Many artists, upon exiting drama school and even years into their career pursuits, do not know how to effectively market themselves. Actors are notorious for having this thought schism: So many actors think of themselves as being wondrously versatile and immune to type casting. They think of themselves as being able to play most any role and that the market will see their versatility, if only given the proper opportunity. They think of type casting as being a negative thing, rather than a market opportunity.
When I was at Yale School of Drama, I was often being cast in clown roles. I did clowning well. I was cast in the role of Pompey in “Measure for Measure”. Pompey is a slut mutt. He is a pimp in the world of the play’s gross debauchery and hypocrisy and is the Clown of the show. That is me, there to the right, wearing a rubber spiked cod piece, no underwear with my back side for all the audience and cast to be”hold” and unzipped zippers at my nipples. Of course, who has not worn such a costume in public, right? Right?
Later in that same semester, I asked for a private meeting with the then head of acting and pleaded with her, “Please. No more clown roles. I really want to stretch myself and do something different–perhaps a leading character role”. “No clowns?”, she said to me. “No clowns, please”. What was my next casting role? Next on the docket: the character of “Clown” in Shakespeare’s “The Winters Tale”. I wish I had seen the opportunity. I played the role as best I could and loved working with the director. It was fun…but I failed to see the larger message, which was: Jim, you are a clown, by type. Go with it. Develop it. Master it.
Despite my clowning well, being consistently cast as such bothered me greatly, as I had a desire to be Tom Cruise. Now, Tom is not a clown (though some may beg to differ). He is a leading man and an adventure star and heart throb. That is what I wanted to be. However, what I failed to realize then is that my peers and faculty (and later the market) were telling me that my type was the clown. The heartthrob wanna be, who is really a clown. Now that is material for a clown, right? What I failed to accept, too, is that the bulk of my talent was in being a clown. I wish I had accepted this sooner, as it would have shaped how I directed my daily energies and what roles I pursued (of course, we only have so much time and energy in the course of 24 hours).
Actors need to be taught that the market is going to put them into a box. The market will label these artists based on three typical factors: 1. Looks 2. Personality and 3. Talent (this is a very distant third). Why not know your type, realistically, and then tell the market what box to put you in?
Let’s think about character type as one’s niche. If one does not know their niche, they cannot distribute their energy (artistic efforts) in specific directions that will (and here is the key) be in line with market opportunities and demand.
Ex. Few people want to see Jim Carrey as a heartthrob leading man. We prefer to see him as a clown and this was reflected in his then thought of as a break out film, “The Majestic”, which received poor praise from critics and less than stellar box office sales. We did not buy him as a heartthrob. We wanted his clowning. This is not to say that Jim Carrey cannot play serious roles. He is a wonderful, gifted performer. He has since found fusions in characters in such films as “The Cable Guy” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Truman Show”. But in terms of box office success, which nets him greater and greater opportunities, his clowning roles rule.
If commercial film and television is your goal, is it not better to be one of the best in your niche of…say…playing the goofy best friend of the lead character or the shapeshifting dark figure or any other archetype in modern storytelling (and consequently work with greater frequency) than it is to be perpetually unemployed because of confusion regarding how the market views you?
Here are a couple tips in helping define your “type”.
- Ask your friends what roles they would cast you in (ask the honest ones).
- Ask yourself, “Who is playing the roles you should be playing?” (Look to TV, Theatre and Film).
- Produce something or direct. Being on the opposite side of the casting table is a great way to understand a producer or director’s perspectives, which will, in all likelihood, effect how your pursue your acting career.