Am I Typecast? Or Do I Typecast Myself?
An actor's nuanced take on typecasting: the drawbacks and opportunities of having a 'type'.
By John Currivan
A while ago I was looking at my CV and felt very fortunate to have worked on a wide variety of roles in a wide variety of projects. Then, while smugly patting myself on the back, the similarities of some of these roles dawned on me like a warm shower growing gradually cold and I thought, “Have I been playing the same character this whole time? Have I been typecast for these kinds of roles? Even with lots of input and control did I really try stretch myself enough or did I plod along in my comfort zone? Wait… Did I typecast myself?”
Know what typecasting is and why it happens
Typecasting is a common and often necessary feature of our business. I’ve mentioned before how actors are both producer and product. Often, ‘producers’ (us and also literal producers) must simplify the ‘products’ (who we are and what we do), in order to market them to the industry. The problem is, we might dislike our perceived ‘type’ or feel restricted by it. Below are arranged some of the ways we might feel typecast. Put on your best emotional actor voice and insert any of the listed words below into this sentence.
“As an actor I’m just bored of playing ______”
- Types of ‘stock’ character: Heroes, villains, sidekicks, clowns, etc.
- Performance style: Classical, realistic, melodramatic.
- Genre of Project: Comedy, Drama, Period piece, Action.
- Status within story: Kings, Peasants, lovable losers, hateable winners.
- Status in Project: Leads, supporting roles, background roles, off stage voices.
- Similarity of situation: Guy chasing girl, girl chasing guy, guy who gets dumped, girl who does dumping, best friend who told them this would happen.
Sadly, everything can be reduced down and simplified by someone who wants to define it. Often casting directors, directors and audiences assess whether or not we're suitable for a role in one glance. We cannot always control this. I will say this though: the only thing worse than working/auditioning for ‘typecast’ roles is not working/auditioning at all.
Reflect on previous work to inform future work
So, in looking back, why did I feel some roles were so similar? Typecasting, habits and similarities are easy to spot when examining previous work. There is also the fact that when we look at our careers as a whole it’s easy to simplify, cherry-picking the most memorable roles, even if the similar roles are equally matched by the different roles. However, just like musicians may have a feel for a certain style of music, we might find our instincts, experiences, techniques lead us in certain directions or towards certain decisions. A comedian knows how to build up to a punchline and a horror director can ratchet up tension to frighten us. As actors we use our innate and acquired knowledge and skills to achieve an effect with our voices and bodies. We shouldn’t punish ourselves for being more suitable for certain roles or feel inadequate because the parameters of some jobs are narrower than we’d like.
Did I subliminally typecast myself? Could I have stopped it? Possibly, but that's like asking whether we can learn from our mistakes without making those mistakes. And while now I can compare and contrast parts, back when I was in the role I was just trying to do my job well.
Will I try to avoid playing to my type in the future? Yes. I tried to avoid it in the past too though. However, I’ve also got to consider the jobs I’ve been hired for. If roles require a certain style or similarity to a stock character, then it’s my job to make that role as strong as possible. I can still add my own details and flare to it, but I shouldn’t put my own ego or desire to show off above the integrity of the script, production or other cast members.
Look at the wider world
And let’s face it… even the most respected Hollywood actors have ‘types’. We as an audience are also complicit in typecasting. I know what kind of characters I expect and want actors like DeNiro, Day-Lewis and Streep to play. Actors are also known for totally breaking from their types, 'whacky comedians' do psychological thrillers, 'pretty girls' play badass warriors and 'action heroes' do bizarre comedy cameos. These breakouts are super exciting and refreshing but also jarring and disorienting for the audience. Sometimes it works, other times we shrug our shoulders and say in our emotional actor voice:
“As an actor they're much more suited for (insert word from list here)”
But why am I talking about Hollywood actors? Most of us would gladly be typecast if it meant we got work. I suppose it's to say “Hey, if you find yourself typecast in certain roles, don’t get too hung up about it. It happens. Own it or try to change it. Your ‘type’ is often a simplification imposed by a viewer, not a definitive description of what you are capable of. “
Work with what you’ve got while working to expand
Typecasting is often temporary. It doesn’t make you a slave trapped in a box. Consider yourself a chef with a popular specialty. People are ordering it because it’s delicious. However, you can still look for ways to increase or improve your menu. Every new project presents opportunities for growth and development, whether it's on Broadway, in a tiny studio or just you rehearsing a monologue at home in your undies.
Knowing your ‘type’ doesn’t mean you can be lazy, in fact understanding that you have a ‘type’ may mean that you discover detail and nuance you never saw before. If you find yourself being reduced to one colour, you should learn that red comes in many shades; scarlet, crimson, magenta, cerise, burgundy etc. We may not get to choose the roles we play, but our job is to play any roles we get as well as we can. Always endeavour to make the shades of your performance as vibrant as possible.
John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.