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Actors Like Idris Elba who Buck the Typecasting Trends

“It’s up to you to be who you say you are.

I have not done anything different from any other actor, but I don’t accept everything. I very rarely let color bound me. I mean, you can’t be Blacker than me” -- “I was born to African parents. My legacy in life is not led by the color of my skin and I don’t choose a lane because of it. I’m just me.” - Idris Elba

JET magazine calls “Prometheus” star Idris Elba “the actor’s answer to a NASCAR driver” because he has successfully navigated through all entertainment genres without sacrificing the quality of his image. Elba’s previous roles include but are not limited to a blue-collar working single father in “Daddy’s Little Girls,” a French priest who rides motorcycles in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” a finance executive trying to save his family in “Obsessed” and a mythic warrior with superhuman powers in “Thor.”

After discussing complacency this past Thursday, Idris Elba’s quote featured above has me thinking about typecasting -- sometimes it seems necessary when it comes to casting directors or filmmakers trying to find the right actors whom they know will fit a role perfectly (you want an action scene with martial arts? you call Jackie Chan or Masi Oka; you don't call B. D. Wong) -- or when it comes to choosing a role based on strengths that as an actor, you know you possess more than any other person currently working in your field (Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe in "My Week with Marilyn;" Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor in "Liz & Dick"). 

Other times, however, typecasting doesn’t always serve a useful purpose because it makes people think that one type of character is all you have to offer such as a thug or funnyman or jerk, etc. -- so it is important for actors to determine the direction that they want their career to go in or decide how they want to be portrayed and then choose roles that support that path -- whatever path that is. Still, for some actors, typecasting seems to be a double edged sword where landing roles are concerned. Action star Vin Diesel used to struggle to get selected for roles because casting directors often overlooked him due to his ethnicity (Italian, African-American and a lot of other stuff).

Diesel’s frustrations in trying to become an actor resulted in making a short film called “Multi-Facial” that is inspired by the many auditions he went on that led nowhere -- he was told that he wasn’t dark enough to play black roles, not Italian enough for other roles and not gangsta enough for some roles. In Vin Diesel’s short film, the main character is sent to an audition for a Latino character, despite the fact that he does not speak Spanish -- since casting directors considered him to be brown enough to play a Hispanic character. Legendary director Steven Spielberg was so impressed by Diesel’s “Multi-Facial” short that he cast him in “Saving Private Ryan” and the rest is history.

In “Hustle and Flow,” they said it’s hard out here for a pimp. Well, it looks like it’s also hard out here for actors who just want to live their dreams in an industry where your job prospects are either flowing or minimal depending on whether you fit certain stereotypes rather than how good your performance is in said role. So I say, cheers to actors like Idris Elba and Vin Diesel who take hold of the the driver’s seat, steering their careers in the lanes that fit the type of people they want to be -- influential, believable and as Chellebee once said -- Multifaceted!

Do YOU think that typecasting limits actors from reaching their full potential in a movie role?

In what circumstances would YOU accept the use of typecasting for a particular film?

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Reader Comments (4)

I actually own the DVD "Short 5 - Diversity", which contains Vin Diesel's "Multi-Facial". I've had this thing for many years. Hadn't watched the short for quite some time but after reading your post I dug it out and watched it again. Man, great video! Might just have to watch The Iron Giant tonight to round things off :-)

As for typecasting, I love the people who do it. Some of my favorites are Michael Ironside, Crispin Glover, Christopher Walken, and Danny Trejo. Whenever I see any of them in a movie my face lights up. They're geniuses at their craft. Nothing wrong with being typecast if, as your post says, that's what you want to do with your career.

June 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHermanTurnip

This also made me think of Bruce Willis. I'm sitting her trying to think of a movie he was in that didn't involve him being a drunk, a drunk cop, a cop on the run, the cop hero and always in some really bad place with his wife or soon to be ex-wife in the movie. Really. I know he's had to have had some role not typecast this way.

June 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Brown

Nicole, this a powerful topic. I didn't realize Idris struggled with type-casting since he has done so many great roles. Vin Diesel did a great job in Multi-Facial. He gets typecast for a lot of films, but I think it's his muscle more than his ethnicity. People see his body and assume he's just a dumb muscle-head without realizing he's an accomplished actor and very smart.

June 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaurice Mitchell

"The Iron Giant" you say? I haven't been to familiar with that one and had to look it up after reading your comment :) Although I knew about Multi-Facial for some time -- I think it was mentioned in a magazine article that I read during his "Fast & Furious" Days -- I didn't watch it until a few months ago when I noticed that it was on YouTube. I liked how he worked to show his range, even when auditioning for parts that he thought were not right for him and I'm glad that the movie caught Speilberg's attention.

Christopher Walken is someone who I never really considered to be typecast much but he hasn't been on my radar a lot either so you definitely put me on to something there. Of all the actors with the ability to sorta pimp the system and make typecasting work well for them, Danny Trejo has done a great job at being the go-to man for specific roles due to his persona and image. It doesn't seem to be much of an issue when you can make it work to your advantage.

Angela Brown,
Why am I not surprised that someone would name my numero uno man?! LOL. Bruce Willis played a corporate executive in the "Perfect Stranger," a thriller that also has Halley Berry in it. Thinking of a movie where he didn't have substance abuse problems, family problems or worked in some aspect of law enforcement is a challenge because those characteristics describe pretty much most of the roles that he plays. Bruce Willis has that "cop" thing down and it works for him, I think, because he's also seen as an action star and action hero. Since the average person may consider police officers to be heroes, then BOOM, cop roles it is for Willis!

I surely wouldn't complain if he took a new role as a fireman or something though...I'd watch him in just about ANY role, in ANY movie, anytime. Oh yeah, Oh yeah! ;)

Thanks. I wanted to write about something that encompassed more than just race with regards to casting movies. Idris Elba has actually been able to avoid being typecast, by selecting roles based on what he wants to do instead of choosing them based on the types of roles that are available to him.

That is why I mentioned Vin Diesel because Diesel went through a period early in his career when he was only considered for certain roles due to what he looked like instead of the skills that he could bring to movie roles -- and he was passed over for other roles because casting directors thought he didn't look the part...such as not being dark it was like, unless he looks like Wesley Snipes, they're not selecting him for a drug dealer role, which brings up a whole other avenue of this conversation about typecasting that is too much to get into here in the comments section.

After taking production matters into his own hands, Vin Diesel was able to find his footing in acting by finally being able to land roles. Yes, he does appear to be typecast for films now, but as you mentioned, it's for a different reason now and I think it has a lot to do with the roles that he agrees to play too. From a visual standpoint, Vin Diesel fits that muscular, ass-kicking persona so he could parlay that into a career as an action star, which seems to be what he did and what he wants.

He did, however, play an undercover cop in family comedy "The Pacifier," so that was a bit different than his other muscle-head roles. I think the same point you make about him being typecast because of his body, could be said about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who became famous as a professional wrestler prior to doing movies. While Johnson has seemed to branch out by doing a variety of films, he has played a lot of authority figures (A former military man in "Walking Tall") and warriors ("The Skorpion King") and such. He has more variety than Diesel but both of them have the ability to choose which roles they will accept and which roles they will pass on.

June 26, 2012 | Registered CommenterNicole

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