Created By: Folamh3 on August 20, 2012 Last Edited By: Folamh3 on September 7, 2012
Troped

Playing with Character Type

Looks like they're conforming to type - but with a twist

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Trope
So we have Type Casting, which is cases in which an actor is known only for playing certain kinds of roles (in its most extreme form, I Am Not Spock, when the actor is only known for a particular role). Then we have Playing Against Type, which is when an actor deliberately plays a role extremely different from their established type.

Then there's this trope, a sub-trope of Playing Against Type, in which an actor plays against type in such a way as to specifically play with, subvert or outright deconstruct their previously established character type.

Supposing, for example, Bob is best-known for playing charming, funny Nice Guys. In this trope, Bob takes on a role superficially quite similar to his established character type - only for the film to reveal that Bob's character is only capable of being charming and funny while drunk, and that he is driven to alcoholism by his history of social awkwardness and depression.

Note that this trope is not limited to comedic character types being Played for Drama; it's entirely possible to do this by playing dramatic character types for laughs (e.g.: Bob is best-known for playing tough-as-nails gangsters, and then plays a wannabe gangster who acts tough but is in fact easily frightened and can barely hold a gun, let alone fire one), or exploring facets of a dramatic or comedic character type previously left unexamined.

When successfully executed, this trope can cast an actor's earlier roles in an entirely new light and lead members of the audience to cry, "He Really Can Act!" When done poorly, it can seem jarring and awkward (especially if the actor in question is insufficiently skilled to pull it off).

Compare I Am Not Spock, I Am Not Leonard Nimoy, Adam Westing, Self-Parody, Meta Casting, Casting Gag, Tom Hanks Syndrome and Leslie Nielsen Syndrome. In-universe, compare with Hidden Depths, Character Development, Flat Character and Rounded Character.


Examples:

Live-Action Actors

  • Robin Williams is best known for playing cheery, funny and manically upbeat characters, but in One Hour Photo he plays a character whose outward cheerfulness masks the fact that he is a Stepford Smiler Stalker with a Crush.
  • Similar to the above, Jim Carrey subverted his reputation for upbeat, funny, over-the-top characters in The Cable Guy, playing a character whose demented zaniness is indicative of his Stalker with a Crush tendencies, and in The Truman Show, in which his character's superficial friendliness and whacky charm hides his inner loneliness and yearning to escape his dreary life.
  • Audrey Tautou is most well-known (especially in the English-speaking world) for her role in Amélie, in which she plays a sweet, innocent, hopelessly romantic young woman. For the first half of He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not, she appears to be playing a similar type of character, only for the film to reveal that she is in fact a violent, insane Yandere, whose innocent romantic spirit is symptomatic of her complete and utter detachment from reality. As Mick LaSalle put it:
    "Tautou has made several movies, but in America she is known for only one, Amélie, in which she played a wide-eyed innocent. Here she is just as wide-eyed, but if she's innocent it's only by reason of insanity. He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not has its own charms, but part of its wicked kick is that it's the anti-Amélie, presenting romantic fixation, not as noble and sweet, but objectively, as something selfish and volatile..."
  • As part of Unforgiven's Genre Deconstruction of Westerns as a whole, Clint Eastwood's role in the film is a deconstruction of his earlier Western character(s), namely those from the Dollars Trilogy.
  • In what has actually become a sort of type casting itself, Morgan Freeman, who is known for playing "wise old man" characters, sometimes plays "wise old man characters... who turn out to be evil", with Wanted being a good example of this.
  • Adam Sandler has played with his stereotypical persona more than once:
  • A One-Scene Wonder example in Natural Born Killers, with Rodney Dangerfield - replete with Laugh Track and his "I don't get no respect" shtick - playing Mallory's violent, sexually abusive father. Makes for very uncomfortable viewing indeed.
  • Robert De Niro has made a career for the past ten or more years out of subverting, parodying, or deconstructing the tough-guy cred he had accumulated over a long and illustrious career. Examples include Analyze This and Stardust.
  • Leslie Nielsen's goofy role in Airplane! was a play on his previous roles of the studly, stoic hero; one critic quipped that what was needed of him in his dramatic roles and his comedic roles was exactly the same - the ability to recite patently absurd dialogue while keeping a perfectly straight face. This was so successful that he's now better-known as a comedic actor than a dramatic one.
  • Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Thitherto this, Perkins had been known for playing likeable, affable, somewhat socially awkward supporting roles. When adapting the film from Robert Bloch's book of the same name, Hitchcock was unimpressed with the original characterization of Norman Bates, a grouchy, overweight alcoholic with much more overt problems with women and sex (directly based upon the inspiration for Bates, Ed Gein). He instead decided to change the characterization to superficially match Perkins's earlier roles, largely because Perkins looked, in Hitchcock's own words, "like a boy scout". This made Bates's character more sympathetic, the Decoy Protagonist element easier to swallow and the Twist Ending much more shocking. Alas, this gambit was so successful that Perkins ended up being typecast as Bates for the rest of his career.
  • John Travolta has a natural screen presence that can be described as a complete embodiment of the Nice Guy in TV shows and movies like Welcome Back, Kotter, Phenomenon, and Look Who's Talking. On the other hand, he seems to LOVE subverting that niceness by playing Affably Evil or Evilly Affable characters in movies like Broken Arrow and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. His role in the movie Face/Off zigzags this trope, where he starts out as a Nice Guy FBI agent who has to swap faces with evil terrorist Nicolas Cage. This allowed Travolta (and Cage) to play both sides of their personas in the same movie.
  • My Name Is Earl: In the episode "Made a Lady Think I Was God," Roseanne Barr guest stars as a character with her usual insulting personality, until Earl inadvertently turns her into a kindly nun.
  • In an episode of Bones Robert Englund guest-stars as a creepy janitor who hangs out in the basement of the school - who, in a subversion of Narrowed It Down to the Guy I Recognize, isn't the perp.

