Actors are prone to having their own personality... surprise! They may be gifted in being able to portray someone else, but often that baggage of their own distinct personality can cross over into the minds of the general public. There are also past roles they they will be eternally known for.
The use of Meta Casting is taking an actor and crafting a role that utilizes their known history to create a resonance between the performance and the audience that makes the whole thing far more dynamic than it could have been in any other way. As an example, take an actor who is famous for having altercations with obnoxious tabloid reporters. Take that same actor and cast them in a role of a famous businessman who kills a reporter for harassing him constantly. In some cases the actual role is almost an expy
of themselves, as in they're playing an actor
with a suspiciously similar history.
This can come in multiple ways:
- Adam Westing — Using an actor's famous role in a form of self-parody. Contractual Purity often results in formerly child-friendly actors behaving in very much "family unfriendly" behavior.
- Casting Gag — Using their history with another actor or an older franchise incarnation. Possibly in a Remake Cameo they use The Hero of the original to be a mentor or give their blessing to the new crew.
- Actor-Shared Background — The role is written with the actual (non-acting) history of the actor in place. A few former criminals with jail time have gained a history of playing hardened criminals.
- The Cast Show Off — The skills and talents of the actor are integrated into the character, helping the actor feel more comfortable and giving the character more depth. An episode might be written to show a previously non-singing character to have the same vocal abilities as their actor.
- Cast the Expert — Rather than hiring an actor to portray a professional in some field, they hire someone who actually is in that field, which gives the performance an additional air of credibility with Shown Their Work. Martial artists are among the first people chosen to headline action movies, see Bruce Lee.
In many cases this can be And the Fandom Rejoiced
; the fans latch on to that resonance and appreciate it.
Compare Casting Gag
(where the actor has a past history with the franchise or other actors), Actor Allusion
(a nod to other roles they played), Ink-Suit Actor
, Celebrity Paradox
, Reality Subtext
, Actor-Inspired Element
and Enforced Method Acting
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- Robert Downey, Jr.. was cast as Iron Man not only because he is a good actor, but has had problems in the past with drug abuse. That added extra weight to a man who is struggling to redeem himself for past mistakes; a man who is also known for having problems with alcohol.
- Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark for most practical purposes.
- Jeff Bridges is also a great choice to play the villain, because it's a role he doesn't normally play. He comes across as friendly and likeable, albeit a bit of a smooth talker. And when we learn he was behind everything, we empathize with the betrayal Tony is feeling, because we're feeling it as well.
- Downey did it again in Sherlock Holmes, playing the titular ace detective with drug and adjustment problems.
- In fact, this seems to happen to Downey a lot. In Charlie Bartlett he plays a high school principal with an alcohol problem.
- Zodiac as well.
- A Scanner Darkly, natch
- Less Than Zero pretty much established the pattern.
- Inverted, actually. He has stated that it was during shooting Less Than Zero that he became a hardcore addict. To quote Cracked, knowing that as you watch Less Than Zero, you are witnessing an actual addiction form, it's hard not to stay riveted.
Until that movie, I took my drugs after work and on the weekends. That changed on Less Than Zero, the role was like the ghost of Christmas future. The character was an exaggeration of myself. Then things changed and, in some ways, I became an exaggeration of the character.
- Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury because Ultimate Nick Fury's character design was based on him anyway, and as part of using his likeness he got the role in a live action film using the character.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier has martial arts-themed mercenary Georges Batroc (Batroc the Leaper in the comics) played by UFC World Welterweight Champion Georges St.-Pierre.
- Bruce Willis in Unbreakable as a man who is struggling with the idea that he might be Made of Iron and no one else is. Thinking about John McClane while watching the movie makes it that much more thoughtful.
- John Wayne in The Shootist playing an aging gunfighter dying of cancer in a world where he realises he's an anachronism. What's more is that most everyone expected this to be his last film, and it was, as he was indeed fighting cancer and his brand of western (and war) film hero had become an anachronism.
