Celebrity and the delicate art of casting


Harold Clurman used to say “Choose a good script,  cast good actors – and you’ll all be good directors!” This is as true today as it was in the beginning days of film, but for entirely different reasons. With the rise of celebrity culture, audiences developed a deep knowledge and personal relationships with their favorite movie stars, which is a casting game-changer Nowadays, it’s not enough to cast an excellent actor that fits the part: casting in the age of celebrity requires an awareness of the perceptions that an actor carries with them onscreen.

To illustrate: if you pick Daniel Radcliffe to play a part in your movie, you’re not just casting a dark-haired, blue-eyed British man. You are also casting the guy who played Harry Potter, and the public knows this. Audiences can’t help but see that baggage, and judge the performance not by its own merits, but on a scale of how much they were able to forget they were watching everyone’s favorite wizard. Alternately, when Leonardo DiCaprio writhes and screams in “The Revenant,” it’s impossible not to see the guy who was really, really trying hard to get an Oscar.

There will always be actors who disappear into their roles “” Heath Ledger as the Joker in “Batman,” Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” or Gary Oldman as”¦ well, anyone he’s ever played. Their careers do not factor into their performance “” and that’s great, since it eliminates that layer  from the film altogether.

This audience awareness may seem like the bane of a casting director’s existence, but it doesn’t have to be. Directors have been aware that stardom is a factor of the moviegoing experience, and some have started accounting for it in their casting process. Many filmmakers actively select actors whose careers lend additional depth to the film’s narrative, and when it’s pulled off right, it can thoroughly enhance the viewing experience.

Sometimes the right choice is to avoid celebrities altogether. Directors can purposely avoid casting famous actors, even when they could easily do so. Think about how “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was cast. Any actor would have jumped at the chance to play the next Skywalker, but the meaty parts went to John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, who were essentially blank slates in spite of numerous accolades in smaller films.

This casting choice aimed to replicate the viewing experience of the original “Star Wars” films. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford might be household names today, but when the original trilogy was released, nobody had strong feelings about them. This is the film to be enjoyed in its own terms “” without the added burden of any actor’s celebrity.

Some celebrities have been cast because their careers mirror a character’s arc. In 2008, when Robert Downey Jr. was cast in “Iron Man,” he was the poster boy for Hollywood excess. As a younger celebrity, Downey Jr. spent the early 2000s as a rehab regular, all of which culminated in a stretch in prison for drug-related charges.

In 2007, USA Today responded to the casting choice by pointing out that “Robert Downey Jr.’s struggles with substance abuse echo the problems faced by the character he’ll play.” Not a bold claim, since director Jon Favreau essentially stated that the actor’s career was a major factor in his casting, explaining how Downey Jr. had to “find an inner balance to overcome obstacles that went far beyond his career. That’s Tony Stark.”

Let’s up the ante. What about casting multiple actors, in the same film, so that their real-life personae layer onto the film? Alejandro G. Ià±à¡rritu’s “Birdman” is the prime example of an ensemble’s careers seamlessly blending into their fictional counterparts. At the time of release, “Birdman” lead actor Michael Keaton was a Hollywood has-been who was once famous for playing a superhero called “Batman.” He plays Riggan Thomson, a Hollywood has-been who was once famous for playing a superhero called “Birdman.” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to connect the dots.

Michael Keaton was not the only actor cast for what his career added to the film. In “Birdman” Edward Norton plays a Broadway actor who is remarkably difficult to work with. Offscreen, Edward Norton’s method acting and creative demands sometimes make him a nightmare collaborator. In his contracts, Norton demands final approval of the scripts, and has even re-edited entire films to fit his liking “” which famously happened during the filming of  “American History X.”

This style of casting is not just a nod to people in the industry, or an accidental joke. It’s a creative technique that comes from an awareness that actors don’t only bring their Juilliard chops to a film – they bring entire careers. And it’s not exclusive to film either: some television showrunners realize that over years, they can transform an actor’s public face in a way that bolsters their show’s key narrative.

The most fascinating case study is none other than AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” for Bryan Cranston in the role of Walter White. This particular praise has nothing to do with Cranston’s excellent acting, and everything to do with his bizarre career trajectory.

It sounds absurd now, but Cranston was not an intuitive choice for the role of Walter White. When the cast of the show was announced, Cranston had spent the past six years of his television career at “Malcolm in the Middle” playing Hal, an inept, immature father “” hardly the dangerous, machiavellian drug lord that he’d would become by the end of “Breaking Bad.”

But that’s exactly what creator Vince Gilligan had in mind when he pitched the unusual show to AMC: “this is the story about a man who transforms himself from Mr Chips into Scarface.” As writer Nancy Franklin of “The New Yorker” wrote in 2008, “Walt is almost the dramatic correlative of the hapless sitcom dad Cranston played in “Malcolm in the Middle.”

The choice added a delicious metanarrative to the entire series. Cranston enters the show as a friendly, harmless sitcom dad, and exits as one of the most fearsome men in television. Our initial expectations were met, and then slowly broken down, as Walt descended through the dark spiral of his own creation. It’s one of the most apt casting choices in television history.

There is no turning back the clock to a time where we could enjoy every movie without the added information that our media-laden culture provides. For better or worse, We cannot escape our own awareness of an actor’s existence beyond the screen. As “Birdman” cast member Zach Galifianakis put it in 2014, “Being a celebrity is shit “” it’s dumb and I’m not interested in it. I like to be an actor, and that’s it. The blurred lines are, I think, man-made.” Man-made or not, the lines are there, and they are more blurred than ever. The real decision for directors is whether to let the cards fall as they may, or to take charge and control how an actor’s portfolio will enhance or detract from the overall viewing experience.


How should I start? It’s only been four months since I got out of school and my life is nothing like I envisioned before graduation. I assumed that my internship at my ad agency would turn into a full-time job and my days would be filled with designing websites for various trendy businesses around town. I thought that I’d be in a nine-to-five job everyday and have job security, a steady paycheck, and work around a set of co-workers who I could learn from and improve my design skills. However, life never turns out the way you expect it. Agency life is unpredictable and there were some weeks where there was not enough time to do any work and there were weeks that there was absolutely no work. I became a freelancer over the course of the summer and learned to adapt constantly to the day-by-day demands of an agency while working to get more clients for myself. Now I work as a full-time freelance web designer for a couple of startups in Geekdom and a contractor for other designers and PR firms in San Antonio.


My time at Trinity felt like it was years ago. Once I started getting involved with the Geekdom community and other startups, I felt like I’ve always been a freelancer. The hardest transition from being a student to becoming a freelancer has been going from a set schedule for one semester to waking up and setting up a different schedule every single day. There hasn’t been a single day since I’ve graduated where I’ve gone to work at the same time and place. During my time at Trinity I’ve never met someone who jumped straight into freelancing so I’ve had to blunder my way through the whole process. At some points I didn’t even know if I could pay rent on time because I didn’t have enough clients. Thankfully with luck, a great portfolio, and the startup community, I’ve settled into a challenging but fun part of my life where I get to work with several different companies a week, doing what I love the most. Freelancing has given me an alternative option, one where I set my own schedule, price, and projects. There has never been a better time to be a freelancer with the rise of startups, and I’m so happy that I’ve been able to take the plunge onto the crazy ride.