I had a conversation with a young, exceedingly good-looking actor last night about a script of mine that is currently in development. He’d read it at his own request—it’s still a few drafts away from being camera ready, so not in wide circulation—after he heard me talking about it at a dinner party and realized that the description of the male lead was perfect for him: it’s about a guy in his mid-twenties, of German descent, from the Midwest. Even though I promised to have him read for the role when the time comes, in my mind I am pretty sure I’m not going to cast him. I can’t: I just don’t see this particular character as being that beautiful—someone who looks like that would be unlikely to suffer the same way as my hero.
Whoever plays the role will need to be attractive, yes. And sexy, absolutely, preferably in that je-ne-sais-quoi way. But he can’t be cute-cute—that sort of extraordinary physicality would diminish the intensity of the piece, weaken the pathos of the lead character.
Of course, my friend could come in, read and fucking knock it out of the ballpark by transforming himself into Philip Seymour Hoffman. I have been known to change my mind before. When I cast Channing Tatum in my as-yet-unmade film Hatter ten years ago, he wasn’t at all what I had in mind for the role. It was only after meeting him that I decided I didn’t want a stereotypical blond hunk and that the film and the role would be better if I had this edgy dancer-model-actor with a shaved head and a pronounced squint.
The problem with very good-looking people is that the audience can’t connect emotionally with, say, Brad Pitt as deeply as they can with Philip Seymour Hoffman, although it’s been getting easier the past few years since Pitt started aging and a certain patina has settled in over his Sexiest Man Alive thing. And yet, believe me, they are both equally skilled as movie actors, although not in live theater—I’m sure Pitt has no desire to tread the boards, much less go head to head with Hoffman on stage.
Indeed, movie acting is as distinct from stage acting as a photograph is from an old-master oil painting. For a start, your performance is almost entirely in the hands of the director. As Elizabeth Taylor said when she was handing out the Best Director Oscar, “When they’re good, they’re very, very good. And when they’re bad, I’m dreadful.” Another quotation about movie acting that made an impression on me was from a seasoned film and stage actor I overhead talking to an inexperienced teen who was about to make his first movie. “Just hit your mark and say your line,” he said with a dismissive shrug.
Of course, there is a lot more to film acting than just ending up in the right place marked on the floor and delivering a line. But the other variables in the process of filmmaking—most notably camera angle and editing, and in many instances sound design—not only enhance a performance, but often turn mistakes into accomplishments. Oh, how exciting those “happy accidents” are that pop up in every film production! They’re like delightful miracles. Live-theater performers and directors do everything they can to mitigate any kind of accident past the rehearsal process.
This is why I say that Pitt is as good as Hoffman; they both deliver within the range of their physicality and abilities, but Hoffman is taken more seriously because there is no way he will ever be People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, twice. He crawled his way up through the ranks playing hapless nerds, dysfunctional sons, identifiable everymen who have as hard a time getting through the day as the rest of us. He never seemingly snapped his fingers and had Angelina Jolie on her knees—he looks like he’s been rejected and had his heart stomped on by women one tenth as attractive. Therefore, he is a more “serious” actor than Pitt. But Hoffman has his standard tools and tricks, namely punctuating his lines with that squint or a quick smile that can either be interpreted as winsome or devilish, depending on context. But think about it: Pitt does the same thing, uses almost the exact same techniques. Compare their voices and delivery in your mind. Hear any similarities? I do.
“All acting is autobiography,” Tilda Swinton once said, and I think that applies to most actors, but not all. Certainly not to Meryl Streep, but she is a rare chameleon who isn’t always a chameleon—she can just as easily be a bird or a chimp. And if acting is autobiography, then very good-looking people simply have a completely different life experience than ordinary people. They make higher wages, have an easier time landing jobs and keeping them. They are treated more kindly, more respectfully, but also less seriously. Does this affect performance? Absolutely.