- Keanu Reeves as a drug addicted cop in A Scanner Darkly. He's just Dull Surprise'd enough to seem plausible as a guy whose mind is slowly deteriorating from substance D.
- EVERYONE in A Scanner Darkly. Not only does it have the aforementioned Reeves and Robert Downey, Jr., but also Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane. What a cast to play a bunch of stoners!
- Hilary Duff in War, Inc where she plays a pop star who is overly saturated as a sex symbol, which while not exactly descriptive of Duff's life and career it does come fairly close to use this trope.
- Christopher Reeve in the Rear Window remake.
- Audie Murphy. Enlisted in the US Army at 16 by falsifying his birth records, and proceeded to win more medals than he had places to put them in WWII. This included every single medal awarded by the US at the time, several more than once, along with medals from the French and Belgian governments. He then came home and starred in several war movies as a young recruit who performed heroic deeds on the battlefield, including The Red Badge of Courage and a movie based on his own war experiences.
- School of Rock cast several child musicians, rather than child actors, to play the young musician characters. Jack Black himself is part of Tenacious D.
- Bonus points for the fact that the kid who played Larry (the pianist) had to go through the same classical-to-rock transition that the character did.
- Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star had the main character go for a role in a Rob Reiner film and he was considered perfect for the role in every regard except that he never had a normal childhood. So he goes off to quickly get a normal childhood. Essentially he is working to invoke this trope In-Universe to get a role.
- Nicolas Cage manages to convey a sense of being out of his depth in most of his roles, so he managed to do a marvelous job of portraying a chemical weapons expert dragged along on a SEAL mission in The Rock.
- Ben Stein as a high school economics teacher in Ferris Buellers Day Off.
- The Wrestler casts Mickey Rourke, a down-on-his-luck actor looking for a comeback, as a down-on-his-luck wrestler looking for a comeback.
- Jesse Ventura in The Running Man. Retired hunter turns play by play commentator.
- And that's to say nothing of Richard Dawson playing an established game show host who was loved by the fans but was a real jerk when it came to backstage politics. Not surprisingly, Dawson made the film in a period during which he was not hosting Family Feud (though he later returned to the show).
- In-universe use: In Mr Saturday Night there was a part in a film based on Buddy Young Jr. (the protagonist), but he didn't get the role because the writer/director thought he was dead so he cast Walter Matthau instead. Buddy auditions for another part, but stops and says "this isn't me."
- Rocky films:
- Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in Rocky III.
- Scandinavian double black belt Dolph Lundgren as Drago in Rocky IV.
- The casting of Tommy Morrison as Tommy "Machine" Gunn in Rocky V.
- Rocky Balboa cast a real life boxer to play Mason Dixon because according to Stallone it is easier to teach a boxer how to act than teach an actor how to box.
- R. Lee Ermey started as a consultant for Full Metal Jacket and was eventually cast in the role of Drill Sergeant Nasty. He was a Marine, after all. Legend has it Stanley Kubrick didn't bother writing most of Ermey's iconic drill sergeant patter, he just let Ermey say what he'd normally say.
- Tropic Thunder works almost entirely because it plays with the actual personalities of the actors portraying fictional actors. Robert Downey Jr plays an obsessive method actor who goes to extremes to play a role, to the detriment of his peers. Jack Black plays a comic who only plays obnoxious buffoons in Toilet Humor movies. In fact, some people expressed disappointment that Ben Stiller wasn't an expy of himself (A sympathetic everyman who is a Cosmic Plaything) instead of the Stallone-like action hero he was in the movie. Jay Baruchel plays the little-known actor who isn't even mentioned on the poster, which is often what he is in real life.
- Stiller's part was originally going to go to Keanu Reeves. One of the plot points is that he has trouble expressing emotions, which would've made it this trope.
- Donald Sutherland's right hand man in Outbreak, Dale Dye, was a captain in the Marine Corps. He has made a secondary career out of playing military officers.
- His tertiary career is teaching actors how to play military officers.
