I Am Not Leonard Nimoy

"And yeah, that's what I'm calling him. I know the character has a name, but fuck it, you're never going to call him that, you're just going to call him "Will Smith fish."

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.


Examples:

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    Actresses 
  • Mary Pickford is one of the earliest examples of this. She was known as America's Sweetheart - and had an iconic image of long ringlets and angelic dresses. Many famous Ingenues were played by her - such as Pollyanna, Sara Crewe, Cinderella, MadameButterfly. As such she was one of the first examples of Contractual Purity. Even when she appeared As Herself in World War I propaganda films, she still portrayed a squeaky-clean cutie version of herself. When she finally played against type in an adult role - at the age of 37 in the film Coquette - there was outrage. She retired from films not long afterwards.
  • 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.
  • Joan Crawford was a prime example of this in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many biographies of her insist that Joan was not an actress; she was a movie star. In her films she played an Iron Woobie who suffered through ninety minutes of drama, usually with a slap delivered to her antagonist. Audiences went to see Joan. The lone exception seems to be Mildred Pierce, the only Oscar she ever won. She did go against type in her horror movies towards the end of her career, but it was impossible for audiences to see her as anyone other than Joan.
  • 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. You can also see her face fall off!
  • 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 "Julia 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 '10s. 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 premier—some say only—action heroine of Hollywood. Any film she is in (e.g., Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Beowulf, Salt, Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)) 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. This may be averted with her exceedingly Playing Against Type role in Horrible Bosses. She also won critical acclaim for her dramatic role in Cake and many were insisting that she win an Oscar for it. She had shown earlier that she could disappear into a role that didn't cater to typecasting in The Good Girl.
  • 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. Shirley herself did not like this even as a small child. She wanted to play some of her roles differently, putting more Action Girl and Spoiled Brat stuff into her characters; her mother backed her up on this, but the studio wouldn't allow it.
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar. Although she's done other work, including situational comedy, she only really has a single character; a greater or less intense version of the Action Girl she played in Buffy. Also, people who know Gellar personally have said that when she acts, she's often just playing herself in a costume.
  • 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.
  • 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. But see Rachel Getting Married for the exception. And then there's Havoc, which most males have seen just because she gets her kit off a lot. Her role in The Dark Knight Rises even seems to play with this; her character is introduced seemingly like a typical Anne Hathaway doe-eyed Woobie. Then with the word "oops" she reveals herself to be a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing who is actually Catwoman - it too widely regarded as one of her best performances.
  • Kate Hudson is essentially seen as herself in most of her films. She's almost always an Adorkable Everyone Loves Blondes who's Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places. Even her most iconic role in Almost Famous is an example of this. The exception seems to be the horror movie The Skeleton Key, where she played a hospice nurse. It sparked She Really Can Act reactions.
  • Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in their various direct-to-video movies (and their sitcoms Two of a Kind and So Little Time). Mary-Kate is always the rebellious edgy tomboy, and Ashley the responsible Girly Girl. Even Mary-Kate's role as the witch Kendra in Beastly caters to this. The lone exception is the film Winning London where Mary-Kate is the uptight bookworm Chloe, and Ashley the easy-going Lad Ette Riley.
  • Jessica Biel tends to experience this, and general reaction whenever she stars in something is "oh, there's Justin Timberlake's wife". Her infamous topless photo shoot at age seventeen, and her biggest hit being the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) pretty much solidified her image as a sexy Action Girl. The roles where she does go against type - The Illusionist and Easy Virtue - were well received but not what you'd call hits. Because of this she felt she was a shoe-in for the role of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.
  • Megan Fox became such an iconic sex symbol in the 2000s that she experienced this. It was partially enforced by the wishes of her husband, as Megan reportedly wanted to move past the generic Ms. Fanservice parts and go against type, but they needed the money. As a result, her casting as April O'Neal in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) was met with uproar. The fanbase is split down the middle as to whether she did a good job or April was turned into a 'Megan Fox character'. It doesn't help that even before her Star-Making Role in the Transformers films, her roles were usually as Alpha Bitches or the Brainless Beauty.

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