As actors ponder their Emmy acceptance speeches for September 12, one wonders whether some incipient Adrian Lester envy might creep into their thoughts. Lester, the Black British actor, won a Tony nomination for playing both a German Jewish banker and a female character in The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway. At the Emmys, actors like Jennifer Coolidge and Steve Martin will likely win kudos for essentially playing themselves, with great aplomb.
I empathize with the tensions facing actors today: They covet the opportunity to display their “range,” but also understand the risks inherent in boundary crossing. Even Tom Hanks expresses regret for depicting a gay protagonist in Philadelphia (1993) and James Franco is catching it for playing Fidel Castro.
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The woke-phobic Bill Maher raged this week against critics of Helen Mirren for portraying Golda Meir, but some still rail on Mickey Rooney for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
But type-casting, or resistance to it, is just one of an array of problems confronting the acting profession at the moment. There’s rising tension around the Byzantine formulas for compensating actors as the income gap between rich and poor continues to broaden. Negotiators for all the arts and crafts are combat-ready for upcoming meetings.
In movies, star casting was losing out to dreaded IP at Marvel and other citadels of culture until smart producers decided to bring Jamie Lee Curtis back to Halloween and Michael Keaton to Batman. Determined producers of the Star Wars cycle even renewed their pursuit of the famously grumpy Harrison Ford (Solo bombed without him).
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If you believe the numbers being tossed around, acting is still richly rewarding at the top end with Brad Pitt recently scoring a $30 million payout and Ryan Reynolds $20 million; TV payouts per episode have reached $1 million for Jason Sudeikis and $750,000 for Brie Larson.
On the other hand, Covid has increasingly played havoc with many careers, posing obstacles in terms of timing and location. A Squid Game performer can pre-plan his shoots, but the Mrs. Maisel cast found themselves shooting all-nighters in Carnegie Hall.
Ditto stage stars. Roger Bart (yes, progeny) found himself in a holding pattern for almost two years as the musical Back to the Future almost faded back to the past (it is now a mega hit in London with Broadway slated for the fall).
Virus-era vicissitudes are also well documented in this season’s pre-Emmy interviews. Toni Collette (The Staircase) describes the stress of shooting three fatal scenes back to back in one evening. Zendaya explains that she felt “locked in my shell”.
Steve Martin, at 75, discloses his joy over the exuberant ratings and reviews for Murder in the Apartment: “My movies never got appreciated until twenty years later.”
Having survived the obstacle course, the bottom line is that Hollywood now employs a record number of actors in a record number of shows – a range of opportunity that would have startled the alumni of the Actors Studio era when they invaded Hollywood in the late ’40s and ’50s.
A new book titled The Method by Isaac Butler describes the culture shock of that generation (Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Elia Kazan et al) who, as students of acting in New York, were appalled by the “complacency and shallowness” of their West Coast colleagues.
Champions of The Method trace their technique back to Konstantin Stanislavski, co founder of the Moscow Art Theater (he died in 1938). Some of the early Method actors unexpectedly found fame in Hollywood, but hard-liners decided to take refuge back on Broadway, fostering hits like Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy.
Butler’s book reminds us that the tension between philosophies has re-occurred over the generations. On Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman proudly told his co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, that he’d captured his character’s fatigue by jogging all night to prepare his scene. An exasperated Oliver replied, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?” (It took an entire day to shoot the short scene.)
To Butler, a professor at the New School, audiences today are too distracted by the action and special effects of tentpole movies to assimilate the subtleties of performance. Hence actors like Adrian Lester seek their plaudits on stage in intimate plays like The Lehman Trilogy (it had a cast of three).
But they’ll just have to forgo their Emmys.
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