How to Avoid Typecasting | Learning to Play Beyond Your Usual Roles

How to Avoid Typecasting

Written by on | Acting Industry

Typecasting. It’s word that sends shivers down the aspiring actor’s spine. No one wants to feel trapped playing the same character for the rest of their life. After all, the craft of a true artist is supposed to grow and change. So how do you avoid typecasting in your acting career, when so many career choices feel outside of you control?

Being typecast isn’t always a terrible thing, but it can be artistically and professionally limiting. If you want to learn how to avoid typecasting, keep studying at your craft and challenge yourself to take on new roles. You can make physical changes to rebrand yourself, and even seek out professional work that sits specifically out of your comfort zone.

But what is typecasting, exactly? Can it be avoided? Or can it be used for the benefit and longevity of your career? Let’s figure it out together…

What is Typecasting?

Typecasting is defined as repeatedly casting an actor to the same ‘type’ of role, as a result of their perceived appropriateness for that role or previous success in similar roles. It works largely through association.

As an example, think about an actor with a Van Dyke beard. (Stay with us, for a sec.) They keep getting cast in roles of debonair, elegant villains with a silver tongue. Now, we associate that particular style of facial hair with customary depictions of the Devil throughout culture. So directors and casting agents might see that actor’s beard as a useful cultural shorthand to telegraph that the character they’re reading for has devilish qualities.

There are a number of different ways that an actor can be typecast, and a number of different qualities that catalyse the process of association. These include an actor’s height, weight, vocal tone, hair colour and/or style, ethnicity, tattoos, scars, or really any distinguishing physical feature. 

Less obvious qualities include an actor’s general energy (silly, serious, anxious, brooding, etc.), fame or renown in other avenues or mediums/field of interest.

Is Typecasting a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Getting typecast has a bad rap amongst actors, who very seldom want to feel hemmed in by other people’s perceptions and expectations of their work. And they certainly have a point. By playing the same or similar roles time and time again, an actor’s flexibility and versatility in their craft. This is to say nothing of losing their spontaneity and enthusiasm, and the comfortable habits that creep in.

We’ve already said that typecasting works associatively, so it can also be hard for audiences to imagine you in roles other than the ones they’ve grown accustomed to you playing. (James Bond actors, for example, frequently struggle to leave the tuxedo behind.)

And it goes without saying that typecasting, by virtue of so often being based on physical descriptors of actors, regularly enables the institutional bigotry and creative conservatism that has stunted the film and television industry since the birth of Hollywood.

Finding Your “Type”

But typecasting isn’t always a bad thing! If it’s something of which they’re aware and in control, it can be an extremely powerful tool for an actor to define and market themselves to the wider industry.

If you’re “unusual” in any way (tall, short, small eyes, big nose, gap-toothed, or whatever weird and wonderful physical characteristics you possess!), typecasting presents an opportunity. Utilise your point of difference to set you apart from other actors vying for the same role. The same logic applies if you fit into a particular archetype. Not to mention, there’s a lot of fun to be had in playing your particular style well!

If you want consistent work as an actor (who wouldn’t?), making the process of typecasting work for you is a great strategy. Why do a thousand things adequately if you can do one perfectly?

Examples of Actors who are Typecast

Michael Cera’s film career has largely seen him play soft-spoken, nerdy types. His physical attributes and general demeanour, as well as the specific style of ‘awkward’ comedy Cera employs, endear him to these roles and prove him to be effectively believable in them.

Michelle Rodriguez has made a career out of playing tough, no-nonsense women holding their own in traditionally masculine spaces. She brilliantly deploys her steady gaze, deadpan acting style and husky voice.

Need a likeable enough guy with improv skills and a penchant for meta-comedy, but still handsome enough to be considered a romantic lead? Look no further than Ryan Reynolds.

Examples of Actors who Aren’t Typecast

Some actors take careful consideration in choosing their roles, in order to pitch themselves to the wider acting industry as highly adaptable. They will often prioritise this as a special skill to set them apart from a less malleable (though often more consistent) typecast counterpart. You might hear them being described as ‘chameleons’.

Think Cate Blanchett, Gary Oldman or Tilda Swinton. They’re hard to pin down! That’s because the characteristics of the humans they’ve portrayed across their careers are so diverse. They’ve played rich and poor, young and old, fictional and non-, comic and straight. And done it all convincingly: remember the time Cate played Bob Dylan?!

Examples of Actors Typecast for their Inability to be Typecast

Then there are actors who are so different from role to role that it’s almost a foregone conclusion that their versatility takes precedent. Sometimes even over the work itself.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ most famous characters have been as varied as a painter with cerebral palsy, a psychopathic butcher, an effete fashion designer, an avaricious oil tycoon, a member of the Guilford Four and Abraham Lincoln.

