Actors who play themselves - Are you a personality actor? What is Personality Acting?
by N J Howell, all right reserved
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Personality acting, by my definition, is when an actor basically plays themselves over and over in different parts. If you have a very strong and unique presence naturally, acting from that personality is a valid place to start. Personality acting can get you acting jobs. Personality actors are often very successful in soap operas or sitcoms. Tony Danza made a great living for years, on Taxi and then Who's the Boss, just being his lovable self and developing one of the best senses of comic timing I've ever seen. How do I know he was just being Tony Danza? Because I saw exactly the same person and personality in any in-person interview.
I was very happy to finally see Tony Danza branch out into drama, and present a new side to him that I had not seen in all those years on Taxi and Who's the Boss. Please don't write and ask me what Taxi is, any of you young whippersnappers out there. In fact, if you want to see some fine ensemble acting, go find a copy of an old Taxi rerun. You'll learn a little somethin' somethin' about comedic timing.
Anthony Geary, who plays Luke Spencer on General Hospital, is another example of personality acting at it's television finest. His disarming charm was perfect for the character and it was easy to see why Laura loved him.
I also saw Anthony Geary in a feature film a while back - however, unlike Tony who showed new nuances and shading, Anthony did not create new ways of speaking or walking, in my opinion. He felt essentially like the same character and same personality I've enjoyed on General Hospital for years (Luke Spencer). In the film, this sameness did not work for me. I didn't want to see Luke Spencer outside the General Hospital environment.
Another actor who, at least in my experience of him, has always been more of a personality actor is Jack Nicholson. I may get crucified for saying this but I saw essentially the same wild Jack that made him a star in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in almost all of his work until the past 10 years. On the other hand, I loved the characterization he manifested in in "As Good as it Gets" with another great personality actor, Helen Hunt. I saw a variation on that character again in "Schmidt".
Tom Selleck is another actor who comes to mind. His character on Magnum, Friends and Blue Bloods are basically Tom. I don't ever really see much difference. He is naturally charismatic and watchable and he stays true to himself in roles. You know what you are going to get when you get Tom Selleck and that is often a treasured element in television casting. Solid predictable performances are important in a quick production atmosphere.
The Opposite of Personality Acting:
On the other hand, you have actors who change everything about themselves when the character inhabits the body and voice. Movement, reactions, even the sound of the voice changes. One of the best actors of this caliber is Mare Winingham. She's one of our underated treasures. If it weren't for the distinct shape of her facial features, I might not know it was Mare, from role to role.
Meryl Streep can certainly pull of radically diffent characters too. For example, the Meryl Streep who played Karen Silkwood in the film of the same name would never be confused with the Meryl Streep who played Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. These two Karen's walked, talked, reacted and even thought differently .... that is to say, you could see them going through their thought process and their minds worked differently from one another. The wide stance, sling-legged and often haphazard walk that Meryl found for Silkwood was entirely different than the gentle, slower, thoughtful grace that moved Karen Blixen's body through her world.
Having said that, I'll also admit I saw too much of the same old same old when Meryl did Mamma Mia, It's Complicated and even Julia and Julia, to a certain extent. although the Julia Child accent helped differentiate a good bit. Mostly it was the laugh. The characters needed a different laugh and a different way of dealing with being flustered, at least to my observation. Otherwise, they pull me into other stories and it's distracting. Meryl Streep is memorable in whatever she does but I don't want to be thinking of one movie while I'm watching another of hers. It could be argued that Neva Howell is no Meryl Streep and I'll take that criticism, Neva said with a wry smile.
Who knows why the same laugh and mannerisms suddenly started appearing in a lot of Streep's films. (or why Diane Keaton's characters all have the exact same laugh, as far as any movies I've seen of her through the years.) Maybe Meryl has gotten tired of creating completely original characters (it's a lot of work) but, for me, all three of those were basically the same character in a different film, although she did change the voice and body mannerisms for Julia Child but not the personality, that I could tell. I was disappointed. And, in the previews for the movie with Tommy Lee Jones, called Hope Springs, I saw the same laugh and reaction in one the trailer and sorta decided I'd skip that one.
The thing I don't particularly enjoy about the acting process Meryl uses is that, for me, it feels a bit too left-brain or cerebral. I feel the same way about Jody Foster. I can see the wheels turning a little too much. In spite of that, they both have created characters that could not really be recognized as Meryl Streep and Jody Foster at first glance ... Jody in Nell, for example. Even then though, as brilliant as her mannerisms and made up language were, I saw the work a little too much.
Two of my favorite character actors are no longer with us. I'm referring to Michael Jeter and Carroll O'Conner. I miss their caliber of pure acting genius.
Michael Jeter as Eduard Delacroix in The Green Mile was, quite simply, an entirely unique creation so different than other roles I had seen Michael Jeter play that it was quite a while before I ever realized it was him. When I did realize it, I thought "can this possibly be the same person who played Herman Stiles on Everning Shade?". Bravo, Michael. I miss you.
And one of the most amazing examples of an actor who worked the conscious mind to the hilt and incorporated the genius of the subconscious mind equally well was Carroll O'Conner. Study scenes from Carroll as Archie Bunker and then watch scenes from The Heat of the Night. Same man but entirely different characters. Amazing, amazing actor. I loved his command of accent. It went well beyond phonetics or the correct emphasis on syllables. He was able to incorporate the rhythm of the south in his Heat of the Night role to a degree that pretty near made me forget that the distinctive, over the top but somehow still believable, Archie Bunker speech patterns came from the same mouth.