)

-Kathy Baker (All the King’s Men, a guest spot on Star Trek, Boston Public)

-Teri Polo (depending on how many people are intimately familiar with the cast list for Meet the Fockers, she was on an unsuccessful season of TV with I’m with Her and was the female love interest in Aspen Extreme)

-Alan Tyduck (I’m sorry if I spelt his name wrong, highlights include Serenity and Dodgeball)

-Noah Taylor (Life Aquatic, The New World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

-Bud Cort (MASH, Life Aquatic)

-Rene Auberjoinis (MASH, McCabe and Mrs Miller, guest spots on Frasier as his mentor, Star Trek, Boston Legal)

-Saul Rubineck (guest spots on Frasier as Daphne’s fiancĂ©e Donnie, Unforgiven, For Love or Money, I Love Trouble, Dick)

-Kevin Pollack (who looks a lot like Saul Rubineck, The Aristocrats, The Whole Nine Yards)

-Alan Ruck (Cheaper by the Dozen, Spin City, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

-Paula Marshall (A show called Cupid, a guest spot on Sienfeld, Cheaper by the Dozen)

-Laura Knightlighter (Guest shots on Will and Grace and Friends, bit roles in Down with Love, Shallow Hall, Kicking and Screaming, Anchorman, a short stint on SNL)

-J.B. Smoove (Mr. Deeds, guest spots on Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live)

-Jerry Minor (SNL, Trigger Happy TV, Arrested Development)

-Nicky Tate (Out of Sight, Full Frontal, Boston Public)

-Ethan Suplee before the 2nd season of My Name is Earl (Cold Mountain, My Name is Earl, Boy Meets World)

-Alex Bornstein (Family Guy, Kicking and Screaming, Mad TV)

-Elizabeth Banks (Seabiscuit, 40-Year Old Virgin, recurring role on Scrubs)

-Craig Anton (Short stints on Mad TV, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and the game show I’ve Got a Secret)

-Luis Gusman (Traffic, Count of Monte Christo, Luis*)

*In 2000, Luis was part of an ill-fated attempt to turn a working actor into a TV star with a show called “Luis” which the producers told TV guide would hopefully be a success because “everyone knows who Luis is, even if they don’t know him by name. They’ve seen him in Traffic,” but al, as that didn’t work out as planned. This if anything exemplified the rules concerning working actors and names

-Mary McCormack (Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Full Frontal)

-Jack Black was a fairly invisible working actor in the 90’s before segwaying into full-blown star in Shallow Hal. Look for him in The Jackal, Enemy of the State, Waterworld, Dead Man’s Walking and even an episode of Touched by an Angel. When you look at those movies, you have to think that the directors of those films are kicking themselves in the back for not giving him more lines or utilizing his comic talents when they had the chance

-Judy Greer (Elizabethtown, 13 Going on 30, Adaptation, guest spots on Arrested Development and Just Shoot Me)

-I’m still inclined to include Patricia Clarkson in this category but only marginially. She probably had one of the lowest profile and lowest grossing films in the last decade to have produced a best acting nomination in Pieces of April. She’s also been in Far From Heaven, Frasier, All the King’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck and the Station Agent

-Ian Holm (although around 2004 he was in danger of leaving that category) with Lord of the Rings, Garden State and Aviator

Best places to find quality working actors:

-Christopher Guest films are a very unusual phenomena in that they entirely star working actors. They are led by that what’s-her-name-again woman from Home Alone (Catherine O’Hara), that guy who played the dad in American Pie (Eugene Levy), the guy who falls for Elaine in Seinfeld (Bob Balaban), the girl who plays Joey’s agent in his 2 season sitcom (Jennifer Coolidge), the phony record company executive from Josie and the Pussycats (Parker Posey), the guy who played Lenny in Laverne and Shirley (Michael McKean), the guy who voices Principal Skinner in the Simpsons (Harry Shearer), and the station boss from Anchorman (Fred Willard). Seriously, I know Christopher Guest fans (of which I am proudly one) are going to eat me out for this, but these guys would have so few roles without Christopher Guest and never have the opportunity at their current states of fame to have such large parts in movies. When guys like Fred Willard and Eugene Levy bestow praise on Christopher Guest as the best comic filmmaker in Hollywood and profess there’s nothing in Hollywood like him, let’s consider that for Willard and Levy, there’s nothing in Hollywood that would even give them more than a small character role in a big budget film. I’m not saying that Guest isn’t funny or innovative, but keep in mind when hearing some of the praise bestowed among Guest. The Christopher Guest brand, however, is truly an anomaly within present day Hollywood.

