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Movie Review

The Face Is Familiar

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The Face Is Familiar
Photo Source: Starz Media
One question is never addressed in The Face Is Familiar, an informative and engaging documentary about character actors who work steadily but are not household names or, indeed, even immediately identifiable: Are these actors—and they are an impressive lot—happy with where they are, or have they settled? It's hard to imagine any actor launching a career with the dream of being asked by strangers where they've seen him or her before.

Still, compared with many actors, who work intermittently at best, those featured in Kevin Burns' documentary are a fortunate lot, and they know it. Unlike stars who are sometimes merely flashes in the pan, high-level character actors are constantly employed—often for the long haul, they point out. Further, the kinds of roles they play are frequently well-rounded, colorful, and just plain more fun than the bland lead or ingénue, from the geeky buddy to the stingy boss to the ditsy blonde to the backstabbing colleague. Character actors do not carry a film—they don't get praised when it scores or blamed when it flops—and thus they have more creative freedom. In addition, they are not obliged to maintain their looks, as they are not always conventionally beautiful to begin with. Indeed, some are quirky looking; others are also blessed or cursed—depending on viewpoint—with trick voices. Who can forget William Sanderson's backwoods drawl on The Bob Newhart Show: "I'm Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl?" Today, Sanderson plays a Southern sheriff on HBO's True Blood

The film reveals that fighting against typecasting is a constant battle for many character actors. Stephen Tobolowsky—best known for his work in Groundhog Day and on Heroes—says it's not a matter of changing your looks but who you are, so you can be viewed differently. Other actors are not unhappy with being typecast; it's preferable to unemployment. For Danny Trejo, undoubtedly the most entertaining actor featured in this film, playing the heavy-handed villain in more than 100 films has been a blast. But then, he never thought he'd be an actor at all. An ex-con, he fell into acting almost by accident and has virtually never been unemployed. He joyfully admits most of his fan base is made up of those who work in kitchens. Jane Lynch—most identified with the films of Christopher Guest—has little patience with actors who whine about typecasting, suggesting it's an excuse for not working.

The Face Is Familiar is also skillful at interweaving interviews with casting directors and agents who talk about the process of finding the right actors, as well recalling how the character actor has evolved: career trajectory and place in the industry over the decades. This is one documentary actors—indeed, anyone interested in the cultural landscape—would enjoy.

The Face Is Familiar premieres on Starz June 9 at 10 p.m. and can be seen on Starz and Starz's Edge throughout June and July and into August. Also available on Starz on Demand.

Genre: Documentary
Written and directed by: Kevin Burns
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Stephen Tobolowksy, Danny Trejo, Jane Lynch, William Sanderson, Luis Guzmán

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