"Oh wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!"—"To a Louse" by Robert Burns, circa 1785.
I received a question that makes me uncomfortable as an actor, a director, and as a teacher. Anything that makes me feel anxious, though, might make you feel anxious, too. So, it seemed, I had better look into this.
Lucia Ortiz expressed her concern this way:
"I have been struggling with the question: 'What is my type?' I know this is something every actor needs to know about him or herself in order to market more successfully, but when you're convinced you can play any and all roles, how can you figure out what your "type" is? Who should you ask if you don't have an agent to tell you? And what does it mean to be a leading lady, an ingénue, or a character actor?"
Let's start with the last part of your question first. The types you ask about above go back to 19th-century European stock companies, which were real repertory companies. The expression at the time for character types was "lines of business." The breakdown, from the director Stuart Vaughan's wonderful book, "Directing Plays: A Working Professional's Method" (Longman, New York and London, 1993), was:
Leading Man: 35 to 50 (or older, if he ran the theatre), attractive, vigorous, tall, heroic.
Leading Lady: 30 to 45 (or older if she or her husband ran the company), attractive, stately, elegant, ladylike.
Second Man and Second Woman: Both 30 to 45. He: handsome, less sympathetic, good at villains and light comedy. She: elegant, often with a touch of mystery or eroticism about her.
The Juvenile: 20 to 30, the young leading man, handsome, and boyish.
The Ingénue: 18 to 25, the young female love interest, pretty, charming, delicate. (The term "ingénue" was sometimes used in England to denote a young actor of either sex, but in America it refers to a young woman.)
The Character Man: 50 to 70, plays fathers and aristocrats, distinguished, authoritative.
The Character Woman: 50 to 70, plays mothers and great ladies, often a former leading lady, distinguished, and elegant.
Second Character Man and Woman: 50 to 70, more common, often overweight, good at comedy.
The Low Comedian: 30 to 50, a Robin Williams type, good at physical comedy.
The Soubrette: 25 to 40, a coquette, sexy, earthy, good at comedy.
The Character Juvenile and Ingénue: 18 to 25, offbeat or funny looking, good at comedy.
Walking Gentlemen and Utility Players: actors who played small parts, often aspiring younger actors or less-talented has-beens.
Type begins with the writer when he or she creates a specific character. Next, the human embodiment of that character is interpreted by the director. Ian Fleming tells us what James Bond is like. Who is like that in looks, temperament, personality? Sean Connery? Pierce Brosnan? Phillip Seymour Hoffman? Phillip Seymour Hoffman is arguably one of the most brilliant actors of our generation. Could he play James Bond? Yes! No doubt he would be brilliant. But, the question is, is he "right" for it? Here, of course, "right" means the "right" type. We are dealing with a highly subjective judgment. For some of us, Pierce Brosnan is the "only" James Bond. For others...well, you know.
But, Lucia, you accurately use the word "marketing" in your question. Type has much to do with how the production is marketed. I think John Goodman would be a wonderful James Bond, too. But if he were cast, I'll bet the movie would be a comedy, because he's "that type." What type is Dom DeLuise? Sharon Stone? Mel Gibson? Tracey Ullman?
The important question here is: Do you know what type you are? And if you do, what type are you? If your answer is, "I'm an actor. I can play anything!," then you need to take a harder look at the business. Type casting is often a bitter pill for actors to swallow.
Elissa Myers of Elissa Myers Casting says, "The reality is, there's no such thing as type! Type casting is usually bad casting. As long as the playwright, the director, and the producer are open to talented human beings, then all types are available. The only time that doesn't work is when you're sometimes doing family bloodlines. And sometimes we change that." We've all seen non-traditional casting in plays like "Romeo and Juliet." The New York Shakespeare Festival has been doing that for years.
"When casting "Tootsie," the role of the stage manager on the soap opera that Dustin Hoffman was in was written for a white man," added Ms. Myers, "and I cast Lynne Thigpen, a black woman."
Stanislavski spoke about casting the soul of the actor for the character as opposed to the external part of the actor. That is the ideal. In the current state of show business, that's not likely to happen. Yes, there are exceptions. But they are just that, exceptions.
If there is something unique about your physicality, either fix it or use it. If you feel that you honestly need a smaller or a straighter nose, smaller or larger breasts, or hair plugs, then get some honest advice and, if you feel you need to, get it done. But you don't have to. If your nose is large, "use" your large nose in your work. Put some of the focus of your choice into your nose. No matter how still you keep your head, we'll still see your big nose. Accept it. It's you. If you take responsibility for it, everyone else can relax about it, too.
If you're overweight and you get cast in a play, realize that your first note from the director is that your weight is exactly what's needed. Use it. Understand why you were cast and create the character that has the physicality you have.
A few years ago, a student was referred to us by the Ford Talent Group, which is the talent division of Ford Models. She was a wonderful actor; however, she hated modeling. She began to gain a lot of weight in order to "have to stop work." Ford's response was to put her in its large size division and keep her working. She called me to coach her for a film audition she had. I worked with her three times and she was doing wonderfully. She also lost weight and was back to her original size. She asked me if I thought she had a chance to get this part. I explained that her work was excellent, but the part called for her to be the good-natured, fat best friend of the lead. Her answer was one I'll never forget. She smiled and said, "Oh don't worry about that. I have professional fat padding that I use for work." She was still in the large size division of Ford. She knew exactly what her type was and could be. It didn't bother her in the least to be fat if it was for a job.
If there is some part of you with which you're not comfortable, find out how you may be subconsciously overcompensating for it. Casting directors, agents, and directors pick this up quickly. If you're a man who is not as tall as you would like, don't compensate by acting with a deeper voice than you normally use. If you're a very tall woman, stand tall and express your full power.
There is something very uplifting about seeing an actor audition or perform who knows himself. I once received a picture and resume from an actress who looked nice enough. Under the picture was a second shot of her smiling. Each of her teeth had a small space between them. It looked very funny and she knew it. I will never forget her. She is saying that if this is what you need, I've got it, and I know how to use it. Brava!
I asked Elissa Myers about how an actor can know what type they are. Her answer was: "One should know what one is capable of. If you're a little, tiny Jewish girl, then you know that you can play 'The Diary of Anne Frank' as many times as they will allow, and you can do all the ethnic Italian and Greek roles there are. But it doesn't mean that if they're doing 'A Raisin in the Sun,' you should go up for that role. What one has to know is what one is best at. It's not what your type is; it's what you're good at. You have to know what part of the craft you are best at representing. I mean, if you want to be a singer, but you can't sing ? Then let's not do that! You have to be really honest. It's not about the picture that you would like your parents to put on the television set, but it's for you to look at yourself in the mirror to see what's really there."
There are many actors who don't know what type they are. They are the ones who ask directors, agents, teachers, casting directors, anyone. And they keep on asking because they are not able to accept how others see them. Find out what you're best at and sell that "type." In a casting office, the last file you want your picture in is the one marked "versatile." It's the last place anyone's going to look.
(Doug Moston, an actor and director, teaches acting at the Actors Studio Drama School and at New York University - CAP21. He is the author of "Coming to Terms with Acting" and the newest facsimile of Shakespeare's First Folio (1623). He welcomes your acting questions at Back Stage, 770 Broadway, 6th fl., NYC 10003, or e-mail: [email protected])