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Playing with Character Type

"[Audrey] 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..."
Mick LaSalle on Audrey Tautou's role in He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not

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 his or her 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 his or her 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. (This trope can hence overlap with Deconstructed Character Archetype, if Bob's character type is a recognizable archetype in its own right.)

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 and may lead the audience to ask "WTH, Casting Agency?" (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.

Note: Do not list a different actor indented under another actor's example just because they appeared in the same work. Indented examples should only be examples of when the same actor played with their character type in multiple different roles. See Example Indentation in Trope Lists for more information.

Unmarked spoilers below.


Examples:

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Live-Action Actors

     Film 
  • 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 Black Comedy 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, as per the page quote, is best known (especially in the English-speaking world) for her role in Amélie, in which she plays a sweet, innocent, hopelessly romantic young woman (essentially a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, except that she's the protagonist). 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 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:
    • In Punch-Drunk Love, his 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. Roger Ebert discussed this in his review of the film.
    • His character in Click is a workaholic with very little time to spend with his family, but as the film goes on the audience learns that this attitude makes him miss out on most of his life, leaving him a broken man.
    • He also plays a broken character in Reign Over Me where the character's seemingly carefree attitude is actually just an escape mechanism so he doesn't have to acknowledge a terrible trauma in his life. Any attempts to disturb his escape from reality tactics are usually met with violent denial and outburst.
  • 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, Alfred 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 Faux Affably Evil 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.
  • The protagonist of The Perfect Host is a bank robber who is looking for a place to hide. So he manages to trick his way into the house of a guy played by David Hyde Pierce who seems to be the latter's usual milquetoast character a la Niles Crane. Then Pierce's character reveals himself to be an Ax-Crazy maniac who proceeds to drug the protagonist and torment him for most of the night.
  • David Bowie started getting film offers almost as soon as he had his commercial breakthrough via his Alter Ego Acting persona of Ziggy Stardust, a flamboyant alien (or Touched by Vorlons) rock musician, Messianic Archetype, and Tragic Hero who succumbs to Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll, ego, and his own fans. But virtually all of the roles he was offered were Ziggy expies. Instead, his first major film role was that of Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Newton is also an alien Messianic Archetype Tragic Hero...but he's The Stoic and Moe before Moe was trendy, and his succumbing to Earthlings and their vices is the result of humanity proving infectious rather than success going to his head. Also, he can't sing.
  • In The Descendants, one of the main plot points is that the protagonist (played by George Clooney) has found out that his comatose and slowly dying wife has been cheating on him. Early on he and his daughter find a picture of the guy...and he's played by Matthew Lillard, to which he and his daughters react with "Seriously? THAT'S the guy?". While this could simply be a crack at his appearance (who would go from Clooney to Lillard?), audiences familiar with Lillard's typical "annoying jackass" roles will likely start figuring this is yet another one of those...then once they actually meet Lillard's character, you're blown away.
  • Mark Sheppard is very well known for playing slightly sinister, slimy sons-of... whom you can't help but admire even as they're stabbing your protagonists in the back. Then he appeared as one of the Regents on Warehouse13. When an episode was centered around Pete getting assigned by Mrs. Frederic to find out which Regent was The Mole, I Knew It was the immediate reaction when Sheppard's character quickly turned out to be an evil bastard making some kind of play for control of the warehouse. Then it turned out that Pete hallucinated the entire thing, and in a later episode Sheppard's character would even made a Heroic Sacrifice to save the main characters.
  • Gary Oldman is well-known for playing villains, so when he was cast in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as Sirius Black, a mass-murderer after Harry, no one was surprised. By the end, it's revealed that Sirius never murdered or betrayed anyone, and in later movies he becomes the closest thing Harry has to family (naturally, this came as no surprise to viewers who'd already read the books).
  • A retroactive example: Kate Winslet spends most of A Kid in King Arthur's Court as Proper Lady Princess Sarah. Then comes the twist: Princess Sarah is an Action Girl, who has been secretly dressing as the Black Knight.
  • James McAvoy in Victor Frankenstein. The actor was almost always Type Cast as a Wide-Eyed Idealist, he often appeared in Period Pieces, and he had about a dozen roles where he portrayed an intellectual character. Between 2013 and 2015, however, he was Playing Against Type as all of his onscreen and theatre personas suffered from mental illness. McAvoy's interpretation of Mad Scientist Victor Frankenstein combines all of these elements; Victor is a dark character, but even he possesses a hint of naïveté when he says things like, "I dream of a world where hope replaces fear." That line of dialogue could have been spoken by the benevolent Dr. Charles Xavier (which is McAvoy's most famous example of Type Casting), but in Victor's case, his idealism is mixed with Sanity Slippage, and they twist him into a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • Barbara Hershey as My Beloved Smother and Mama Bear at the same time, notably in Black Swan and Once Upon a Time. It's a similar situation in Insidious...except she's unambiguously the hero this time.
  • Robert Redford's role as Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier riffs off his earlier roles as liberal or left-wing heroes taking down fascist conspiracies, but then reveals that he's the leader of the film's fascist conspiracy.
  • Likewise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cobie Smulders plays Maria Hill as what Robin Scherbatsky would be like if she worked for a government intelligence agency.
  • End of Days: The movie was sold on the premise of "Arnold Schwarzenegger fights the devil". However, instead of depicting Arnold as an unstoppable force of nature that can destroy everything in sight, this movie depicts his character, Jericho, as being genuinely flawed, such as being suicidal, not being able to do the death-defying acts that the other heroes Arnold has played (not counting the scene where he has no strings to hold him down) and, in the end, there was not any other way to stop Satan from causing the End unless Jericho killed himself but, at least Jericho can be with his family again. In interviews, Schwarzenegger said that he took this role because he thought it was the perfect script to make his return to action movies, which makes this part even more weird.
  • Jason Statham is well-known for his roles as steely-eyed, razor-sharp badasses. In Spy, he plays Rick Ford, a steely-eyed, razor-sharp Cloud Cuckoolander suffering from Small Name, Big Ego. When he's not recounting ludicrous, probably-made-up tales of his previous exploits ("I drove a car off a freeway on top of a train while on fire. Not the car; I was on fire."), his action-hero attitude is constantly screwing up attempts to be a stealthy spy.
  • Before undergoing Tom Hanks Syndrome, Anne Hathaway played a lot of wholesome squeaky-clean girls in various Disney films. In Alice in Wonderland she plays the White Queen as a sort of darker take on her earlier innocent characters. The Queen is in the Uncanny Valley and is strongly implied to be a Stepford Smiler. Word of God says that she surrounds herself with so much light imagery because she's too tempted by the dark side.
  • Keira Knightley eventually became typecast as a Plucky Girl ahead of her time in various period pieces. In The Duchess she starts off as this type...and then runs into the sexist and oppressive laws of the time. She invoked this in Atonement too, as Joe Wright had wanted her to play the adult Briony. Having had enough of "coming of age ladies", Keira chose to play Cecilia instead.
  • Tom Cruise is one of the quintessential confident, competent and easy on the eyes action heroes. In Edge of Tomorrow, he plays US Army Major William Cage, and we are introduced to him giving interviews looking like every bit like an experienced war hero...and then the minute he's ordered to go into combat, we learn that he's a glorified PR drone who has never been in combat a day in his life and proceeds to do everything he can in order to avoid fighting, such as grovelling, blackmail and outright desertion. After being dragged kicking and screaming into battle and dying fairly quickly, a twist of fate gives him the power to trigger a time loop after death. We then see him spend the rest of the movie (and LOTS of death triggered loops) slowly becoming the Tom Cruise hero we all know and love.
  • Naomi Watts often plays heroic Woobies that endure plenty of suffering. In the Divergent films she's a Jerkass Woobie who's causing the suffering.

