As I sat there, watching Will Smith’s big return to not only the Men In Black franchise but to acting itself, I realized how bloody entertaining he is. He hasn’t acted in three and a half years and during his performance he never missed a beat. I’m not talking about the movie itself, which of course has it’s flaws, I’m just putting the spotlight on Big Willie himself. He’s so charismatic you love watching him do whatever it is that he does. But what is it that he does?
You see, Will Smith doesn’t really act. Well, he does in the sense that he is an actor and he is given lines to say. He performs, sure, but as what? Will Smith, at least to my knowledge and taste, has never really been known to transform himself. To lose himself in a role and become something nobody even imagined he could do, or, become something where you forget you are watching Will Smith - THAT he’s never done. However, audiences love him, think he’s a great actor and adore his on screen presence. Will Smith is just cool. And we enjoy watching him just being cool as himself. Will Smith isn’t so much an actor, as he is a “Superstar.”
I’m not picking on Smith, so much as just using him as an example of how people will go out in droves to see actors like Smith just be themselves. Smith has a range, and it is a small one. Even branching out to do something like Ali was still just Smith doing his version of Muhammad Ali. While I really enjoy that movie and think his performance is amazing, I never stop being aware that Smith is playing Ali.
This is the exact opposite of what a character-actor does: someone who completely transforms themselves into a character. You don’t know it’s them or you're at least not constantly reminded of who is playing that character.
Take for instance, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He has built his career on taking roles that are so vastly different from each other. You can actually get confused on where he gets his talent from. His range is vast, jumping from a quiet and timid personal nurse in Magnolia, to Truman Capote in Capote to a cold and unsettling Priest in Doubt. He’s all over the map, and while before and after the films you know it’s him, you are never reminded during the performance.
So why compare these two styles of acting that dominate Hollywood, when one clearly has the so called “talent” factor? Because they need each other.
Superstars make the big money. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. From Smith, to Brad Pitt, to DiCaprio, to Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson, they demand and command the big bucks. And rightfully so. You can’t put Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti at the top of a movie poster and expect at least 100 million at the box office. Sure, good acting is to follow, no doubt, but not big bucks. You place Tom Cruise above a title on a poster, and you got yourself a summer blockbuster or the big event movie of the Christmas season. It doesn’t even matter if the movie has good or bad word of mouth, people will come out in droves just to see someone like Cruise or Jolie.
And why do we do this, when Cruise and Jolie are far from the best actors on the planet? Because we feel connected to superstars. We know so much about them (since they’re celebrities) that while their careers are not our own, we feel attached to them. We want to see them succeed or fail. Superstars are burdened with having to live their lives almost as its own movie, and thus we get to watch that and we get to see individual pieces of work they do throughout it.
On the other side of the coin we are left with the character-actors. While the Superstars take the brunt of the attention, character-actors are now left to do what they do best: work. They’re not the exciting people that go to clubs or big Hollywood parties every other night and make a scene. They aren’t the ones that the paparazzi are going nuts for to get a picture. This allows free reign to pick a number of projects, without too much consequence.
However it allows for something else, something far more important. With them not being on every tabloid cover, character-actors like Hoffman, Giamatti, Gary Oldman or even Meryl Streep can more convincingly transform themselves into a role where you aren’t reminded every other second that they are an actor. They just are the role. This is in large part due to you and I not knowing what they did last night, what they did two weeks ago, or if their marriage is on the rocks. They are just known to us as actors. Not stars.
The only example that breaks the mold and combines the character-actor with the superstar is Johnny Depp. While he is one of the most famous people on the planet, Depp still finds a way to transform himself into a character that is completely different from the last one he just played. Edward Scissorhands to Jack Sparrow to Sweeny Todd to The Mad Hatter are just a small group of characters from his collection that showcases how far he goes to be different.
While I'm sure arguments abound occur about whether you can even consider Depp a character actor since his fame renders him unable to hide in plain sight on the screen, as character actors do, there was a time in which Depp was not the mega-superstar he is today. Before Pirates of the Carribean, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t consider him a normal character actor. An actor that jumps from oddball role and genre every project. Sure, you knew “of him” but you wouldn’t consider him a blockbuster star. And that’s all it takes. One amazing role (Captain Jack) to propel from obscurity.
So what about decade long character actors that have a number of roles, but never have made the jump like Depp has? Well that’s tricky. Character actors by their very definition are “every man” (or woman) types. William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti are perfect examples to this. They play roles that most middle aged men can relate to and women may be with or married to. There aren’t many summer tent pole movies, especially now with comic book movies ruling the box office, that demand every man type actors.
Which leads us to why superstars, who obviously lack the chameleon ability, rule the big films. Because superstars are escapes. They are bigger than life. We each know someone “like” Will Smith, or has qualities like him, but we don’t know him. Superstars are our projections of what we want to be like. I would like to be as confident as Brad Pitt, as witty as Ryan Reynolds and have the charm of Tom Cruise, but I don’t. And from a male perspective, superstar actresses like Johansson or Kristen Stewart or Keira Knightly are the dream girls. The objects we want. But they aren’t real. They are the dreams.
The character actors play us. They play and are in movie that are closer to problems we actually deal with. As much as I’d like the idea of having to decide between which Spider-Man costume I want to wear before I fight bad guys, my issues in life are like yours. Paying bills. Getting to work on time. Do I have enough clean socks? Take your pick.
But in the end, these two groups need each other in order to survive. While the Superstars are still the ones we most want to see by and large, character-actors need the superstars to get movies made. So many stories are told of movies that only got the green-light when someone like Brad Pitt came aboard. Lesser known actors can’t throw that kind of star power around, but they can throw it down in a scene, making movies much more dynamic then just a crazy superstar bonaza with no substance. Just ask the dudes in The Expendables.