Voice Actors

  • The voice actress Rie Kugimiya almost always voices heroic characters (typically those with a tsundere personality), which allowed for an effective Bait the Dog with Nena Trinity in Gundam00. Nena initially comes off as a standard cute and quirky character and then sort of out of nowhere, she decides to use her mech slaughter a wedding party because they were having a good time and she wasn't. Then her actual character is established. Asura's Wrath is a much straighter example, as her characters (Mithra and the villager who looks like her) are almost complete opposites to her established typecasting.


Community Feedback Replies: 27
  • August 20, 2012
    MrRuano
    Sounds like there could be a good trope here, but a couple of things- I haven't seen One Hour Photo, but at least from what I've heard of it, Williams plays a character whose personality is very different from his usual persona (correct me if I'm wrong here). Also, especially given that both Amelie and He Loves Me He Loves Me Not, I'd have to guess that the latter also subverted French expectations of Tatou.

    • In what has actually become a sort of type casting itself, Morgan Freeman, who is known for playing "wise old man" characters, sometimes plays "wise old man characters... who turn out to be evil", with Wanted being a good example of this. Probably the first case of this would be in Nurse Betty, wherein he plays a Holy Hitman type and seems pretty much like his usual role right up until he scalps someone.
    • The voice actress Rie Kugimiya almost always voices heroic characters (typically those with a tsundere personality), which allowed for an effective Bait The Dog with Nena Trinity in Gundam00. Nena initially comes off as a standard cute and quirky character and then sort of out of nowhere, she decides to use her mech slaughter a wedding party because they were having a good time and she wasn't. Then her actual character is established. Asuras Wrath is a much straighter example, as her characters (Mithra and the villager who looks like her) are almost complete opposites to her established typecasting.
  • August 21, 2012
    Koveras
    Just to remind you: Tropes Are Flexible, and a subversion of an established trope is not necessarily a trope of its own.
  • August 21, 2012
    Folamh3
    @Mr Ruano: Admittedly, the One Hour Photo example is a bit of a push considering it's established quite early on that Williams's character is mentally disturbed, but the character's outward friendliness and cheerfulness nevertheless comes across as the actor subverting his established "persona".
  • August 21, 2012
    Folamh3
    @Koveras - I see your point, the name could come across as a little misleading. If anyone has any better suggestions I'd love to hear them.
  • August 21, 2012
    Shnakepup
    Would Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent character from The Dark Knight count? IIRC, Eckhart's usually known for playing good guy, "all american" type characters. Harvey Dent definitely starts off as this, since he's noble, charismatic and good-looking. Of course, by the end of the film he's been corrupted mentally and physically, going so far as to kill several people in cold blood and later nearly do the same to Commissioner Gordon and his family.
  • August 21, 2012
    Folamh3
    @Shnakepup - A rather arguable case, considering that a) the role that put Eckhart on the map was the amoral sociopath Chad in In The Company Of Men and b) everyone in the audience already knows that Harvey Dent will eventually be turned into the villainous Two-Face. In my opinion, it doesn't quite fit the trope.
  • August 21, 2012
    abk0100
    In Punch Drunk Love, Adam Sandler's character is, like always, antisocial, emotionally immature, and prone to uncontrollable fits of anger. Instead of that being a source of comedy, it leads to awkward, embarrassing situations, and the character leads a lonely, depressing life.
  • August 22, 2012
    NimmerStill
    Isn't this just, you know, subverted Type Casting?
  • August 22, 2012
    HonestGent
    Perhaps more common in deconstructions, given their tendencies to tweak the norm of the subjects? For example, having an actor known for being the town drunk, but highlighting the loneliness and health problems that have come about due to his lifestyle, rather than his hijinks? I would think comic actors are alot more likely to invoke this one.
  • August 22, 2012
    HonestGent
    ^Nevermind. Reread the description and you've said all that already. Sorry about that.
    • Adam Sandler's character in Click is predictably an angry jerkass with very little patience, but as the film goes on we see this attitude makes him miss out on most of his life, leaving hin a broken man.
  • August 22, 2012
    Folamh3
    @Nimmer Still - It encompasses slightly more than that, but I haven't thought of a better name yet. I was considering "Playing With Type" or "Playing With Typecasting" or something to that effect, but it might be a bit misleading considering the dual meaning of "playing" (playing with an expectation vs. playing a role).
  • August 23, 2012
    KevinKlawitter
    John Travolta's natural screen presence is basically the embodiment of the Nice Guy, but he seems to love subverting it by playing Affably Evil or Evilly Affable villains in movies such as Pulp Fiction, Face Off, and The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.
  • August 23, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    Really? When does John Travolta play a Nice Guy? His most famous roles (apart from Pulp Fiction) are in Grease and Saturday Night Fever.

