The lines we draw between character and actor


With the reboot of one of pop culture’s most iconic heroes in today’s release of Man of Steel, and the recent rumors surrounding Robert Downey Jr and his future as billionaire wunderkind Tony Stark, I couldn’t help but to start thinking, which in most cases is a worrisome situation. I began to contemplate the association between the actor and the character he portrays. How much of the role is defined by the actor? For that matter, how much of the performance is influenced by the character itself? More importantly, as a viewer, what are the associations we make between the two, if any? What sway does one or the other have over us as an audience? These are important questions, right? RIGHT!?

Now, these thoughts are mostly in regards to long established characters that make to the big screen after having found success in some other medium. What follows is an analysis (my ramblings) of this association between the performer and the performed, and how it informs our experience as an audience. Riveting stuff, I know. So if that sounds like your kink then please, by all means follow me onward. I’ll try to keep it sexy.

First off, you’ll have to forgive my excess use of comic book movies as examples, but the simple fact is they illustrate the correlation better than most films. If nothing else, feel free to participate with your own suggestions and examples down in the comments. All discussions are welcome.

In the modern age of Hollywood and its vapid deluge of regurgitated ideas the go-to game plan has been to adapt/reboot already established IP wantonly in the hope that all movie execs will one day be able to swim in vaults filled with money rivaling that of Scrooge McDuck. The most success has been found thus far with comic book adaptations, but there’s been no shortage at attempting to adapt literature (The Great Gatsby), television shows (21 Jump Street), and even toys (Transformers). Really, anything is ripe for the silver screen as long as some profit is seen to be made, but I digress. The point to be made here is that when adapting from an already established property, our perceptions of the characters involved are going to be challenged, or at best, will evolve. It often comes to be that we develop expectations in regards to a role because we possess some foreknowledge of the character involved and/or the actor that is to portray them.

Case in point: I love Batman. Period. I’ve read the comics and have seen all of the films and will continue to do so for as long as they are produced. This willingness to endure Batman’s storied legacy is because of my attachment to the character itself, because of my fondness for Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. This, of course, has led to me having my face spit in on occasion, particularly by the likes of Joel Schumaker and his cohorts George Clooney and Val Kilmer…but especially George Clooney. Now, Clooney is a respectable actor, even an actor I like, but it was pretty obvious what we were getting when he donned the cape and cowl (and plastic nipples) was just George Clooney in an eroticized Batman outfit. The character and its history did not inform his performance, and the same can be said for everyone else involved in those godforsaken films.

On the opposing end of the spectrum we have Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan’s take on the caped crusader. Bale was not only an excellent Dark Knight, but more importantly, was an excellent Bruce Wayne. His performance embodied the Wayne’s motivations: his struggle with his loss, his identity, and his morality. Consequently I associate Bale with the Batman of the film universe, and probably will for some time to come. Bale’s performance was rooted in the established canon of the character and his world, and was the better for it.

I’m a bit biased when it comes to Batman, however, so why don’t we examine another character that has changed faces many times over the decades while keeping the heart of the role intact.

As the longest running film franchise in cinema history, the exploits and persona of James Bond of her Majesty’s Secret Service have been adopted by several performers, and while I’m no Matt Razak when it comes to 007, I think it’s fair to say many of those same actors owe their notoriety to the character, including the most recent addition of Daniel Craig. So here we have a case similar to that of Batman, wherein the character of James Bond had long since been established before coming to film through Ian Flemming’s novels, but whose popularity has attained new heights in the time since the transition. The difference, however, is that each actor that has played Bond has made the role his own in some fashion or another. Thus, we usually don’t associate any one actor with the 007 so much as associate all of the actors with the character. Another good example of this situation would be television’s Doctor Who, where the good Doctor is currently in his eleventh incarnation, yet the core of the character has remained intact throughout his career while different actors still bring something unique to the role.

Of course this is all well and good, but these aren’t particularly novel conclusions I’m drawing, and I’m sure the thought has crossed several minds. The case I want to reference specifically, though, is that of Robert Downy Jr. and his possible, but highly unlikely departure from the Marvel universe.

There’s no arguing that Iron Man was and continues to be one of Marvel’s most popular characters, but it wasn’t until RDJ put on the armor that the character of Tony Stark really crystallized in the mind of the general public, many of who had never had any notion of the billionaire playboy. Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man for most people, and if you need proof here it is. His performance defined the character on a whole new level, which can arguably be credited to him being the first on film Iron Man, but there’s no doubt he completely captured the essence of the character while also making it his own, perhaps to such a degree that anyone else that follows in his iron clad footsteps has a serious uphill climb ahead of them. His is a rare case where the character and the actor are almost synonymous, at least for the average movie goer.

There really is no end to this thought process, as it can be applied to most any performance in film. Characters in movies are the amalgamation of the input of several individuals, so it’s possible to say that they are always pre-established to some degree, at least in the mind of someone at some place in some time. The point of this little diatribe, I suppose, was only to try to conceptualize a notion that is but one tiny facet of what we digest from film watching as an audience. Nerdy references aside, I think part of the joy of watching these performances is trying to find the line where the character begins and the actor ends, and ultimately isn’t that the very essence of performance?