- In his spare time, he also acts as a military advisor for first-person shooters. Medal of Honor names its Harder Than Hard modes after him.
- Paris Hilton in Repo! The Genetic Opera appears to be this - she plays a bitchy, slutty, egotistical heiress, which matches at least her public image perfectly - but she was initially not even allowed to audition and had to fight to win the part. Still a case of What The Hell, Casting Agency?.
- The holographic operator of the Decepticon vehicles in Transformers, "Moustache Man", is an actual pilot for the US military who was qualified to fly the various vehicles he appeared in. He even delayed his wedding to play Barricade's Moustache Man at the request of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg.
- Peter Sellers took this trope into his own hands and put a twist on it. He often commented in interviews that he had no real personality and was nothing beyond the many colorful characters he played. After he read Being There, he contacted author Jerzy Kosinski about getting a film adaptation made because he saw in it the role he was meant to play all along. That would be Chance the Gardener, a mentally-challenged man whose personality is so underdeveloped that he can only reflect other people's assumptions and desires, which makes each one of them see him as everything he or she ever wanted — a passionate-yet-discreet lover, a brilliant thinker, etc. The resultant performance is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of his career, even though it is worlds removed from most of his other work tonally.
- Robert Rodriguez-favorite Danny Trejo, a Mexican ex-con who got into acting after leaving his past behind. As a result of his past, he almost always plays The Brute-type characters, like in Desperado, Predators, From Dusk Till Dawn, and most recently, Machete.
- On one of his first jobs, the casting director asked, "Can you act like a convict?", to which Trejo responded "Yeah, I think I can give it a shot."
- To a lesser extent, Charles S. Dutton, who took up acting while serving a prison sentence for a gang-related murder, is often cast as a murderer or tough guy.
- After her infamous Saks Fifth Avenue shoplifting debacle, Winona Ryder played in a movie called The Ten, which was an Anthology Film that riffed on the Ten Commandments. The subject of Ryder's segment? "Thou Shalt Not Steal."
- Memento required a Smug Snake type character for the antagonist, so they hired Joe Pantoliano, whose career is virtually nothing but. Except, of course, that his character is innocent of the crime he's killed for in the film's opening. The role relies heavily on his typecasting to make the audience assume he's the bad guy, when he's the closest thing the protagonist has to a real friend. Virtually anyone but a typecast actor would have given the audience room to doubt.
- In the remake of The Karate Kid a lot of people initially scoffed at casting Jackie Chan as the Mr. Miyagi counterpart, Mr. Han, largely because it sounded like a fanboy's wish list. But when the movie itself came out, people noted that Chan's reputation as a martial arts master gave a great deal more validity to him as a teacher and to the idea of 'Dre becoming so good in such a short period of time. Instant Expert? He was trained by Jackie Chan!
- T.I. took this route in his movie ATL, in which he plays a struggling artist in Atlanta. He himself grew up in a poorer part of Atlanta.
- George Clooney's character in Up in the Air is a charming bachelor with no plans of marriage. You'd think the part was specifically written for him.
- Miley Cyrus in LOL, an American 2012 remake of a French Black Comedy. She plays the role of a Bratty Teenage Daughter who is seen by her mother as perfect and goody-two-shoes, but leads in private an active sex life, smokes, drinks, does drugs and has a raunchy mouth. The tables are turned as her mother reads her Facebook page and learns of her sordid sexual posts. Though the role was not written expressly for her, it has interesting subtext as Miley in Real Life has moved on to a degree from her Hannah Montana days (though certainly not to such a degree) to the ire of Moral Guardians.
- In Sunset Boulevard, the character of Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent film star was played by Gloria Swanson, a forgotten silent film star. Her butler, Max von Mayerling who used to be a leading silent film director is played by Eric von Stroheim, who used to be a leading silent film director.
