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Secrets From The Casting Couch

‘Archetype as Branding’ by Nancy Bishop.

Nancy Bishop, C.S.A., is an Emmy-nominated casting director, author, acting coach, and head of the Film Acting Department at the Prague Film School.  With more than 60 major feature film and television projects among her credits Nancy has cast and instructed literally hundreds of actors throughout Europe, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

When I trained at the National Theatre Institute, I performed a monologue for casting directors, who visited the school. I chose Pheobe’s speech about being rejected by Orlando in As You Like It because I thought it was funny. The casting director looked at me and said, “but you’re Rosalind, not Phoebe.” She was right – I didn’t get it. I couldn’t play the dumb, comic country girl. I had to play the city slicker. In Little Miss Sunshine Olive Hoover wanted so much to be a beauty queen, but she couldn’t see that she wasn’t like the pornographically pretty girls around her at the competition. There was no doubt, however, that she was the most extraordinary girl there.

Actors want to play all roles, and perhaps they can at some point in their careers. But if you want to be employable, remember that casting directors, producers, and writers think in terms of characters and types. In psychology and mythology it’s called archetype. In marketing it’s called branding. The more competitive the market, the more an actor has to brand himself, to make himself special, and unique in his “product niche.”

While on the one hand I would say that some of the most brilliant casting choices have deliberately gone against type, there is nothing wrong with type casting. Remember the second part of the word “typecast” is “cast.” Actors often resist the idea of “types” because it reminds them of stereotypes which indicate a derogatory over-simplification of character. Archetypes, however, have existed in show business for centuries, starting with the masked Greek dramas, to Commedia Del’Arte to Shakespeare to the sit-coms of today.  An archetype refers to the original model of a person, or in the words of psychologist Karl Jung a “symbolic figure” or a “collective representation” of a person, drawn from “the universal symbolism” that we share. Audiences connect with archetypes.

Vin Diesel, who is racially and ethnically nebulous, made a film about his frustration with type casting. He produced, directed and acted in Multi Facial early in his career, or rather before he had a career. It was about an actor who continually fell between the cracks at castings for Italian-Americans, Hispanics, or African Americans. In his film, his character never got the job.  In the process, Diesel branded himself, created his own character and type, which ironically has made him famous. The lesson is to know yourself and what you can play well.  If no one is casting you, cast yourself and show us how to cast you. Once you start getting work, you can branch out, and develop work in other archetypes.

Here are examples of epic archetypes from films we know:

The Innocent – Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz
Orphan – Oliver Twist
Warrior – Aragon in Lord of the Rings
Caregiver – Hanna the Nurse in The English Patient
Creator – Aslan in Narnia
Seeker – Harry Potter
Lover – Will Turner in Pirates of the Caribbean
Destroyer – The Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz
Ruler – Queen Elizabeth I in Elizabeth
Magician – Gandalf- in Lord of the Rings
Sage – Ben Obi Wan Kenobi in Starwars
Fool – Donkey in Shrek

Here are more general archetypes listed with famous actors who play them:

Family archetypes
The father – Liam Neeson
The mother – Brenda Blethyn

Story archetypes

The hero – James Butler
The maiden –  Scarlett Johansson
The wise old man – Morgan Freeman
The witch or sorceress – Tilda Swinton
The trickster- Steve Buscemi

Archetypes have morphed to include these more specific types that appear in today’s film, TV and commercial projects:

Male:
Computer Geek
Footballer
Bouncer
Rapper
Hustler
Mob Boss
The Stag Night Bloke

Female:
Bimbo
Football Wife
Cheerleader
Feminist
Bag Lady
Mafia Wife
The trafficked sex worker

Male or Female:
Doctor
Lawyer
CEO
Night Clubber
Junkie
Couch Potato

Children:
Precocious Child
Abused Child
Skateboarder
Nerd
Fat Kid
Popular Kid

It’s useful for actors to identify their archetypes, also called primary types, casting brackets or niches. When you put your product on the marketplace, customers want to know what they’re buying. You’ll use your archetypes as part of your branding process. Knowing your archetypes helps you select an image for a headshot. Choosing a primary archetype doesn’t mean that you have to stick with this one type only. Bruce Willis, who usually plays the action hero, played a perfectly convincing psychologist in The Sixth Sense. Archetypes will morph and change during an actor’s lifetime.  Judi Dench once played Juliet, but now she’s playing the cynical old bat like Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love.  You can shoot a variety of headshots that are within your range and present specific ones for different roles.

Casting director Bonnie Gillespie suggests watching “TV, commercials, films and plays with a notepad… to see what types are out there to be able to determine what primary type you are.” Look at your CV and see if there is a trend. Are you playing mostly the naughty girl, the prostitute, or the mother, and nurse? Think about working actors who are playing the roles that you would play, and investigate how these actors present themselves. If you struggle to fit in, then follow in the footsteps of performers like Vin Diesel who created his own archetype.

Knowing your archetypes is part of knowing yourself, as a person and as an artist. I once taught a very good American actor who had a lovely warm quality, and easily fit in the range of lover, father, teacher, businessman, etc. When I was casting a Russian mafia hit man role, he wrote and asked if he could audition for it (what, huh?!)  I was fairly shocked that he didn’t know himself well enough to know that role was well out of his range. Conversely, don’t limit yourself too much, by not trying at some point to face the challenge and push past the archetypes within your comfort zones. I once assigned an actor an aristocratic character and he said, “I only play working class roles.” He gave up a great chance to stretch himself. There are actors who come to an audition believing they can’t play a role, even when the casting director has invited them.  Challenge yourself to grow, and allow your archetypes to shift, as you advance through your career.

Secrets from the Casting Couch is available at bookstores and on Amazon.

“Any actor who is serious about his or her career should read this book,” Matthew Stillman, Producer: Casino Royale, Wanted, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.




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