I've been celebrating my birthday for the past two days with my two closest friends, and I'm going to celebrate some more on Friday, with another good friend. I'll keep this up until 12/23, if I can get away with it, but after that, the jig is up because I get trumped by Jesus. I'm cool with that.
Anyhoo - all this talk about being pigeonholed by size, made me start thinking about the various ways and reasons that so much typecasting goes on in Hollywood. Trained actors believe we can play just about any characters, so when we keep getting scripts for the same role over and over, it can get old REAL fast. When you've done Shakespeare (and well), but you only get auditions for "quick-talking, gum-popping waitress," it can make you question your talent, and the image that other people have of you.
I think typecasting happens for a couple of reasons: 1.) When we watch TV, we need to be able to identify character types quickly so that we can get on with the story. They only have either 30 minutes or 45 minutes a week to tell a story, and if you spend the first 20 minutes trying to keep the two red-head, befreckled guys straight, or trying to remember (and convince yourself to believe) that the wispy thirty-something blonde has just become a grandmother, it can be problematic. So when casting the prison guard, it's just easier to cast the big, tough-looking actor, even though the petite scrappy one could do it too.
The other reason that typecasting happens is that 2.) sometimes, we, as individuals DO stereotype. We've been taught that "prejudice is wrong*," but even the most enlightened among us pre-judge all the time. When we're walking down the street alone at night, and some big dude is walking toward us, we size-up the individual "Does this guy look like a threat to my safety? Am I in any danger?" Even BEFORE the media gets to us, we are hard-wired to make snap judgements. Babies can tell differences between angry faces and welcoming ones. In a casting situation, obviously, nobody's in danger, but we carry that hardwiring with us, along with whatever baggage and media messages that we've internalized. So, the script calls for a thug, and certain stereotypes may readily jump to the person's mind. Or a maid, or a mom on welfare. If you're white, and upscale-looking (another "box") the only way you will play a mom on welfare is if the story is about your fact that you are there due to circumstances beyond your control, and won't be in that situation long. That's just how it is.
Do actors have any power at all??
We, as actors in "the biz," have to understand that none of this is personal, so don't internalize it or you will need extra hours with your therapist, and may leave the business altogether.
That said, here are what we can do:
1.) Know that stereotyping is actually pretty good in the beginning of your career. If, you seem to get a phone call to play every police officer in town, you are WORKING, and you are being seen as one of the "go-to" actors in town for police officer roles. This means you are, at least, on somebody's radar.
2.) Be creative with your auditions. Take some chances. Sometimes people don't even know that there's an option to get something different if they've never seen it. If you've only ever seen vanilla ice cream, how would you know that strawberry is an option? Likewise, if you only see straight-forward, by-the-book cop auditions, how do you know that what your show really needs is a quirky cop? If you tend to be a quirky-type (there's that word again), when you bring YOU to an audition, bring that. Whether you book it or not, you've done work that you can be proud of, and you'll be memorable. I am NOT telling you to ham it up or sabotage your audition. Bring what you have instead of what you think "they" want you to have. Do you really think "Law & Order: CI" ever dreamed of having a detective like Vincent D'Onofrio's Detective Green??? Nope, because we hadn't seen it before. He brought his own personal brand of brilliance. Bring yours.
3.) Be choosier about your auditions. Believe me, I GET it - when an audition call comes in, we are usually just so happy that we get to ACT, that we will work on that script, and prepare ourselves with little or no thought of whether or not we actually want to do the role. If the role does offend our sensibilities because it goes against our personal beliefs, or because it would be embarrassing to be portrayed in a certain light, we ask ourselves if we are really in a position to be turning down opportunities. I have learned the hard way (by going into a couple of auditions reluctantly, and bombing them because I wasn't fully committed) that it is more important to decline an audition (tactfully) than to do the work half-heartedly. There will be other opportunities, and an "opportunity" that eats away at your core isn't really worth taking. If you find this happening a lot, however, I urge you to take an honest look at what's really happening. If you are being offered a lot of offensive auditions, then something else is going on.
Those are just a few ways to still be creative, and keep our integrity in the face of stereotyping. Producing your own work is also an option worth considering.
Alright, I'm heading out. I have an audition for "The Middle", and I'm excited about it!
*For the record, I don't believe it's inherently wrong to pre-judge. I DO believe it's wrong, and not very smart to use that pre-judgement to determine the worth of a person, or value of an opportunity.