"We will always be Doctor Who, whoever played him. And one can either fight against it and go mad, or
embrace it and enjoy it. I enjoy it."
—>— Sylvester McCoy
Sometimes an actor is so iconic, famous, or interesting that their celebrity casts a shadow over the roles they play. That's not Hancock
in skin-tight leather flying around saving people; that's Will Smith
! In Hitch
, that's Will Smith giving dating advice. Independence Day
has Will Smith as a fighter pilot! Audiences are unable to commit to a Willing Suspension of Disbelief
and simply see the actor on screen rather than the character.
Sometimes this occurs because the actor is a media darling or tabloid punching bag, constantly in the news. After a while, audiences become so familiar with the actor's personal life that they can no longer see him or her as another person. Other times this is the result of movie stars becoming typecast or having limited range. Audiences come to expect the actor to play the same role over and over again, which becomes part of the actor's larger-than-life persona.
Polar opposites of this trope, are actors such as Geoffrey Rush, Gary Oldman, and to a lesser extent Brad Pitt, who are capable of putting masks on and completely becoming
another character or person entirely. Hence, this isn't an inherently bad thing
; some of the most successful actors in history have been of the "As themselves" type. So they can still be very good; they just tend not to be very versatile, and you'll usually only see them in the same (or similar) types of roles.
For an actor's career, this can be a double-edged sword. If people like the actor they'll stay loyal to him and see his movies regardless of what they're about. On the other hand, if audiences turn against the actor, they won't be able to appreciate his work no matter how good the material is. And if they really want to be taken seriously and play Hamlet
, it's a real (but not impossible) obstacle to overcome.
The complete opposite of this trope is I Am Not Spock
, where an actor is unable to step out of the shadow of their most famous role. See also Type Casting
and Adam Westing
, when an actor falls into this and cultivates it willingly.
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- John Wayne was famous for "playing himself" in almost all of his films. His personality was so larger than life that his characters were ultimately just different names for the same man in different circumstances. Wayne himself admitted as much, though he did at least find his role as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers so unique that he named his son after the character. When Wayne tried to branch out too far, such as by playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror, the results were predictably disastrous.
- Samuel L. Jackson is generally perceived to be "Samuel L. Motherfuckin' Jackson" in any role he played after Pulp Fiction. Even as a motherfuckin' Jedi, he was still Samuel L. Jackson, and yes, the "L" is important. As shown here.
- Clint Eastwood's roles in westerns are always seen as simply the "Clint Eastwood Gunfighter" character. Beginning with his role as "The Man With No Name" in the Dollars Trilogy with Sergio Leone, any future western with Eastwood would undoubtedly be seen as that character in a different setting, regardless of any actual backstories. The character has even come out of retirement twice, once after having become a priest in Pale Rider and once after having settled down as a farmer in Unforgiven. However, Eastwood has gone on record as saying that as far as he's concerned, William Munny from Unforgiven is the Man With No Name, and that it's the end of his story.
- On the other hand, he's also Dirty Harry half the time, to the extent that Gran Torino has been called "the sixth Dirty Harry film". Arguably, though, Gran Torino is more successful for it.
- Humphrey Bogart was an extremely popular actor who played characters with very similar personalities, encouraging this trope.
- Edward G. Robinson did the same.
- Jackie Chan's films are, well... Jackie Chan films. People watch them to see Jackie get up to crazy action hijinks. His characters are even called "Jackie" in many dubs. The Rush Hour blooper reels have multiple instances of Chris Tucker addressing him as "Jackie" instead of his character's name. Realizing the take was wasted already, he often responded in kind.
Don Cheadle: His name is Lee, goddamn it!
- Jack Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson, whether he's Satan, the Joker, or a psychotic writer. With the notable exceptions of Charley Partanna in Prizzi's Honor (Remember? He's stupid) and the detective in Chinatown.
- Bela Lugosi was typecast as a horror villain, and especially as Dracula. Later, he would try to break type by auditioning for other roles, but inevitably got second billing or no contracts at all. Upon his return to America, Lugosi was interviewed for television, and revealed his ambition to play more comedy. Independent producer Jack Broder took Lugosi at his word, casting him in a jungle-themed comedy that even had Lugosi's name on its title: Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla. It did not work.
