What You Need to Know About Being the Ultimate Working Actor

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If Cary Grant is forever the ultimate movie star, then the title for ultimate working actor should likely go to Mr. Charles Lane.

“Who?” you very well may ask? Well, according to IMDb, he’s the “skinny, hatchet-faced, bespectacled American character actor, ubiquitous in literally hundreds of films. With his prominent nose, his rimless eyeglasses and his permanent scowl, he typically portrayed short-tempered and often loudmouthed bureaucrats, yes-men and other minor minions, principally in lighter fare.”

It’s more likely you’d know his face (and demeanor) than his name, but Lane managed to appear in nearly 100 television episodes and more than 250 movies, including “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where he claimed, “It’s no skin off my nose, but someday, Mr. Potter, this bright, young man is going to be asking George Bailey for a job!”

He was the consummate character actor, with his type affording him a career that spanned more than 77 years. In fact, if he weren’t such a defined type, it’s not likely we’d recognize him or what he brought to every production he graced. He found his niche and worked it for nearly his entire life. His career speaks volumes about type and what it can do for an actor:

1. Play what you know first, then branch out from there once you’re established.

2. It’s not only okay to be yourself, it’s your strength and your strong suit. Use it to your advantage.

3. We all become known for something. It’s usually whatever we put our most time and attention to.

4. Use skills you’ve cultivated in other areas to enhance your type. For instance, Cary Grant incorporated tumbling and acrobatic skills into his comedy, skills he honed when he was young. These skills are showcased in nearly every film he was in.

5. You have a bankable type incorporated in your face, build, speech, and overall personae, whether you identify with that type in real life or not. For example, Katharine Hepburn as an aristocrat, Edward G. Robinson as a gangster, James Cagney as the ultimate tough guy, and Cary Grant as the perfect leading man.

READ: Why Actors Need to Appreciate Typecasting

Of course, you can play against type and find your niche. Contradictions and dualities are at the heart of some of the best storyline conflicts, probably because they support reality or at the very least the reality posed. Suffice it to say, versatility can be relative; it can have as much to do with mastering a variety of media as it does with the ability to portray a variety of roles within a single medium.

Obviously, the world is a dramatically different place today than it was when Lane was active. The great melding of media, of film and television, of commercial and industrial, continues to blur the lines between genres. But People are still people, with passions and contradictions, just as they ever did.

Don’t concern yourself too much with becoming pigeon-holed into playing a type or style again and again. There’s steady work in becoming known for something. Use it well to subsidize your career while continuing to develop skills.

Take a tip from Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Charles Lane: play what’s close to you first. Lead with power. Begin with your own demographic and branch out from there. Play what’s familiar first, rather than attempting to force yourself into unfamiliar territory, and you may just find your audience. Save those “exercises” of being someone else for the classroom for now. Practice until you master them, but start with what you honestly know well and can do with ease, repeatedly, for the actual job.

In other words, concentrate on who you are first and foremost. Granted, this is the antithesis of conventional training, but you’re far more likely to be cast as “yourself” right out of the gate because there’s little or no effort in playing who you are. It’s a chore watching someone be something they aren’t. Frankly, no one is interested in seeing you work at a character, but they will appreciate you simply being the role. You can branch out from there as the demand for what you bring to the work grows.

It may not seem as adventurous or glamorous to you for starters, but it will allow you to secure more work more often. And that will lead to more opportunities and greater longevity of career. Which is the name of the game, isn't it?

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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Kate McClanaghan
Kate McClanaghan is a casting director, producer, and founder of both Big House Casting & Audio (Chicago and Los Angeles) and Actors’ Sound Advice. She’s a seasoned industry veteran and actor who has trained actors and produced demos for more than 5,000 performers over her 30 years in the business.
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