- In Dreamgirls, Beyoncé plays Deena, one of the members of a '60s Girl Group who ends up getting promoted more than the other band members (partially because of her relationship with the manager) and even leads to one member being fired from the band. In real life, Beyonce was the Face of the Band for Destinys Child and is the one who has had the most successful solo career afterwards. Some people feel that the only reason that's true is because Beyonce's father was the manager. What takes this to another level of meta is that Beyonce actually got top billing over Jennifer Hudson, even though Hudson's character is the main character of the story.
- In Flashback, Dennis Hopper, who had played radical characters, most famously in Easy Rider, plays a former 60's radical under arrest for crimes committed back then.
- Director Nicholas Roeg got the idea to cast rock musician David Bowie as the title character in The Man Who Fell to Earth after seeing the BBC documentary profile Cracked Actor. The program followed Bowie on his 1974 U.S. tour, both on and offstage, and Roeg realized that the singer (who frequently incorporated science fiction elements and imagery into his work throughout his career) had exactly the stranger-in-a-strange-land aura the role of Thomas Jerome Newton — an actual alien trying to save his dying race by masquerading as a human businessman and rising to the top of American industry — required.
- Jack Palance, after playing Memetic Badass Wilson in Shane, was cast as Curly Washburn in City Slickers because of the mystique around his portrayal of the earlier character.
- During an interview on the Travis Smiley show, Denzel Washington admitted that his first villain role in the film Training Day (which got him a best male actor Academy Award) was the easiest role he ever played. This was because the character he played: a corrupt cop named Alonzo, was based around his real off-screen personality. However, he made it clear that the evil deeds were solely movie based.
- In Spring Breakers, Selena Gomez, one of the few remaining tween superstars of the 2000s decade not to have either turned into a raunch queen, need rehab, or otherwise spark controversy (other than dating Justin Bieber) was cast, appropriately as the innocent member of the female gang in the film. Most tellingly, her character disappears from the narrative when things get serious and the other girls start getting out of control. After all, we couldn't have Selena Gomez engaging in a three-way or killing people.
- The French film Grosse Fatigue (English subtitle: "Dead Tired") takes this all the way Up to Eleven and then some more. All the leading actors, extremely well known in France, play themselves—still just as famous but in a fictitious scenario. The only character who isn't portrayed as the actor playing him is played by the film's maker, Michel Blanc, but that's only because said actor is playing two roles, himself and someone who isn't famous but looks exactly like him, a fact that provides the motor for a very clever plot.
- Christopher Reeve in his role in Smallville as Virgil Swann. The past Superman is telling the current Superman where he came from and who he is. Often considered the Crowning Moment Of Awesome for the show. Punctuated by the use of music from his Superman movies during his scenes. Margot Kidder also appeared in one of Reeve's episodes.
- In the third season of Slings and Arrows, William Hutt's character is enticed out of retirement to play at the New Burbage theater festival while dying of cancer. Hutt himself had several "retirements" from the Stratford Festival (on which New Burbage is based) and died of leukemia shortly after Slings And Arrows was filmed.
- Undeclared inverted this trope where the characters' personalities, and even their home city/country, were based on the actors they hired. The DVD Commentary would frequently point out that a recurring actor really did have that kind of slightly-off personality.
- Matt Smith IS the Eleventh Doctor, perhaps more so than the Doctor himself.
- More so, both David Tennant and Peter Capaldi were cast as the Doctor after literally a lifetime of being uber-fans of the show. To the point where Capaldi, less than 10 seconds after being officially announced as the new Doctor in a live worldwide broadcast, struck a famous pose associated with William Hartnell's First Doctor.
- Everyone's favorite goth girl, NCIS lab tech Abby Sciuto, has a lot in common with her actress, Pauley Perrette. Not just the tattoos, but the story Abby tells Kate in the first episode, about poking around in an old junkyard being the start of her forensics path, is actually straight out of Perette's life.
- In another example from the same show, Michael Weatherly plays Tony DiNozzo, who comes from a rich family but has been cut off. This is actually true of Weatherly's own family, as his own father cut him off when he dropped out of college and became an actor. Various other bits of his real life history have been used as gags (including how his family made their money and that he was once engaged to Jessica Alba) and Tony's movie references became a character element after a few too many of his ad-libs were movie-based.