- Christopher Walken began playing a caricature of himself somewhere around the mid-to-late nineties and hasn't looked back.
- From Blue Velvet to the end of his life, Dennis Hopper basically played the same guy who always seemed at least little crazy, in a possibly dangerous way.
- Adam West, who finally embraced it and plays "Adam West, the lunatic who never got past Batman".
- Tommy Lee Jones always plays basically the same character in all of his movies. Namely, Tommy Lee Jones. Now he's very good at playing Tommy Lee Jones, but in general its always the same guy with maybe one minor twist here and there (ie. an alcoholic in Rules of Engagement)
- Bruce Lee always played his own personal avatar in every film. Hey, if you see a man kung fu fighting like Bruce Lee, how are you supposed to think he's not Bruce Lee?
- Most B-movie action films have such shallow stories and characterization that they rely heavily on the action persona of their star, leading the star to essentially play the same role over and over again under different circumstances:
- Shahrukh Khan is always Shahrukh "EYEBROWS" Khan.
- Kevin Michael Richardson may be a voice-acting example. Aside from Joker, all his other roles are referred to as "Hey, it's that iconic baritone voice!".
- Arnold Schwarzenegger, to the point that whole films have been made specifically to be Arnold does X: "Ahnold gets pregnant," "Ahnold shops for Christmas toys," etc.
- People from sketch-comedy shows tend to fall into this.
- Adam Sandler, especially earlier in his career, when he played the exact same character in nearly every movie he was in.
- David Spade, especially in works like Joe Dirt and Just Shoot Me!. You might as well just replace on the cast-list "Finch" with "As Himself".
- Jimmy Stewart was always Jimmy Stewart, even when playing real people like Charles Lindbergh or Glenn Miller. Unless he happened to be your superior officer in the Air Force, in which case, his name was Brigadier General Stewart.
- Cary Grant always played the handsome, cool, smooth leading man, except in Bringing Up Baby or Arsenic and Old Lace. Those are both earlier movies; as his career progressed, he was more and more pigeonholed into that one role, the 'Cary Grant leading man' role. Which he actively worked to cultivate over the years.
- Ronald Colman tended to play himself, whether he was a royal impersonator, a gallant Foreign Legionnaire, a wanderer finding his place in life, a smooth-talking magician-thief, or an actor who's gone quietly, murderously mad. For some reason, starting in his silent film days, he was repeatedly cast in dual roles, usually a decent guy with an Evil Twin.
- William Shatner's hammy persona and trademark delivery dominates his various roles.
- The Marx Brothers played virtually the exact same characters in all of their movies. Despite the fact that their respective characters were essentially identical in all of their films, in each film the characters have different names, jobs, and backstories. Even so, to the audience they're still always Groucho, Chico and Harpo...and sometimes Zeppo. (They were billed as themselves in Monkey Business.)
- Abbott and Costello, to the point where most of their later films simply had them playing themselves.
- Look everyone, it's Bruce Campbell—er, whatever cocky, sarcastic character he's playing this time.
- Woody Allen will always play a version of his professional persona: an insecure, put-upon, wise-cracking Jew from New York.
- Robert Downey, Jr. does always seem to be playing a smartass these days. And not just a smartass, but a flawed, womanizing (with varying success), substance-abuse-prone, freakishly charming smartass. In fact he seems to just play himself. (Except Tropic Thunder when he's playing Christian Bale/Russel Crowe.) Tropes Are Not Bad: the above traits are why his portrayal of Tony Stark is so spot-on.
- Morgan Freeman has acquired such a reputation as a calm, smooth man of authority that most of his later film roles became simply Morgan Freeman calmly and smoothly delivering exposition. This is in contrast to his earlier career, with roles like Lean on Me, before he'd earned this reputation.
- As it says at the top, Will Smith. Back in the mid to late 90's, he was the same smooth-talking ladies' man-slash-flippant, snarky action hero, always locked and loaded with an "Aw, hell naw" at the ready to take down giant ships, giant bugs or giant spiders. He's expanded post-millenium to more serious dramas but all that means is he's now seen by fans as 'Will Smith acting really well'.
- Seth Green seems to have the same deadpan personality, no matter what part he's playing. He's also pretty good at getting in character though, so he comes off as some hybrid of Seth Green and whoever he's playing.
