When actor and standup comic Mo'Nique struts across the stage of Showtime at the Apollo proclaiming that she's "fat and fabulous," she's not mocking her size; she's celebrating it. She doesn't care if thin is in.
But is thin really still "in" these days? Roseanne Barr, Rosie O'Donnell, Camryn Manheim, and Oprah Winfrey have managed to rise to the pinnacle of success despite their weight. But being "plus size" in the entertainment industry can still be treacherous, especially for women. Stereotypes persist and continue to create barriers for overweight actors. But, at the same time, there is a backlash, as an increasing number of larger actors resist industry pressure to lose weight and insist that there is nothing wrong with their appearance.
"If you're a plus-size actor, it's really difficult to get a role, unless the character is lazy, stupid, and unattractive," says Chanel Huston, a recent college graduate who has just begun the search for acting work. "At more than one audition I've been told, 'Oh, we aren't interested in plus-size actresses. We're casting the love interest.' I've always thought of myself as the love interest. I never thought my plus size should make any difference, although I've had agents tell me that no one would ever hire me because of my weight. I've also been told to wait until I'm much older to start acting because then I'll be able to play character parts. No, I'm not going to lose weight to fit into somebody's mold." But she isn't completely blind to industry realities: She admits she would consider taking a role that presents a large woman in a less-than-flattering light—but only "to get my foot in the door."
By contrast, Jayne Houdyshell, currently receiving rave reviews for her performance in Lisa Kron's Well on Broadway, says she won't go out for roles "that stereotype people because of their weight or degrade or demean them in any way. I don't accept auditions for parts where being fat is a source of comedy or humor. I just won't consider doing them." Such roles are more prevalent in film and television, she adds; in the theatre she has generally not faced discrimination based on her size. On the contrary, she's been able to play "glamorous sophisticates" in addition to "working-class women who have never worn makeup."
She adds, "I work hard and steadily, and I don't think of myself as a marginalized victim of the industry, even though I see the industry as guilty of marginalizing women in general, and certainly women who are minorities and women over 40 and women who are heavy. All of that is true and wrong and reflective of attitudes in our society and popular culture. Because it's wrong, I won't participate in projects that do that. That's how I assert my power as an actor."
All the actors interviewed for this article have struggled with their weight--if not now, then in the past. "Weight used to be an issue big-time for me," recalls Houdyshell. "I was obsessed, always felt fat, never felt good enough or pretty enough or thin enough. All through my teens, 20s, 30s, and into my early 40s, yo-yo dieting was a way of life. The ironic thing was I was never that heavy. When I hit my mid-40s, something in me snapped around the weight and body issue. I just stopped obsessing. I gained weight. I've been heavy for the past eight years. Ironically, I've worked as much as ever and have in recent years been getting huge great parts in interesting projects that have gotten a lot of attention. The truth is, I only work with directors who value me as a talented, hard-working actress and want to see me in certain interesting roles because of the skills I have to offer. I don't think it's because I'm thin or heavy, but because I'm a certain kind of actress."
Huston says she looks forward to experiencing that in her own life, though she's happy to report she has had good experiences in the student films she's appeared in.
Standup comic Carrie Snow, who was heavy at one time but no longer is, says that in her line of work, she's "scot-free to be fat, thin, or go up and down in my weight, as long as I'm funny." But self-image is another story. "My big problem was not from my audience or the people who hired me, but from myself. At my heaviest point, I was ashamed to go out there or do on-camera work. And when I lost weight, I had to find out who I was again and how much space I took."
After a major weight loss, an actor may also have to redefine himself in the eyes of casting directors. Ron Lester, who played Sugar Daddy on the WB show Popular, shed 350 pounds and has not had an easy time of it, he told Back Stage last year. "Just because I had the credits [didn't] mean the doors [were] going to swing open," he said. "I literally had to start repitching and promoting myself, and I didn't know how.... I tried different managements and different agents; it was a hard sell. Not too many people know how to take [a person who was once] 508 pounds who's now a 173-pound guy and go, 'Oh, yeah, he was the fat guy, but now he's this.' So they'd pitch me to casting directors who knew my name but they didn't know what I looked like. And then I'd walk in, and they were like, 'Well, uh...you were totally different.' I was, like 'Yeah, but you've got the headshots. You knew I was smaller when you saw the headshot.' 'Yeah, but we didn't really realize it was you.' "
Lester conceded that his self-presentation may have contributed to the problem. "Sometimes I'll forget I'm not the fat guy," he said. "And I'll go in, and I'll joke like I am, and I go, 'Wait a minute. These people don't even care. They want to see me now. Half of them don't even remember me as the fat guy.' It's awesome to have that opportunity to be a completely new person. In this industry, it's hard as hell to do."
