Fame, Obscurity…and the Actor’s Dilemma

(In today’s post: I write about fame, annonymity, Canadian actors, the Canadian and British press, wax poetic about the “imaginary cinema in my mind”, and draw lessons from Steven Spielberg, Shelley Conn, Amy Price-Francis, Terra Nova, Californication, and more…)

In a few previous essays I’ve made cryptic references to the fact that I want to write about actors. So let’s do that.

You see, the thing is: I like actors. I don’t mean personally. I like actors no more or less than plumbers or taxi drivers. I mean — I like actors acting in things. When I lament the tendency for major roles in Canadian movies or TV shows to seem to be specifically reserved for non-Canadians it’s partly out of all those worthy things about cultural identity, level playing fields, industry building, and the like.

And it’s partly just because there are lots of good Canadian actors that I’m aware are being pushed aside.

And some actors have, let’s face it, a limited shelf life. I don’t mean as far as acting in general, but in terms of playing leading men and leading ladies they’ve got limited windows. Although in this day and age with gym memberships and balanced diets such windows are considerably bigger than they used to be (men always had it a bit easier, but even women today can be in their 40s or even older and still be romantic leads and even sex symbols). Still, there are windows on a career — or at least phases of a career — that you don’t have in most jobs except maybe athletes. A novelist can write a great novel in his twenties or his seventies; a lawyers can expertly try cases for decades. And, yes, an actor can enjoy a profitable career from the cradle to the grave — but the specific roles change.

Being a long time watcher of Canadian film and TV I’ve seen the generations pass and change. I’ve noted rising stars — handsome men, beautiful women, with talent and charisma you could build an industry on. If they’re lucky, I’ve seen them land one or two lead roles — usually in movies that get no distribution and series that no one sees. Then they crop up…now playing older brothers and sisters. And then playing the parents of the heroes. And you realize the window has closed. Oh, not on their career, nor on the great roles. Indeed, some actors have claimed they didn’t start getting the good roles — the meaty character parts — until they got older and their looks stopped being a distraction for casting directors (or they never had the looks and their career didn’t take off until they were up for the parts where looks weren’t really an issue).

Still, if you wonder why I harp on Canadian actors and roles so often, that’s why — ’cause in a sense there’s a whole alternate reality of imaginary cinema that’s played out in my head over the years, and actors and actresses you’d barely know, or might recognize their faces but not their names, were stars in this imaginary “never was” cinema in my mind.

Of course this is hardly restricted to Canada.

Hollywood, Britain — all film and TV industries have their same stories. Talented, attractive, charismatic actors who just never got the breaks. Who maybe did land a lead role or two, but nothing successful, and eventually the offers started drying up. Indeed, Canada has actually proven a boon to such actors, because just as I complain Canadian movies and TV often reserves lead roles for imported actors…it’s often these has beens and never quite wases that get called up. So if you’re a fan of those actors, the fact that Canadian productions are quick to hire them is a good thing.

Of course fame itself is hard to define.

There’s the old adage that any book you haven’t read is a “new” book. Likewise, any actor you haven’t seen in something is an unknown actor…even if they might be a star to others (and vice versa).

How many of us have watched a movie, shifting restlessly in our seats because of the unfamiliar lead actor’s mediocre performance…only to learn they were considered the “star” and the movie only got its funding because they had signed on? Or, conversely, watching a movie featuring a favourite actor whose career we have followed for years…only to discover the friends we’re watching it with barely registered him because they just didn’t know him from anything else.

And the funny thing is, we’re often unable to realize that there are these whole parallel avenues of fame. With Canadian productions and Hollywood productions, network series and cable series, blockbuster movies and indie films, and genres (sci-fi, rom com, horror) where an actor might become a star in one area but completely isolated from the others. You can have actors who are bona fide award-winning stars in certain circles…and complete unknowns in other, equally legitimate circles.

What can probably chagrin actors is when even entertainment reporters — those who are supposed to make their living knowing who’s who and what’s what — seem oblivious to these things.