     Live-Action TV 

Voice Actors

    Anime 
  • 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 Mobile Suit Gundam 00. 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.
  • The casting of Doraemon's voice actress as Monokuma in Dangan Ronpa is a perfect example. Monokuma is a parody of a Japanese kawaii mascot character with a Non-Standard Character Design, who speaks with affected cuteness, as well as being openly a vicious, psychotic Evil Genius manipulating people into killing each other, explicitly for his own amusement. Him choosing to use a voice associated so strongly with the wonder of childhood in generations of the Japanese consciousnessnote  perfectly fits his personality.

    Video Games 
  • Nolan North:
    • His role in Spec Ops: The Line as Cpt. Martin Walker initially appears to be quite similar to North's usual type (specifically the "Drake" voice from Uncharted), but as the game wears on it turns into a savage deconstruction of the character type, with Walker becoming increasingly violent and unhinged as a consequence of the horrific actions he is forced (or believes himself to have been forced) to carry out. Curiously, this was apparently unintentional on the part of the development team.
    • Then there was his role in The Last of Us as David, the leader of a group of survivors, who is kinda in a sense Nathan Drake if he was the leader of a group of survivors. But then you find out he's not only violently crazy, but he's also a cannibal and possibly a pedophile.
  • Also in Spec Ops and in the same vein, Bruce Boxleitner as Col. Konrad is an inversion of his roles as The Captain following Babylon 5, a good leader that had become a military despot, a Colonel Kilgore with a nice voice and good use of words. And then we find out that Walker has charged into the situation without being given all the information and things are not what they seem... like the fact most of the rantings Walker (and the player) has heard throughout the game are Walker's own hallucinations.
  • Matthew Mercer is known for voicing sarcastic badasses. Alvin is one of these, but he ends up betraying the party multiple times and undergoes Sanity Slippage.
  • Bryce Papenbrook is often casted into Nice Guys who have an idealistic view in the world. He is casted into Henry and Nagito Komaeda, who are both Nice Guys at heart, but are twisted in a dark way.
  • Stephanie Sheh, in her own words, is often cast as "super-shy high school girls or completely bipolar types". This is probably why she was cast as Mikan Tsumiki, since she's both.

    Western Animation 

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