- Seth Rogen is widely known as a lovable stoner manchild with a hearty laugh. He plays this persona in just about every role except Observe and Report, which seems to have been made specifically to break his Type Casting.
- Keanu Reeves. "Whoa, dude." Also inverted: for some time he apparently worried that his tombstone was inevitably going to read "Here Lies Ted." Then there was The Matrix.
- Nathan Fillion. As the quote on his page says, "Nathan Fillion always seem to play Nathan Fillion. And frankly I'm okay with that."
- Look! It's Owen Wilson as a spy! Check it out, Owen Wilson as a Cowboy/Cop/Model/Pseudo Sergeant! Occasionally averted, since he is rounded enough to play other roles; he just doesn't very often.
- Harrison Ford, thanks to having two iconic film roles. Although those roles are big and famous enough to override it; in those he's Han Solo and Indiana Jones. In anything else, he's Harrison Ford. The poster for Air Force One actually says "HARRISON FORD is the President of the United States of America."
- Sir Ian McKellen is known as the distinguished classical British actor, no matter what he does. He only just escaped I Am Not Gandalf (or, to a lesser extent "I Am Not Magneto" in X-Men) by being so darn respectable and having a Sir on the front of his name. The likes of Apt Pupil prove he can transcend the "Look, It's Sir Ian McKellen" effect.
- Liam Neeson is an extremely talented and versatile actor, but of late many of his films, despite his excellent and varied performances, can best be described as Liam Neeson is a Jedi, Liam Neeson is Zeus, Liam Neeson Flies a Tank, Liam Neeson Fights Batman, and Liam Neeson Demonstrating His Particular Set of Skills.
- Averted by Peter Sellers. In an interview, he was asked what he, personally was like. He paused for a moment, looking honestly puzzled, and responded, "I don't know."
- Patrick Stewart seems to pull off both this trope and I Am Not Picard, interestingly.
- Mr. T shall always be Mr. T, fool!
- It should be noted that he was selected for both his best-known roles by simple virtue of being Mr. T. And he has remained Mr. T since.
- Tom Hanks mostly just plays Tom Hanks these days.
- Ryan Reynolds always seems to play the cool, funny guy in a romantic comedy or screwball comedy. Or the Green Lantern movie.
- Tim Curry is always Tim Curry. If he turns up in anything, it's odds-on that he is evil and/or will die at the end.
- King Acorn and King Arthur are two notable exceptions. Also Nigel Thornberry, who many don't even recognize as him.
- Also in video games: in Dragon Age: Origins, Tim Curry is the voice of the Evil Aristocrat who murders the PC's entire family (if you follow Human Noble origin) and goes on to help start a civil war before ultimately being killed by the PC and their party
- Steve Carell is an example similar to Harrison Ford above. In The Office (US) and Anchorman, he's Michael Scott and Brick Tamland, respectively. In anything else, he's Steve Carell.
- Except Little Miss Sunshine, where he's a wistful, suicidally depressed and very withdrawn gay man who nevertheless becomes the film's center.
- Most of the lead actors in The Expendables. They're not Barney Ross, Lee Christmas, and Yin Yang. They're Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, and Jet Li.
- While pretty much no one can complain about his performance, several people lamented the fact that having J.K. Simmons voice Cave Johnson in Portal 2 had the drawback of making it pretty much impossible to picture someone other than Simmons saying those lines, regardless of all the portraits of Johnson lying around.
- For British players, this also applies to Wheatley. Try to hear his voice without picturing Stephen Merchant. Bonus points if you start expecting Karl Pilkington, Ricky Gervais or Barry from Eastenders to turn up, as Merchant's voice almost sounds strange without them.
- Many people don't even know that David Bowie's character's name in Labyrinth is supposed to be Jareth, not "David Bowie".
- This also sums up his first major, and usually best-regarded, film role, Alien Among Us Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In the retrospective book David Bowie Is, critic Mark Kermode reflects the popular opinion in arguing that Bowie is perfect as Newton because he doesn't have to stretch to play an unearthly being. (Film director Nicholas Roeg tapped him for the role after seeing the documentary profile Cracked Actor.)