Larger actors inevitably have to deal with the misconceptions people have about them, such as "the idea that fat people are too lazy to lose weight, when in fact that's not necessarily why they're heavy at all," says Huston. "I gained weight in college because of a medical condition and can't lose that weight until I stop taking a certain medication. People, including casting directors, don't understand that."
Snow speculates that such attitudes emerge from deep-seated fears dating back to prehistoric days, when it was suspected that larger people were thieves who had gobbled down the community's food that had been stored for the winter. Another common myth, she says, is that the overweight are not sexually active, or even sexy: "When I was at a very heavy point, I was told that I had not been hired to perform at a Vegas hotel because I had gained a lot of weight and had lost my sex appeal."
Heavy women are also thought to have a particular vocal quality, reported Fiddle Viracola in a previous Back Stage article: "Years ago I was cast as the 'fat mother in Macy's'--that's how the character was described. That kind of character description is not uncommon, and very offensive all by itself. 'Fat mothers in Macy's' don't even get names. In any case, when I came down for the costume fitting, the A.D. [assistant director] said he was worried about my voice. When I said, 'Why?,' he said, 'You don't sound fat.' "
The good news is that extra weight no longer necessarily excludes women from the casting pool. When full-bodied actor Margo Martindale landed the role of Big Mama in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2003, she told Back Stage that her figure had served her well throughout her career, never more so than in her Broadway debut--which, she reported, was the first time the role had been cast correctly. "Big Mama has never been cast the way she was written," she said. "Williams describes Big Mama as a short, fat sumo wrestler who is over 170 pounds. She's raucous and crude. Yet all the Big Mamas I've seen are quiet, severe women."
Men, it seems, have had an easier time of it. Heavy actors such as Brian Dennehy and Charles Durning work regularly, and Jackie Gleason was one of television's most popular stars—though his size was often a source of laughs on The Honeymooners. Even on the industry's lower rungs, overweight men are cast frequently. Says actor Peter Linari, "I'm 300 pounds, and I don't even think that makes me unusual-looking in any way. I play the hot dog vendor, detective, blue-collar boss, cab driver, and truck driver who tows away cars. I get the 'guy' parts. I've been doing it for 16 years. I don't have a problem with the roles I play. I like them. My appearance has made it possible for me to get them."
As attitudes and expectations about larger people change, so do the scripts depicting them. In an episode of Diagnosis Murder apparently intended to debunk the myth of the unattractive fat girl, Steve (Barry Van Dyke) falls in love with a large, beautiful woman, then has to defend his choice to his sneering colleagues. Similarly, Neil LaBute's play Fat Pig explores what happens when Tom, an attractive young yuppie, falls in love with the zaftig Helen, who is devoid of self-consciousness about her weight. Tom's co-workers are not as tolerant as he is: The relationship enrages and threatens them, they make their feelings known, and in the end Tom dumps Helen. But is Helen the real loser?
In an interview with Back Stage last year, Ashlie Atkinson, who played Helen in the play's Off-Broadway run, speculated, "Helen will be fine. But I'm not sure Tom will be. He's had his dark night of the soul. Thanks to Helen, he realizes he'll never be strong enough to be happy. He knows he's a fearful person who will never get better." She said she has more sympathy for the play's svelte, sexy Jeannie than for Helen: Helen knows who she is and accepts herself, but Jeannie has had "a nose job and taken a job in accounting in order to meet someone successful. She's sacrificed so much of herself with no guarantee of anything. That's terribly painful." For Atkinson, Helen is probably the happiest character in the play—neither the butt of jokes nor an object of pathos.
Atkinson was determined "to invest Helen with as much dignity and integrity as she deserves. For example, in the opening scene we see her eating lunch. She eats slowly, a little at a time. She's not wolfing down that meal," an attempt by the actor to counteract a popular belief about the eating habits of the overweight.
Atkinson said she was never told to lose weight by her acting teachers at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York or by the casting directors and agents she has subsequently met with. "Perhaps if I were more of an ingénue type to begin with, I'd be told to lose weight," she contends. "But I played 'characters' in school, and once I got out, I continued to play 'characters'--characters who fall in love and have love scenes. It's phenomenal." Among her credits are the FX series Rescue Me, on which she plays Theresa, the sexy girlfriend of a firefighter, and the new Spike Lee film, Inside Man.
"It's funny when people say to me, 'So what's it like to play large women?' " said Atkinson. "They're all large. I'm large. I don't slap on cellulite as a character choice. It comes with me."
Now there's self-acceptance.