The 4 Faces of Acting: What’s Your Type?

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Some actors, such as Dwayne Johnson or Ryan Reynolds, carry their own real-life persona across different characters, because it’s their mega-watt charisma that brings in blockbuster bucks. Others, such as Tilda Swinton or Gary Oldman, utilize everything in their toolbox to become unrecognizable from role to role. Whether they infuse characters with their own personality or metamorphose entirely with each new part, performers often fall into one of four main categories: personality, chameleon, creative, or nonprofessional.


Personality actors

You might feel like you know a personality actor in real life just because you’ve seen a few of their movies. They often bring parts of themselves—or, at least, their public-facing artistic persona—into their roles, leading to recognizable, highly relatable characters.

Personality actor traits

  • Authentic
  • Charming
  • Friendly
  • Relatable

Personality actor examples

  • Zooey Deschanel: Quirky, cute, and with a certain je ne sais quoi, Deschanel’s roles—such as offbeat Jess in “New Girl” and (non)manic pixie dream girl in “500 Days of Summer”—seem as though she’s playing a version of herself.
  • Ryan Reynolds: Reynolds contributes his trademark wit and charisma to many of his roles, so that his humorous character in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” could almost be the same one in “The Proposal,” “Free Guy,” and “Deadpool.”
  • Dwayne Johnson: An electric personality is what won audiences over when Johnson worked inside a wrestling ring, and that strategy remained successful as he pivoted toward becoming one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. Whether it's comic book antihero Black Adam, "Fast and Furious" favorite Luke Hobbs, or an avatar in "Jumanji," there's a bit of "The Rock" in the foundation of each character.

Chameleon actors

Gary Oldman in "Slow Horses"

Gary Oldman on “Slow Horses” Courtesy Apple TV+

Have you ever been shocked to realize you didn’t recognize a known actor in a movie or TV show? It’s likely they’re a chameleon. Like their color-shifting reptile namesake, these actors change completely across different environments. Whether it's a penchant for prosthetics, dramatic physical transformations, or just wild shifts in their physicality and/or speech patterns, these performers reconstruct themselves with each new role. 

Chameleon actor traits

  • Eclectic
  • Innovative
  • Transformative
  • Versatile

Chameleon actor examples

  • Gary Oldman: Oldman is adept at portraying a vast array of different accents, looks, and personas, from Beethoven to Sid Vicious, Dracula to the Devil, and Mr. Zorg to Drexl Spivey.
  • Tilda Swinton: The iconoclast’s take on a hilariously cynical magazine editor in “Trainwreck” is vastly different from her metamorphosis into an elderly dowager in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”—juxtaposed, even, with her everyday avant-garde, otherworldly aesthetic.
  • Christian Bale: After breaking out to a wider audience as ultra-slick sociopath Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho," Bale proved willing to dramatically transform for the sake of character—whether it's dropping 62 pounds for "The Machinist" or bulking up to play Batman in Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy. 

Creative actors

Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick”

Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” Courtesy Paramount Pictures

While their appearance may be similar in most roles, creative performers often play against type or their own personality by immersing themselves in different personas. These creatives are often research and process-oriented, diving into their character's history, bio, and backstory. This way, although they may not look different from role to role—although physicality and language certainly play their part in the process—they feel different. The audience is never distracted by the personality beneath the portrayal, no matter the genre, medium, or time period. 

Creative actor traits

  • Adaptable
  • Immersive
  • Intense
  • Rigorous

Creative actor examples

  • Viola Davis: Davis has taken on an impressive array of characters while remaining recognizable, including a ferocious general in “The Woman King,” anguished mother in “Doubt,” long-suffering wife in “Fences,” and Michelle Obama on “The First Lady.”
  • Tom Cruise: Besides a spoof performance in “Tropic Thunder,” Cruise’s trademark grin and perpetually youthful appearance make him recognizable across a diversity of roles, whether he’s a seductively sinister vampire, a sports agent, an undercover spy, or an elite naval fighter.
  • Denzel Washington: Although the two-time Oscar winner has trademarks he carries across projects, he still feels just as believable as menacing crooked cop Alonzo Harris in "Training Day" as he does as inspiring football coach Herman Boone in "Remember the Titans" or Shakespeare's mad general in "The Tragedy of Macbeth." 

Nonprofessional actors

Barkhad Abdi on “The Curse”

Barkhad Abdi on “The Curse” Credit: Anna Kooris/A24/Paramount+

Unlike actors who have received some type of formal training or education, nonprofessionals are chosen by filmmakers and casting directors to bring a sense of authenticity to a project. In many ways, their inexperience is their power. Without knowing the "proper" way to perform, they can simply be—which, at the end of the day, is every actor's goal. 

Nonprofessional actor traits

  • Amateur
  • Authentic
  • Raw talent
  • Uncontrived

Nonprofessional actor examples

  • The cast of “Kids”: To cast the counterculture art house film, Larry Clark and Harmony Korine plucked real-life “street kids” with no acting experience from tenement stoops and skate parks. This helped make “Kids” become the classic that critic Roger Ebert deemed “a movie about their world” that “feels like a documentary.”
  • Barkhad Abdi: Abdi had no acting experience when he attended an open casting call for the role of Somali pirate Muse in “Captain Phillips.” His captivatingly intense performance and iconic “I’m the captain now” delivery garnered the industry newcomer an Oscar nomination.

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