-Some shows like Will and Grace, Friends and Arrested Development (which did it better than the previous 2) shamelessly recruit guest stars to boost the ratings but Frasier seems to have featured all the best working actors in Hollywood: Virginia Madsen, Mercedes Ruehl, Laura Linney, Patricia Clarkson, Rita Wilson, and Amy Brenneman all played Frasier’s girlfriends. Saul Rubineck played Donnie’s husband and Daphne's brother was played by Anthony LaPaglia.

-Sienfeld also used up pretty much every attractive woman in Hollywood over the course of 10 seasons including a pre-“Lois and Clark” Teri Hatcher, a pre-“Sex and the City” Kristen Davis, Paula Marshall and A.J. Langer among many, many others.

-In my opinion, once you get on SNL you’re bumped up to the name category relatively quickly (unless you’re on for a very short time like Laura Knightlighter or Jerry Minor). Having your name announced week after week in the opening credits familiarizes you to the American public, plus upon graduation from the ranks of SNL, you’re usually awarded with your very own movie based on a theme character and even if it’s terrible like Night at the Roxbury or Superstar, you still get your name out there. However, Mad TV being much more low-profile doesn’t grant you that entrance into recognition. Therefore, many good comic actors and actresses have still remained under the radar despite working pretty exhaustively on securing guest roles and whatever else: Nicole Sullivan (King of Queens), Will Sasso (Less than Perfect), Mo Collins (Arrested Development), Michael McDonald (bit roles in Austin Powers and Spin City), Alex Bornstein (Kicking and Screaming, Family Guy), Phil Lamarr (Futurama), David Herman (Kicking and Screaming, Office Space and guest spots on Family Guy)

-The Oscars are also a very easy way to jump up immediately from working actor to name category: Virginia Madsen (Highlander, guest roles on Frasier, CSI: Miami, Star Trek: Voyager), Catherine Keener, Djimon Hotsou (previously in Amistad and Gladiator), Benicio del Toro (Liscence to Kill), Shoreh Aghdoshloo, Rachel Weicz (Enemy at the Gates, The Mummy, About a Boy), Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding), and Michael Clarke Duncan. All of the people listed above (although it’s too soon to tell with Catherine Keener) have enjoyed much better careers after their oscar nominations.

I think because you have a place in history with that oscar nomination and someone reads your name in an envelope in front of one of the largest TV audiences of the year along with possibly the best 15 seconds of your acting career, it’s safe to say you’re pretty much always a name from then on.

-At the same time, oscar winners and oscar nominees can easily find themselves back in the working actor category if they don’t follow up on that one great performance or it’s been a while. It’s a close call because she is married to Ted Danson but to audiences of today who know her from Joan of Arcadia and Sunshine State, Mary Steenburgen might be a working actor. Mercedes Ruehl is pretty much in the working category, and the same would go for Armhin Muehler-Stahl who got an oscar nomination for playing Geoffery Rush’s father in Shine. Still, these actors would never be nobodies, and I’m not even sure that casting directors would treat them like working actors. I think they’d always get a certain minimal treatment of reverence with casting opportunities for having an oscar nomination

-Lastly I’d like to point out my observation that some of the biggest cult followings of today happen to be those of working actors who have stayed in that category well into their careers: John C. Riley, Paul Giamatti, Peter Sargasaand, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have incredibly large fan bases among film literate people and inspiring actors. My theory on this is that you feel a certain ownership for knowing about these actors’ talents before the rest of the country does

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