Meryl Streep has likewise exhibited her versatility in roles. A stone-faced nun, an independently-minded divorcee, a Danish ex-pat author living in Africa, Lindy Chamberlain, a Polish survivor of the Holocaust and a cold-hearted fashionista. Groundbreaking.

This tendency runs the risk, however, of devolving into self-parody. Johnny Depp was once highly-regarded for his audacity in selecting a range of roles. However, after a series of disastrous choices in the 2010s, audiences began to see his characterisations as only superficially transformative. Dark, messy hair, pale make-up, eccentric clothing, and a highly stylised vocal pattern. This resulted in diminishing returns from an audience that expected such variations from role to role. 

Jared Leto has similarly faced criticism in his recent work, due to a perceived over-reliance on make-up and other effects to create the illusion of transformation rather than a truthful transformation. Furthermore: Nicholas Cage.

What to do if you Want to Avoid Typecasting

What lesson can we take from these cautionary tales? It’s no good making weird choices for the sake of being different. The surface elements of constructing a character (appearance, costume, vocal tone and patterns) must come from a basis of truth in the character’s interior life, and be understood to be secondary to the development of the character’s psyche. 

Beyond this, it’s our job as actors to bring ourselves to every role we undertake. This is an imperative, because as human beings we are only ever privy to our own inner life. It’s impossible (or at the very least, unsustainable) to design a character as complex and mysterious as what you already bring to the table. So you might as well use your own mysteries to give your character depth.

It’s obvious to an audience when an actor is ‘pretending’ too much. It reads as inauthentic. Acting shouldn’t be about you pretending in spite of truth, it should be about the truth in spite of you pretending. This is what the best actors do: they reveal a little something about themselves in every role.

It’s not about trying to figure out how someone in a different circumstance would behave, it’s about how you would behave in that different circumstance. If you were a mischievous alchemist in the 18th Century with a crocodile tail and a penchant for underground spelunking, how would you act?

If you apply this thinking to every character you’re cast as, by the end of your career you’ll undoubtedly look back to see a decidedly motley crew, with an assortment of sizes, shapes, and identities.

How to avoid Typecasting

To help you on your way, here are some tips and tricks of the trade you can use to avoid getting typecast in the industry today.

#1 Study acting and go to classes.

Acting is a craft, and there are no shortcuts in becoming a master. In a learning context, you are more likely to stretch yourself, risk making mistakes and be required to play roles you wouldn’t normally play. In particular, disciplines such as commedia dell’arte and improvisation necessitate big shifts in physicality, voice, and character.

#2 Find your antithesis.

Identify a specific archetype that you are often asked to perform. Find a scene with a character that is the opposite of that archetype. Then put that scene on film. Consistently cast as a macho, hard-boiled kind of guy? Try putting down a scene where you play a sensitive, delicate rose! Explore this new energy you’ve found. If you have an agent, ask them to put the scene on your media bank as cold, hard proof that you’re as adaptable as you say.

#3 Go the extra mile.

Freelancers will know the drill… Even if you have an agent, you should keep an eye and an ear out for auditions that you wouldn’t normally be asked to perform. Request an audition from the casting agent (they’ll usually throw in a ‘wild card’ option for the director). There’s never any harm in asking.

#4 Put it into practice.

Keep an eye out for independent theatre roles with characters you wouldn’t normally play. If you run into trouble finding opportunities, you can put on your own show. There’s a lot of casting agents who’ll come along if you invite them and they hear the play is good.

#5 Make a change

Change your visual style to mix up other people’s perceptions of you! Shave your head, grow a beard, change your make-up. Just be careful of anything permanent (tattoos, surgery, etc.)

#6 Hold it lightly and have fun!

Audiences can tell when an actor relishes a role, so give them their time’s worth by enjoying yourself.

#7 Grow a Van Dyke beard.

If all else fails, there’s plenty of Devil roles going.

Conclusion

With all the good and bad associated with it, typecasting is something to be aware of. But never afraid of. If you feel yourself slipping into the familiar, you can do something about it. That said, if it’s something you’re okay with, or actively looking to explore? Lean into your type and get that acting money!

Like many other facets of the actor’s life, typecasting requires some effort and consideration to navigate. Bring this to your career and your process, and you’ll be booking the parts you’re hoping for in no time.

Good luck!

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of professional actors, acting coaches and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew, Alex, Emma, Jake, Jake, Indiana, Patrick and more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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