If someone asked you to describe your “type” as an actor, would you have an answer ready? You may have heard about actors “playing against type” or being “typecast,” and gotten the impression that having a type is limiting. But having a type (and embracing it) isn’t a bad thing—in fact, knowing your type can help you identify the kinds of roles you’re likely to nail, which will improve your audition chances. In this guide, we'll break down everything you need to know about types for actors: the most common actor types, how to identify your own type, and the pros and cons of being typecast.
An actor’s type is a combination of five criteria that can be found on most character breakdowns:
- Age range
- Physicality (short, tall, thin, heavy, light, dark)
- Job title (mom, lawyer, cop, spy, teen, criminal)
- Personality traits (quirky, serious, intellectual, sexy, loud, innocent)
Acting is a business, and when you walk into an audition, you are selling a product: Yourself. You need to know how to clearly package the product so that prospective buyers (casting directors) will know that it’s right for their project. For actors, this means having a realistic understanding of what you can offer, including your physical characteristics like height and weight, plus the way your voice sounds, and any special skills you have in addition to acting.
“If you want to be taken seriously in the film and television industry, and—more importantly—book jobs, you need to know exactly who you are and where you fit in,” says image consultant and acting teacher Tom Burke. “There is nothing more attractive to an agent, casting director, director, or producer than working with a professional actor. That actor is keenly aware of their specific type and presents him or herself in an image that the industry is buying.”
This doesn’t mean that you have to throw what makes you you to the cutting room floor—in fact, it’s those notes of individuality that will ultimately book you the job. Play to your strengths, especially early on. “If you are magnetic as a comedian and aren’t as convincing dramatically, don’t squash comedic ability just because you only want to play dramatic roles,” advises photographer Marc Cartwright. “Use your talent and, as you grow as an actor, transform. Traits that are unique to you are what make you intriguing.”
Many of the most common actor types are easily identifiable in movies or shows about high school because teenage roles often fall firmly into these categories (just think of “The Breakfast Club” with its clear-cut types: the brain, athlete, basket case, princess, and criminal). These high school roles have adult counterparts, too. Take a look at what we mean with these examples of common actor types, young and old:
- Queen bee / ball-busting CEO: The younger version of this type is Regina George from “Mean Girls,” a popular and attractive teen who rules the school. An older version is a powerful, sexy executive who “has it all” but still wants more.
- Girl next door / soccer mom: Both the teenage and adult versions of this role are wholesome, trustworthy, and approachable. Think of Taylor Swift’s caricature from 2009’s “You Belong With Me” music video: She’s a literal girl next door, but she’s also friendly and crushable, someone you’d feel comfortable confiding in. The adult version might be a smart, kind, competent mom in the suburbs.
- Geek: There are male and female versions of the geek or nerd, but no matter the gender, this character is bright, bookish, and socially awkward. The adult version could be a highly successful professional who is still pretty awkward (like the tech bro played by Kumail Nanjiani on “Silicon Valley”).
- Bad boy biker / villain: This character doesn’t have to be an actual biker, but should dress the part (think: leather jacket, greased hair, tattered jeans, a la “Cry Baby”-era Johnny Depp), and should have an air of mystery about him, as though beneath the tough exterior lurks a bruised but resilient man. The adult version of this type is brooding and misunderstood, with a checkered past that compels him to do bad things.
- Jock / goofy suburban dad: The younger version of this type could be a lovable bro with no interest in school, or an aggressive meathead who bullies the geeks. These characters grow up to become doofy dads and baseball coaches, or sometimes rage-filled losers, tormented by the fact that their glory days are behind them.
There are certainly more types out there (the stoner, the type-A rule-follower, the free-spirited artist, etc.), but they all boil down to some combination of physical and emotional traits, plus socioeconomic status.
Finding your type as an actor requires some self-study and a healthy dose of honesty. Try these five tactics for zeroing in on your specific attributes and strengths—the qualities that make you both widely marketable and uniquely watchable.
- Take a look in the mirror and do an honest assessment. “Pay attention to your face, your weight, your ethnicity, and your personality,” says acting coach Matt Newton. “Do you have a receding hairline? Do you have a thick accent? Listen to your voice. Do you sound smart and articulate when you talk, or do you sound uneducated? Be. Honest.”
- Ask your friends and colleagues for feedback. Try requesting 10 adjectives from friends of friends and cursory colleagues—that is, people who don’t know you well. “First impressions are great,” says Cartwright. Cast an even wider net by posting on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter and asking people to list the qualities they would use to describe you to a stranger or include in your online dating profile. “It might sound something like this: ‘She’s really genuine, whip smart, caring, loyal, very observant, sweet, non-judgmental, someone you’d want to go to when you’re down, humble, and just really pretty,’” session director Shaan Sharma says.
- Review your acting history and note any patterns. Make a list of your past credits and see if you can spot similarities among the roles. “What do you tend to get called in for and book?” Cartwright asks. “If you aren’t getting seen for the types of roles you want, now is a good time to look at what you need to work on as an actor to shape your career. It could also be a time to understand and further develop what is already working for you.”
