Does success change your performance?

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I’ve just spent 90 minutes watching Tom Hardy fight everybody, act like a pantomime character, pretend to be two people having a conversation with each other, and break the fourth wall by ranting down the camera at me.

And it was incredible.

After watching Tom Hardy in Bronson, I started thinking about other performances that I’ve loved over the years, and realised that – generally speaking – the best, most daring work is done by actors early on in their careers.  I’m talking about Gary Oldman in The Firm, Tim Roth in Made in Britain, Ray Winstone in Scum, Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park/anything in the 70s, Robert De Niro in Mean Streets/anything in the 70s, Angelina Jolie in Gia, Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, Robert Carlisle in Trainspotting, and Leonardo Di Caprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape….  The list goes on and on.

The more I think about it the less incidental it all seems to be  – a disproportionate amount of performances that have stayed with me long after the film has ended have come from the beginning of an actor’s career, rather than the middle or end.

And this isn’t an insult to any of the actors I’ve mentioned above by the way, I’m not saying that any of these actors are past their prime (let’s just not mention the word ‘Focker’ at this point, yeah?), but why do so many actors do such great work – and as such extreme characters – when they start out?

I think there are a number of reasons.  Firstly, and probably most obviously, young actors are hungry to prove themselves and make a name.  They want to show what they can do and how far they can go, and what better way to do that than by playing an incredibly complex character and make them believable?

Secondly, they’ve got nothing to lose.  If you’re an established star with a persona to damage, you probably won’t really want to take the chance of playing a violent criminal who takes a hostage and forces him to smear Vaseline on his naked body. But if you’re a relative unknown, there’s no persona to damage.

Another point related to this is the ability of the audience buying into you as a completely different character, especially if you’re known in one particular genre.  Some people can make the switch (Tom Hanks for instance), but others might have trouble because audiences want them to do what they’ve always done and don’t want to accept anything else (six words: Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy).  So unknown actors are more likely to choose roles that would be considered too risky by more established performers.  Twenty years of audience baggage will also make it that much more difficult for you as an actor to convince the current audience that you are that particular character (although this will always be a problem to an extent, and not just when playing ‘extreme’ roles).

Younger actors also don’t have the luxury of being able to phone a performance in if they feel like it, they’ve got dues to pay and a body of work to build.

If you knew you could sleepwalk through a film and get paid £20 million for it, or knock yourself out reliving some childhood trauma in a small indie movie for equity minimum, which would you choose?

Artistic integrity is all very well, but if you ‘went there and did that’ twenty years ago, you could be forgiven for wanting an easier, more lucrative deal in later years.  And a huge star doing a small movie isn’t generally the ‘done’ thing either, audiences will think you’ve either fallen from grace or lost your mind.  People generally don’t skip up and down the ladder of success and get away with it (although some do – Steve Buscemi, I’m looking at you…)

An interesting aside would be to look at comeback roles that people have had where they’ve been applauded for being ‘daring’.  Although, if your career is in the toilet what have you got to lose, really?  You’re at the same level as an unknown actor – in fact in some cases, regarded as even worse off – so you’ve only really got something to gain.

I don’t know the reason, and I’m not pretending to.  But what I do know is that some of the most incredible, memorable performances that I’ve enjoyed time and again have been from actors who are young, hungry and – most importantly – talented.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and burn every copy of ‘Meet the Fockers’ that I can find.

The Artist is a crime thriller set in the world of the acting industry.  A serial killer forces young actresses into a perverse trade off; they acquire Andy Warhol’s prophesied 15 minutes of fame, but that time will consist of the last desperate moments of their lives…

Click here to find out more

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