- A meta-meta example. Robert Wagner has appeared in numerous episodes as Tony's father. Weatherly once portrayed Wagner in a TV movie and does an eerily accurate impression of the actor which has been posted to YouTube among outtakes from a CBS promo bumper he recorded.
- Sean Murry is also almost as much of a geek as McGee.
- Dennis Farina usually plays cops and mobsters, which maybe isn't surprising considering he was a Chicago police officer for almost 20 years before taking up acting. His Law & Order character is even mentioned as previously being a Chicago cop.
- Michael J. Fox on Scrubs was cast to play Dr. Kevin Casey, a double certified (medical/surgical) visiting doctor with extreme OCD. While he proceeded to show-up everyone in the cast with his skills, and despite his genius and generally positive outlook, his OCD is a very powerful demon that he can never truly ignore. Fox's bodily tics from Parkinson's added weight to the performance and the message.
- Charlie Sheen's first episode on Spin City showed that his character Charlie Crawford has had many social issues in the past, including wild womanizing and drugs. At the end of the episode he very publically apologized to a past fling explaining that he has entire weeks he doesn't remember, one where he ended up in a tour bus with a bunch of groupies "And I wasn't even in a band!"
- Sheen's more recent issues make this a very cyclical ordeal. His current series, Anger Management, is overflowing with references to his sometimes bizarre past behavior while under the influence of narcotics.
- Power Rangers often searches for skilled martial artists to begin with, but along the way often integrates the background of the actor into the actual character. The most famous being Kimberly's gymnastics, where Amy Jo Johnson was an Olympic hopeful at one point, and Zach's hip hop kido, which was designed and performed by Walter Jones.
- The creators of Parks and Recreation developed the role of April Ludgate basically because they wanted an Aubrey Plaza-type character after meeting the actress.
- The Fall Guy: Lee Majors plays a stuntman and was also roped into actually singing the show's theme song, in which his character proclaims he's been seen on screen with Farrah. Farrah Fawcett was formerly known as Farrah Fawcett-Majors and had in fact divorced Majors by the time Fall Guy came along. Another episode had a meta moment where Majors' character, Colt Seavers, has to break into a bad buy's lair and does so using the same catapult device used to simulate bionic jumps for Majors' own stuntmen in The Six Million Dollar Man.
- Another meta-example can be found in The Big Bang Theory. Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler is played by Mayim Bialik, a Former Child Star who strongly subverted that trope after playing the title character on Blossom, earning a Ph.D. in neuroscience and leaving the acting business for much of her early adult life.
- Batman: The Animated Series: Adam West (but of course) plays a washed-up actor who is frustrated that nobody can think of him as anything but his most famous role. Other actors might have been able to portray it better, but no one else could have given it that added level of irony. And then producer Bruce Timm playing the crazy fan in the episode (complete as an Ink-Suit Actor) really hits it home. The episode was written specifically for West - if West hadn't been available then the episode wouldn't have been made at all.
- Neil Patrick Harris played a washed-up child actor in Static Shock. Given his career path after Doogie Howser, M.D. (before his comeback role in How I Met Your Mother), this was likely intentional.
- The Simpsons:
- In the first two episodes of Season 2 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the villain, Discord, was designed to resemble Q from Star Trek. They tried to think of a voice actor who would play the role as well as John de Lancie before they decided to get John de Lancie himself. De Lancie, in turn, became a champion for the show, to the point of producing a documentary on its mostly male, adult fanbase.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender : Mark Hamill plays Firelord Ozai, superpowered Evil Overlord with a rebellious son AND he shoots lightning from his fingertips . Basically, Luke Skywalker has become a composite of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.
- Possibly another for Mark Hamill on Regular Show: he plays Skips, Cool Old Guy and Trickster Mentor. Luke Skywalker becomes Obi-Wan Kenobi?