- Watch films, shows and plays to identify types that you could play well. All actors should be consumers of the craft via film, TV, and theater. While watching, note the different kinds of characters you see and “envision yourself playing a certain type of character on the show,” says casting director Lisa London. “List the different emotions, personalities, attitudes, and qualities that the roles demand [and] add the ones you feel you could do well to your ‘Type List.’”
- Take an acting class or workshop. It can be hugely helpful to take a scene study workshop, on-camera class, or improv training course with professional coaches who can guide you toward identifying your type. Classes and workshops provide you with a new outlook on what kinds of roles are most emotionally accessible to you and what types of characters are in your wheelhouse.
When determining your age range—that is, the range of ages you can believably play on screen—remember that it should span no more than five years and include your real age. Claiming that you can play anywhere from 15 to 40 is “not the response of a professional actor,” acting coach Tom Burke warns.
One of the biggest mistakes new actors make is assuming that if they set their age range on online casting platforms from 0 to 99 years old, it will give them the best possible chance of landing a role. Instead, it makes them look inexperienced—and makes the casting director’s job more difficult, to boot.
Determining your age range as an actor may require a bit of tough love. In order to get called in for roles that you could authentically play, try to be as objective as possible when figuring out your age range. Acknowledge that you may be in a different age bracket now than you were as a younger actor—and that’s okay! In fact, it can be empowering to embrace your actual age range, rather than living in the past and chasing youthful roles that you simply aren’t well-suited to play at this point.
Once you’ve determined your type, it’s time to use that information to your advantage when submitting to roles and prepping for auditions. In particular, your type should inform your choices when it comes to your headshots, acting résumé, and audition outfit:
- Choose your headshots carefully. It’s common for different types of headshot photos to be used for different roles, depending on the kind of character you’re going out for. In an audition for a girl-next-door type, for example, choose a headshot in which you look friendly and approachable rather than sultry and aloof.
- Tweak your résumé for the type of role. Just like you would with a non-acting job, it’s not uncommon for actors to reshuffle the credits on their acting résumé to highlight the types of roles that most interest them and the type that they’re going for in that moment.
- Dress the part—but don’t go overboard! You will want to dress appropriately for your type without being so bold, flashy, or on-the-nose that you look like you’re in a costume. The focus should still be on your acting. “Don’t overwhelm or upstage yourself with awkward props and unnecessary elements that will only undermine your ability to perform,” says casting director Kate McClanaghan. But being mindful about your audition outfit can go a long way toward proving that you’re right for the role. McClanaghan maintains that “every actor needs a handful of go-to items in their wardrobe to suggest types they’re likely to audition for, such as: mom/dad, office-type, professional/authority, (clean) workout wear, bathrobe/pajamas, and so on.”
When actors are “typecast,” it means that they are cast in the same kinds of roles, over and over again, because they’re so believable as those types of characters. While being typecast can be lucrative if an actor is frequently booking work, it can also lead to a dreaded rut in which an actor’s artistic sensibilities are being stifled. Without being challenged by new and different roles, an actor can’t flex other muscles and grow as a performer.
That said, for those just starting out in the industry, worrying about being typecast is a waste of time. In the beginning of your journey, knowing your type and sticking to it will get you noticed by prospective agents, casting directors, and others. That common understanding of who you are as an actor will get you seen in the audition room and eventually cast.
Of course, once you feel more established in your career, it’s natural to want roles in which you’ll be “playing against type.” Being typecast can lead to success, but that success leads to reliability, which leads to less risk, which leads to producers casting you to play your fifth doctor in as many film projects. You’ll probably reach a point when you want to break out and try different things.
“Actors can break the glass ceiling—we see it all the time,” says acting coach Michelle Danner. “I, for one, am more interested in seeing casting that is off-kilter than right on the nose. I like casting against type. Every professional actor wants to ask themselves: ‘What part have I not played that I would be passionate about playing?’ And also be realistic about what those parts can be.”
The main way to avoid being typecast—and land exciting, unexpected roles—is to show casting directors (and maybe even your agent) that you’re able to play against type. Here are three ways to get the message across:
- Take some new headshots. Book a session with a headshot photographer and explore some new character types. The new photos should give a glimpse of what you’re capable of on camera—especially in contrast to your previous headshots (moving from nice to evil, for example, or awkward to sexy).
- Add a new scene to your demo reel. Create a staged scene for your demo reel that shows you tapping into a whole new type of character. That new clip will set a clear intention: You want to take your career in a new direction.
- Pursue indie roles that appeal to you. Even if you’ve reached a level of mainstream acclaim, your best bet is to go out for roles in indie films and web series that will show off a previously unknown shade of your acting. “Take chances! Challenge yourself!” Danner says. “You would have never thought that Brie Larson, only having played supporting parts like the sister in ‘Trainwreck’ would win an Oscar as the leading lady in ‘Room.’ You would’ve never known that she had those dramatic chops, but she showed us her range.”
The bottom line? If you want to deviate from your type and prove your versatility, be ready to take some bold action.
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