We often know something about a film based on who’s in it. Once they’ve found a niche, many actors enjoy occupying that role again and again. Being typecast like this has its appeal. It can mean regular work. Think of Tom Cruise and the amount of leading action roles he’s had in his career. By being typecast as this kind of character, he virtually guarantees being considered for any large-scale action project.

But being typecast also has its drawbacks. It can limit the possibilities of an actor who has an established image. However, it’s not impossible to break that mould. Increasingly, actors are crossing between genres and “types” of characters. Jennifer Lawrence’s still short career has seen her in low-budget horror films like House at the End of the Street, science-fiction thrillers like Passengers, and in a more romantic role like Silver Linings Playbook. The point is, we don’t necessarily “know” what role Jennifer Lawrence will take next. And many actors have followed this flexibility in recent years.

But what about actors that don’t consistently change their roles? How and why do they change from their perceived character “types”? Looking at three examples, we’ll see how actors, with a history of being typecast, broke the mould.

 

Vince Vaughn – Brawl In Cell Block 99 (2017)

Now, when I hear the name Vince Vaughn I think of his serious face trying to maintain some sort of stability while events in films like Dodgeball (2004) and Wedding Crashers (2005) are humorously delving into chaos. I’m probably not alone for jumping to this comedic image. But in Brawl in Cell Block 99, he ditches all that. Who would have thought shaving your hair and getting an eight-inch tattoo of a cross on the back of your head could make you so intimidating?

Bradley Thomas is not Vaughn’s typical role. He’s stiff and threatening. His movement is slow but powerful, as if he’s carrying heavy artillery for his limbs. Both his and his wife, Lauren’s, (Jennifer Carpenter) dark past are hinted at. Together, the couple try to create a quiet, peaceful life – maybe because they have previously lived through a stormy and dark one.

This role is so different from some of Vaughn’s most known characters because of this darkness below the surface. In Couple’s Retreat (2009), for example, Vaughn also finds himself playing a role where a complicated marriage is key. But here the tension created in the story is released through light-hearted comedy. Brawl In Cell Block 99 is a different direction for Vaughn because he struggles with darkness and there is very little relief from that struggle.

Speaking about this role, Vaughn recalled, ‘I had just as much fun playing a good character as I would a terrible character – it’s enjoyable to allow that in yourself’. It’s not simply that Bradley Thomas is terrible: he is extremely violent, but not needlessly violent. Vaughn’s role as Bradley Thomas lets him explore this complicated combination of terrible and good all in one. And it is a compelling struggle to watch.

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Elizabeth Taylor – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1967)

Elizabeth Taylor is known for being a leading beauty. Her glamorous roles are extensive. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Cleopatra (1963), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) are just some examples where her beauty is at the centre of her films.

This made it surprising when, in 1967, Taylor took on the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. At the time, she was thirty-three years old. The character Martha, however, was somewhere in her fifties. But age was not the only question mark hovering around this casting choice. To play the role, Taylor gained nearly 30 pounds to inhabit the life of a fifty-something woman on the brink of emotional collapse. Many were surprised by this decision for Taylor (held-up as one of the most glamorous women in the world) to take a grittier and sadder role.

Interestingly, Harry Stradling (cinematographer) was replaced early into shooting for reportedly trying to “beautify” Taylor. Stradling was clearly tempted to uphold Taylor’s image as a glamorous leading lady. But this role was different – and the decision to replace Stradling shows how much Taylor and the film crew resisted her typecast image as a beautiful, glamorous figure.

In her A&E Biography, Taylor says that she views her performance as Martha as her best. This shows how important it is for some actors to break from the mould of typecasting. The challenge of a different role: where Taylor is flawed, drunken, ugly, is the challenge she looked back on with most affection. Resisting typecasting can be the ultimate challenge with the ultimate payoff.

 

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John Travolta – Pulp Fiction (1994)

The year before Pulp Fiction, Travolta starred in Look Who’s Talking Now (1993): the third instalment in a series where babies and dogs humorously provide narrative voiceover. These light-hearted romantic comedies are far from the world of violence and crime in Pulp Fiction.

Vincent Vega is a heroin-taking hitman. This dark role was a move away from certain types for Travolta. Prior to Pulp Fiction, we were used to seeing him dancing his way through conflict and danger in Grease (1978) and Saturday Night Fever (1977). His early career is dominated by charismatic and charming roles. However, Vincent Vega is more complicated than that.

Although we see Travolta’s dancing skills, they don’t keep him out of danger. Vincent Vega is unsympathetic. He kills without questioning the moral complexities of his actions. And (spoiler) his death is abrupt and unceremonious. It’s the first time Travolta’s character dies onscreen since his breakthrough roles in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. So it’s a departure from his typecast role as a charming, loveable hero figure.

But the role was surprising for another reason. Approaching Pulp Fiction, Travolta believed his best roles were behind him. Looking back, he says, ‘I never imagined that one project could give me that kind of second career, where I was offered the ‘A’ scripts again and the Oscar contender type scripts’. He thought he’d been typecast out of the biggest roles in the film industry. That changed after he took on the role of Vincent Vega. Breaking the mould meant he showed filmmakers another side to his ability. And it paid off.

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About 

After completing a BA in English Literature from the University of Leeds, Daniel is keen to pursue a career in Film. His experience as a volunteer at Leeds International Film Festival furthered his interest in film festivals. He’s currently assisting at Raindance as a Marketing Intern and is enjoying learning all the practicalities of organising a festival and promoting their courses and events. Writing has always been his keenest interest and he hopes one day to progress in scriptwriting.