In Defense of the Unknown Actor

Anonymity is a powerful strength. You often see it used to terrible effect by trolls on social media and comment boards. But it can be used for good by famous writers who take on a pseudonym in order to write outside their “accepted” genre. It’s also the reason that masks are so intriguing. We don’t know who it is behind the facade.

Another way this can be used, but often isn’t, is in casting. Producers, directors, and writers are often celebrity-obsessed. Celebrity being in many ways the antithesis of anonymity. Celebrities, of course, allows any project to more easily attract funding. But it can sometimes get in the way of allowing the audience to really see and believe the character.

I had this issue when I saw the movie La La Land. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of our generations best actors. They’re so damn watchable no matter what they’re doing. But when Emma stone laments about not having made it in Hollywood after – gasp – six whole years…well, I was taken out of the story at that point.

It had nothing to do with Emma’s performance. It was great! It was personal. She clearly believed in what she was saying. I just knew too much about Emma to see her character, Mia – particularly that she went from her film debut in 2007’s Superbad to a big deal star in 2011’s Crazy Stupid Love and The Help a mere 5 years later.

Imagine, now, if Mia was played by some unknown actress from — well who cares where she’s from, you don’t know her anyway. She’s an incredible singer, she’s an amazing dancer, she’s a heart breaking actress! Who is this girl?? (I feel like I’m describing Sutton Foster when she exploded on the scene with Thoroughly Modern Millie.)

That’s a girl you could feel for when she says she hasn’t yet made it. Even if it’s only been six years.

Now, I asked you to imagine that movie and imagine it you would have to, because without Ryan and Emma La La Land would still be a script on Damien Chazelle’s shelf. Such is show biz.

But taking risks on unknown actors can create synergistic moments between audience and actor. If the audience has no context for the actor outside of the character, it’s much easier to believe that the actor actually IS the character. In our mind, they become one and the same. And why wouldn’t they? We have no context to believe otherwise.

I was thinking about this the other day while I played for a production of Little Shop of Horrors at East LA College. Believe it or not, there are people who don’t know the story of Little Shop. (I know, I’m just as shocked as you are.) This production will be the first experience they have with it. And the performances given by our “unknown” actors playing Seymour, Audrey and so on will be indelibly marked upon these people’s minds as the definitive portrayals.

How you feel about that, Ellen Greene?

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Actor / Writer / Idealist I believe a good story has the power to change the way people feel, think, and act. I'm a storyteller with a passion for changing the world and leaving it better than I found it.

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