Another good-looking actor friend of mine said shortly after he enrolled at the Lee Strasberg Institute, “This is the first time I’ve ever had to fight for anything in my life. It’s all just been handed to me on a plate.” A couple of years later, he’s still battling the stigma of his looks. “I can’t just keep playing Brick [from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof] for the rest of my career.” However, I can think of very few roles I have written or am likely to write that would suit him.
It becomes quickly apparent to performers who are ironically “blessed” with what were once positively referred to as “movie-star looks” that they can rest a moment on their laurels. They do have to fight harder to prove themselves, and be prepared never to be taken as seriously as a Hoffman. A decent, likable homely actor who consistently hits his mark and says remembers his lines, and doesn’t need take after take to enhance his performance, has a greater chance of working steadily his entire career than his preternaturally gorgeous colleague.
Again, a good example is Channing Tatum. A few years ago, before Channing was finally anointed a star after appearing in consistently major Hollywood productions for a decade, I proposed him as a possibility for the title role on a film that a friend of mine was producing, after her first choice, Johnny Depp, passed. “Nah,” she said. “He’s too much of a dumb-dumb.” And yet Channing is anything but that as a person. True, he’s not an intellectual powerhouse, but that is because of his dyslexia and his education. So he didn’t graduate Yale drama school. Big deal. Dumb-dumb he ain’t. But he’s had to work triple hard to prove that, and nothing proves it more than the material he chooses to make. (Channing not only does the squint and the smile, but for a long time clenched his jaw muscle, a bit of facial punctuation I’m glad he dropped.)
Now, Depp is an interesting case study in how to scrub off your very good looks and keep yourself appealing to women and non-threatening to men (that was one of Channing’s major hurdles when he was starting out: guys his age loathed him for how he looked and moved). With the help of Tim Burton and other directors, Depp transformed himself into a clown with various disguises, the apotheosis of which seems to be his Tonto for Lone Ranger, who looks like one of those scarier types with melting makeup and an ax. Still, everyone loves a clown, and that’s been a hugely bankable career move for him.
And then there’s Keira Knightley. God, that girl tries hard, fights her Chanel-model looks tooth and nail during every moment she’s allowed to speak or emote. For a long time when she was finding her sea legs she was derisively known as “shiteley”—it was felt in the hyper-catty British film world that she had garnered her early break-out role in Bend it Like Beckham through nepotism and didn’t have real talent. Then she hooked up with Joe Wright and made Atonement, which allowed her to slink around in backless emerald gowns while still emoting in a somewhat authentic way. In Anna Karenina, she’s given far broader opportunities—and you can almost hear her panting with effort to deliver that performance to levels beyond her natural abilities—but it’s also even more of a fashion film, which has her leaping over all the production design like a thoroughbred racehorse forced to run an obstacle course. I kept thinking, “Dang, would ya get a load of that décolletage on her! That necklace looks fabulous,” which shouldn’t have been my focus.
Network TV is kinder to the very good looking, especially soap operas. By and large, less seriousness is expected of the beautiful on episodic television, but that is also changing. Kinder still to the beleaguered beauty is the horror film—those whom the gods have favored physically seem to make the most gratifying human sacrifices to the demons of our twisted nightmares.
Of course, there is always the glaring exception, and I can think of no more exceptional one than Marion Cotillard. The woman can pull off a Dior campaign better than Kate Moss (okay, I’m exaggerating—shhh!) and then turn around and slay me as a legless whale trainer in Rust and Bone. I’ve pondered Cotillard quite a bit since seeing what I consider the film of the century, and I’ve decided a lot of it has to do with the fact the believable bags under her doleful eyes, whereas you just wouldn’t buy the same thing on Knightley.
Wait… another exception is Angelina Jolie… Hmmm, maybe I’m invalidating the entire argument of this article. Yeah, well.
In the end, if it’s not one thing or the other—your physicality, your voice, your generosity of spirit, your native charm, the way you move, that thing about your eyes and mouth nobody can quite pinpoint—becoming a successful actor is a relentless struggle, as is maintaining that success. But it also makes some sense in a meta sort of way: after all, actors are mirrors of who we are, and struggle is what we all do.