- Voice Acting Example: Norio Wakamoto as a newspaper editor; Norio Wakamoto as the Emperor of Britannia; Norio Wakamoto as a flying cat.. alien... thing... that may or may not be Santa Claus; Norio Wakamoto as a vacuum cleaner.
- Michael Cera is pretty much the same awkward young guy in every role, to the point that some are getting a little sick of it.
- BRIAN BLESSED: Completely and utterly embraces this trope, absolutely revels in his reputation as a Boisterous Bruiser in spite of the fact he is perfectly capable of "proper" acting if he feels like it (see I, Claudius for proof).
- Stephen Fry is this through and through; if he isn't playing "Stephen Fry as a...", then he can easily be found using his instantly identifiable voice to narrate soothingly.
Stephen Fry: My role in this film as a gay, intelligent man with a sense of humor and appreciation for high culture is a real stretch for me.
- Robin Williams, with the exceptions of One Hour Photo, Insomnia and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Although even in his SVU appearance, his penchant for doing funny voices is specifically made into a plot point.
- Bruce Willis, unless he's playing John McClane.
- Or his quiet, haunted, mustached Vietnam vet in the little-seen In Country.
- Colin Firth is always playing a stuffy Brit.
- Rob Schneider is... a carrot!
- This one's an odd case... Elton John is best known for being a musician, and whenever he does do an occasional acting bit, he almost always plays himself. However, when he was talked into taking up a part in The Movie version of Tommy, a Concept Album turned Rock Opera by The Who, he ended up not playing himself, but rather a character called the Local Lad, also known as The Champ (though the character's often called the Pinball Wizard by mistake because of the song he sings). Even though it's not Elton, the character seems to oddly have his fashion sense and style (and there's even a keyboard built into his pinball machine), thus people seem to easily confuse the character for Elton himself, which has not happened to any of the other performers in that movie (save for the previously-mentioned Jack Nicholson). It also doesn't help that a lot of people don't know the character's real name since it was never really said by anyone...Or the fact that he got to keep the boots afterwards...
- Jude Law became this trope in a single year — having five films on the market at once will do that. Even when he's not acting, scandals about his personal life usually sell, to the point where Closer becomes a retroactive invocation of this trope: at the time, Law was famous for being very attractive and playing undeniably charming Lotharios. In Closer, his character repeatedly cheats, holds others to a double standard, and is the movie's least sympathetic protagonist. As Law's personal life increasingly became news, with the scandals focused on his tendency to cheat on his wives, his role in Closer suddenly became playing to type.
- Elvis Presley, similarly to Elton John, is primarily known as a musician, and pretty much was playing "Elvis" no matter what the role. It didn't help that most of his films were formulaic "Elvis musicals" as his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, had contracted him to play, and much to Elvis' eventual frustration, he rarely got to break away from the formula (though films like Love Me Tender and Flaming Star showed he had potential as an actor.)
- Eddie Murphy in Delirious observed that it was easier to get Elvis to sing than act. "Lemonade...That cool refreshing drink."
- Equally, too, so had The Beatles, at least together, but at least John Lennon and especially Ringo Starr showed themselves capable of different roles years later.
- Ice-T admitted that his Law & Order: Special Victims Unit character is "what I'd be like if I were a cop".
- According to Filipino writer Jessica Zafra, Romnick Sarmienta suffered from this trope: "when you see Romnick Sarmienta on the screen, you don't see the role he plays. You see... Romnick."
- Johnny Depp. When was the last time anyone saw a Depp featured movie that wasn't "Johnny Depp wears a silly costume and speaks in a funny voice?"
- Though there's a bit of Peter Sellers-like behavior here as well. Will he be a soft-spoken nerd? Or a cowardly hero? Or manic-depressive chaos magnet? Yeah, you go to his movies to see Johnny Depp, but the only thing you know in advance is that he won't be normal.
- Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock.
- Charlie Sheen seems to play himself (or a toned-down version) in his more recent TV series such as Two and a Half Men and Anger Management. He appears as The Danza and is almost Adam Westing.
- Marilyn Monroe is such an iconic sex symbol, even back when she was still in movies, that it's nearly impossible for a viewer to see her as anything but.