  • August 23, 2012
    randomsurfer
    ^ ^^Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter was pretty nice, if dumb, Michael in Michael, Phenomenon, and whatever his character's name was from Look Whos Talking.

    Note though that Face Off is kind of a double-subversion, as his character is a good guy FBI agent who switches faces with a bad guy - so for most of the film he's playing Nicolas Cage's character and vice-versa. (from what I understand, never having seen the film.)
  • August 24, 2012
    Waterlily
    Leslie Nielsen's goofy role in Airplane was a play on his previous roles of the studly hero. However, he's now known mostly for films like Airplane.
  • August 24, 2012
    KarjamP
    Picture needs to be replaced because it's Just Two Faces And A Caption.

    If not now, then when the trope launches.
  • August 24, 2012
    Folamh3
    I'll admit, I'm not entirely convinced about the Travolta example. Some further context might be required. Having seen several of the films mentioned, however, I do not really get the impression that Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction is meant as a subversion of Travolta's Nice Guy character archetype. Vincent may be affable and charming, but he is certainly not "nice". Nor are either of the characters he plays in Face Off "nice" - the heroic character is a Good Is Not Nice type of stoically driven character, while the villainous character is overtly so (if still not entirely without his charms).
  • August 24, 2012
    Folamh3
    @Karjam P - You don't think this gets the sense of the trope across? One doesn't need to be familiar with Robin Williams or either of the films referred to in order to get the idea. In both pictures the actor is playing someone who looks charming and friendly, but the latter character is subverting the former.
  • August 24, 2012
    BlueIceTea
    Wow! Glad someone other than me was able to do a first-rate write-up for Psycho!
  • August 24, 2012
    KevinKlawitter
    Okay, I'll try to re-write the Travolta one:

  • August 25, 2012
    KarjamP
    @Folamh3 Still can't see the "subversion".

    It's just looks like a person with a non-happy smile to me.

    Besides, it doesn't really demonstrates the character's personallity well (at least for me).
  • August 25, 2012
    abk0100
    Nice job writing the examples, Karjam. (adding details and such)

    The Adam Sandler examples, though, they should be at the same indentation level. Something like:

    • Adam Sandler:
      • In Punch Drunk Love...
      • In Click...

    Either that, or have it all in a single bullet point like the Jim Carrey examples
  • August 25, 2012
    Goldfritha
    Compare to the in-universe Hidden Depths.
  • August 30, 2012
    abk0100
    My Name Is Earl: In the episode "Made a Lady Think I Was God," Roseanne Barr guest stars as a character with her usual insulting personality, until Earl inadvertently turns her into a kindly nun.
  • September 1, 2012
    surgoshan
    A correction: Freeman's role in Nurse Betty was pretty much the Stalker With A Crush Holy Hitman (don't know about the latter, but definitely the former) and he wasn't the one who scalped the guy. He was talking about scalping to scare the shit out of someone to get him to say where he'd hidden some money, and it was his son who took it the wrong way and ended up scalping the guy.
  • September 1, 2012
    randomsurfer
    In an episode of Bones Robert Englund guest-stars as a creepy janitor who hangs out in the basement of the school - and who isn't the perp.
  • September 2, 2012
    Folamh3
    C'mon lads, this YKTTW has loads of examples. Anyone give us a hat?
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