Finding your type is the act of figuring out the recurring character types that present themselves in the industry, then discovering what character type you are. It assumes that there are boxes and that it’s an actor’s job to fit into the box. Are you the Funny Best Friend? The Dumb Jock? Maybe you’re the Leading Lady?
Let’s break it down. You’re trying to make it as an actor, to have the industry fall at your feet. You want to be really successful, be a working actor, win awards, etc. But rather than be uniquely you, without boundaries, you ask the industry how it perceives you in the context of old, limited patterns, or types. With that knowledge, you act the way it sees you so as to satisfy its perception, pursuing roles that fall within the Industry’s perception of you. And the idea is that once you’ve satisfied its perception of you, it will cast you. And here’s why that’s awful:
1. You’re an actor.
It is your mandate to discover and express the totality of your own human experience so that others can understand theirs, even when you’re just selling laundry detergent. The industry may think that using “easily understood” types is the best way to reach people. But actors know better. The more real, unique humanity you can bring to a role, the more you’ll connect with a casting director or any audience. The industry thinks it likes types because bean counters gravitate towards sameness. “That product worked so let’s make another product just like it.”
But an artist knows better. And it is an actor’s job to push back against the limitations of type to offer humanity that creates connection. We see it in the casting room over and over again. Someone comes in and is more interesting than the limitations of the breakdown. And that person often gets cast. Even if they say they want a type, show them all of you.
2. What’s Viola Davis’s “type”?
Pick any successful actor you admire. They are unique and they got where they are professionally and creatively because they didn’t fit into a box. Because they were different than everyone else. In fact, the very reason you get cast as an actor is by being different than everyone else. You get cast because you were a singularity; out of many options you were the best, thereby different than everyone else.
You do not kick ass in this business by being like anyone else. You succeed as an actor when you show the industry the profoundly unique parts of yourself that don’t fit into a box, that can’t be contained by a type, that inspire, that reveal unique parts of our own humanity. They say they want the Dumb Jock? Well, when every other actor is playing at some old, tired, stock version of what that means, you find humanity outside of the box. They’re playing the type, you’re playing the scene, the moments. Again, the pursuit of a type is the pursuit of sameness. But doing so doesn’t distinguish you from anyone else. And you carve out an acting career by being unlike anyone else, by being you. What’s Viola Davis’s type? Viola Davis.
3. Who sets the type?
Who is the industry anyway? Well, it’s made up of human beings who come with all the failings and beauty of humanity. They have blindspots, fall prey to stereotypes, and are able to be emotionally affected. Some in the Industry may find it easy to deal with types. The Thug, the Nerd, the Helpless Woman, the Chubby Friend. That kind of typing is a dangerous product of a patriarchal system that seeks to organize people into categories in the interest of control. It tells you what you are because of your gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, size, etc. Speaking of Viola Davis, not long ago her type would have been The Maid. And as the industry is still largely straight, white, able-bodied, and male, that’s who’s perpetuating types. But straight, white, able-bodied males can’t fully understand many other people’s experience. So a type is nothing more than a person’s opinion, conditioned by the past and full of blindspots. But you’re going to pay a branding expert to tell you that you’re not thin enough to be a Leading Lady? Or that you’re too nerdy to be a Jock? Screw that. What is a Jock anyway? Look at Olympians—they’re all shapes, colors, and sizes. Artists have always been the vanguards of all the dynamic ways in which humanity manifests itself. And when an actor is more human than the type, it gives the people in the casting room an opportunity to be affected in a human way. Not that it’s your job to educate the Industry about its blindspots, but being human is how you reach human beings.
In order to have a successful acting career (and change the industry and the world for the better), you’re going to have to deal with the discomfort of not being what the industry is used to. There’s never been anyone like you so it doesn’t have a plan for you. But that doesn’t mean you should remove parts of yourself or be who you’re not to satisfy it. Finding a firm place in the industry doesn’t happen when you follow.
Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t a leading man until he was. Now he is. What’s his type?
Actors can’t limit themselves. Yes, at times the Industry is going to try to put you in a box. But you need to know that it is your responsibility to destroy that box by offering as much humanity as you can within the parameters of the scene.
YOU are your type. All of you. And the work of finding and expressing your type is the work of exploring, discovering and expressing all the unique thoughts and feelings that make you who you are. It might sound cheesy but it’s the kind of work that makes an acting career.
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