I came upon a British newspaper article from last year announcing how British actress Shelley Conn had been cast in the big budget (now cancelled) U.S. sci-fi series, Terra Nova. The headline? The producer had cast an “Unknown British Actress”. Now here’s the thing — I wasn’t that familiar with Conn at the time. But I had seen her in something and, being the shameless, superficial guy I am, I had thought she was beautiful and appealing and knowing she was in Terra Nova actually piqued my interest about that series — even though it was a Steven Spielberg production and bitter experience has taught me to be wary of Steven Spielberg produced television sci-fi (Spielberg tends to make big budget series like Amazing Stories, SeaQuest, Earth 2, Taken…that suffer from the old “tweeny” curse, of being sort of kiddie shows and sort of adult shows, as though to him the pinnacle of TV sci-fi was Lost in Space). So, no, I didn’t regard Conn as “famous”, but she was more familiar to me than some of the other actors (I had no idea who star Jason O’Mara was). Subsequently I became aware that she had a few credits under her belt — ensembles, to be sure, but nonetheless where she was sometimes a principal. Such as a very good, short lived British series I recently watched on DVD called Party Animals (a clever but misleading title which is maybe what hurt it — it was about politics, not raves). So one wonders how Conn felt opening a paper and seeing the British press — the press that should’ve been aware of her even if the American press wasn’t — dismissing her as an “unknown”?

Now maybe the British reporter just didn’t realize that Terra Nova was going to be an ensemble, so Conn wasn’t really expected to carry it on her own — though one should’ve been able to guess because of Spielberg’s track record with TV sci-fi (honestly, if Conn had been more of a focal character…I might’ve watched the series more). And to be fair, I think the reporter intended it as a compliment — emphasizing how Conn must’ve wowed the producers that they would choose her over “Hollywood’s finest actresses”. But from a career point of view, to have accrued a large resume of roles and still have your own nation’s press label you an “unknown” must be frustrating. (In the article itself she is identified as “little known”…which is slightly better than the headline “unknown”).

And it’s a frustration that plague actors in Canada more dramatically. You can have actors who have appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows…and still be dismissed as veritable unknowns even by the Canadian entertainment press. And that relates not just to the actors, but to how the press regards Canadian film and TV itself…and, by extension, my point about how we all can regard things with a narrow focus. It doesn’t occur to us that just because we haven’t seen a movie or TV show that others might have — and vice versa.

When Amy Price-Francis was cast as the lead in the TV series King (a now-cancelled series to which I refer with an unhealthy regularity!) she already had a number of Canadian series under her belt…yet most of the press articles ignored that in favour of referencing her appearances in a U.S. series called Californication. To the reporters, her “important” work was a supporting role in the U.S. series — and the fact that she had starred in some Canadian series was unimportant. Yet Californication is a cable series…so chances are the number of people who have actually seen it in Canada are less than the people who would’ve seen Price-Francis in one of the Canadian series — even low rated as they were! But presumably a lot of Canadian entertainment writers devoutly watch Californication every week (vicariously enjoying the adventures of a writer who sleeps with dozens of women!) but only watch Canadian series when ordered to by their editors. (For the record: I’ve never seen Californication and I don’t know what Canadian station it’s on…if any).

Just as to that British reporter, Shelley Conn’s body of work paled compared to landing a part in a Steven Spielberg series even though, to anyone familiar with Spielberg’s past TV series, one could’ve guessed it probably wouldn’t be that successful…and would have little long term benefit for an actor’s career. (Or was Conn described as unknown…simply because the writer of the article and her editor hadn’t seen her before and it didn’t occur to them their viewing habits weren’t universally shared by all Britons?)

Of course, you can also have the opposite which can, in a way, be equally frustrating…and damaging to the industry. Actors who seem to be embraced by the press and the producers…even as they aren’t very successful. Actors who keep walking away with the lead roles when you can’t help thinking maybe some fresh blood is in order.

But that’s another essay…

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