- Paris Hilton, to such a degree that "See Paris Hilton being gruesomely murdered!" was the unique selling point for House of Wax (2005). The album of John Ottman's score for the film calls the cue for that scene "Paris Gets It" - even though Miss Hilton's character is called Paige.
- Julia Roberts tends to be Type Cast in a narrow range of roles, in which she is so consistently a Love It or Hate It personality that "Julie Roberts movie" is almost a genre.
- Like Tom Cruise, she seems to have crossed some event horizon into whatever is beyond acting. She is the entity called Julia Roberts. Sometimes this entity makes a film. The advertising posters will declare Julia Roberts to be in a film. The public will base their decision on whether or not to see this film solely on this fact...eerie.
- Roberts may be moving toward aversion in The New Tens. Her performance in Closer was well-received and she was considered the least of the four leads. It may help that she is now "too old" to be the ingenue (by Hollywood standards). Over-exposure and formulaic movies during the '90s and early '00s kept her Type Cast, but that may be ending.
- Angelina Jolie is the premiere—some say only—action heroine of Hollywood. Any film she is in (e.g., Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Beowulf, Salt, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is more about watching Angelina play the part of sexy action hero then watching sexy action heroes.
- Then again, half her movies are dramatic... which fit more with her real life persona!
- At one point, Jennifer Aniston wanted to appear on one of her favorite shows, 24. The producers refused, saying that she was so well known, it would kill the effect, instead of seeing the character, they'd see Jennifer.
- Jodie Foster is always an unassuming woman who'll put up with a bit of abuse before kicking some ass. Whether it be a man that makes suits out of human skin, a terrorist kidnapping her daughter or shooting a man in the face to get her dog back. It just doesn't matter.
- Averted when she's not very unassuming as the negotiator in Inside Man.
- Dakota Fanning is always Dakota Fanning. Tom Cruise being in this trope as well had a weird effect on The War of the Worlds. Essentially, the central characters are Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and Robbie. And while everyone else in Twilight is in I Am Not Spock mode, Jane might just as well be named Evil Dakota Fanning.
- Speaking of child stars, Shirley Temple is always a Cheerful Heartwarming Orphan who sings and dances. Four of her characters were actually named "Shirley". Like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, Shirley Temple has passed the event horizon into the realm beyond acting. The real Shirley Temple went on to do some grown-up roles which no one remembers, retired from acting, become a diplomat, and finally died in 2014 at the age of eighty-five. But the pop culture entity of Shirley Temple is forever locked in time to her twee 1930s child self.
- Sarah Michelle Gellar. Although she's done other work, she only really has a single character; a greater or less intense version of the Action Girl she played in Buffy.
- Natalie Portman. Reviews of Black Swan often noted that whether the fascination came in watching "Nina" or "Natalie" succumb to the pressure for perfection was unclear, as Portman was largely playing an exaggerated version of herself. Similarly, her performance in Closer was entirely dependent on the fact that audiences were willing to believe that "Natalie Portman is Amazingly Desirable and Needs Your Love." Whether or not Portman herself can act is a contested issue, as her primary purpose in films seems to be playing the audience's fantasy of herself. (Ironically, Portman herself went to Harvard and seems quite level-headed, so she may be sliding toward Adam Westing.) Portman's attempts at branching out by taking dramatic or less sympathetic roles have not been well-received.
- Glenn Close doubled down on this one. In the early and mid-1980s, she was nominated for three Oscars playing nurturing, vaguely maternal women (The Natural, The Big Chill and The World According To Garp). Then, she took the Fatal Attraction part and completely U-turned, getting another Oscar nom as a murderously unhinged mistress. She couldn't get out of that stereotype for a while, ultimately playing Cruella de Vil in the live-action 101Dalmatians, until her recent Oscar nomination for a woman posing as a man.
- Mary Tyler Moore was so closely identified with Laura Petrie that, when she got her own show, the network nixed the show's original idea to have Mary Richards be recently divorced since the audience would think she had left Dick. It took until Ordinary People for her to establish herself as a dramatic actress playing a cold, emotionally repressed mother in a troubled family.
- Part of the surprising amount of hate Anne Hathaway gets may be due to the fact that so many of her characters are this good girl who's always trying (or even basically Cinderella; yes, even The Devil Wears Prada is a somewhat disguised Cinderella story), a character not too far from the way she comes off herself.