Tuesday, September 14, 2010

How To Write For An A-List Actor

A question I always like to ask people in the know is, “What kind of character should you write to give yourself the best chance to attract an A-List actor?” The reason I ask is because there’s no quicker way to get your script sold or made into a movie than to attach a star. Chances are that manager, agent, or producer who’s reading your script right now is wondering, “Who can I get to play this part?” Unfortunately, so far, nobody’s given me a clear-cut answer. Maybe that’s because actors, like anybody, are all different. They have different interests, different needs, different tastes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t find commonalities in their choices. Maybe, if we can identify these common factors, we can write scripts that have a better chance of selling.

Now there’s no perfect way to go about this so this is how I’m gonna do it. First, we need to agree on what an A-List actor is. An A-list actor is someone who can open a movie to at least 20 million dollars on his name alone. People go to see the latest Denzel movie. People go to see the latest Will Ferrell movie. These are actors who get you to open your wallet. Shia LaBoeuf’s name can certainly scrounge up enough money to make a low-rent thriller, but no one out there says, “Man, I gotta go see the latest Shia LaBoeuf movie,” so he and other actors of his ilk are out.

I also needed a systematic way to choose the roles I’m going to break down. So what I’m going to do is take eleven A-list actors and dissect their last starring role. I know some of you are going to whine about the actors I left out but with 25 A-List Actors, I had to cut a few folks. These eleven represent the actors whose roles I know best and therefore can give the best breakdowns of.

Also, I am quite aware that actors sign onto movies for reasons other than the character itself. I think it’s a safe bet that Leo wanted to work with Christopher Nolan bad enough that he would’ve made a movie with him as a deaf librarian trapped in a meat locker. But even in cases such as these, it’s likely that the actor shaped the character into a part he wanted to play. So that character is still relevant to this discussion. Let’s not waste any more time. Here are ten stars, plus one, with the last role they chose to play and why.

Actor: Will Smith
The movie: Seven Pounds.
The part: A gritty role where a man wants to commit suicide to donate his organs to seven needy individuals.
Why he likely chose it: At first glance, this part simply seems like an opportunity for an actor to emote. He gets to cry, he gets to look depressed. It’s a serious role that on the surface gets an actor some street cred. But if we dig a little deeper we find something interesting: Smith is playing a role where he sacrifices himself to save others. Can you think of a more heroic act than sacrificing your own life to save other people? This may sound crazy but actors have big egos and what better way to massage that ego than to play God, which is what Will Smith is doing here.

Actor: Denzel Washington
The movie: Book of Eli
The part: A loner delivering the last bible in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world.
Why he likely chose it: Actors like to be the badass. They like to kick ass. And they like to look cool doing it. What’s cooler than a loner who cuts down his attackers in samurai-like stylistic flourishes? But that’s not the only thing going on here. Denzel’s character rarely speaks. Now younger actors always want a lot of lines. They equate more lines with more screen time. Older actors, particularly A-listers, like to occasionally tackle roles where they have very few lines, the reason being that it stretches their acting muscles. They have to act with their eyes and their bodies, which is much harder to do. Oh, and not to be outdone by Will Smith, did you notice that Denzel is also playing God? He’s delivering the bible in order to save the world. How much more heroic can you get?

Actor: Tom Cruise
The movie: Knight and Day
The part: A mysterious super-agent who must include a woman on his mission when he mistakenly involves her.
Why he likely chose it: First of all, actors love to play spies. The reason for this is that spies are inherently conflicted. They’re always lying to everyone. They’re always having to keep secrets from the people closest to them. That inner struggle is very appealing to an actor. On top of that, Cruise’s character is a cape short of a superhero. He’s capable of superhuman feats - jumping on cars, leaping out of planes, killing dozens of enemies without breaking a sweat - What actor wouldn’t want to play someone so badass? And the cherry on top? The role allows Cruise to be charming and funny, creating the ultimate movie star role.

Actor: Brad Pitt
The movie: Benjamin Button
The part: A man who ages backwards.
Why he likely chose it. Well in this case, we know exactly why Brad Pitt chose this role, as he’s talked on record about it numerous times. He chose the role under the stipulation that he get to play every single part, from Benjamin in his 80s to Benjamin as a baby. In the end, Fincher didn’t let him do this – but you can bet he told him he’d be able to. Out of all the characters I’m covering here, this one is probably the most unique, but it’s clear why Pitt chose it. It’s the ultimate acting challenge – playing a person at every age of their life. What actor wouldn’t be interested in that?

Actor: Angelina Jolie
The movie: Salt
The part: A CIA officer who’s accused of being a Russian spy.
Why she likely chose it: Again, we have another spy role. So the reasons for choosing it are similar to Knight and Day. The conflict of lying to those closest to you. The fun of performing superhuman acts of heroism. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Cruise was once attached to this role. It’s also of note that the actress gets to play a female part that isn’t typically cast for females (and in this case, was actually written for a man). I think that appealed to Jolie in an “I can do that too” way. The one difference between this and the Knight and Day role is that there’s no humor here. But that’s because Jolie doesn’t have a sense of humor. :)

Actor: Johnny Depp
The movie: Alice in Wonderland
The part: The Mad Hatter
Why he likely chose it: First off, you’re playing an iconic character. Every actor wants to play an iconic character. But outside of that, Depp’s reasoning was probably similar to Pitt’s. It’s another “ultimate acting challenge.” In general, actors like to play characters who are mad/insane because it allows them to go crazy with the character. Well The Mad Hatter’s the ultimate version of this. He’s got “mad” right there in his name! So to be able to have the latitude to go batshit crazy and challenge every fiber of your acting muscles is, indeed, the ultimate challenge. Also, a character this wacky and different doesn’t usually present itself in mainstream fare, so when it does, actors want to snatch it up. (see also: The Joker)

Actor: Leonardo Dicaprio
The movie: Inception
The part: A criminal who builds dream worlds in order to steal from others.
Why he likely chose it: More than most actors out there, Leo values the character arc. He wants to dig into a character and resolve some internal problem just as much as he wants to resolve the outer one. Indeed, it can be argued that the inner journey here is more important than the external journey. Cobb must come to terms with the loss of his wife before he can achieve his goal. Huge portions of Inception are given to his character battling this problem – most of which were ordered by Leo himself. Also of note is just how tortured Cobb is. Tortured characters always appeal to serious-minded actors as a lot of actors are tortured in some way themselves.

Actress: Sandra Bullock
The movie: The Blind Side
The part: A well-off wife who takes in a troubled homeless teenager.
Why she likely chose it: To this day, I don’t know why people liked this movie. I also have no idea how the role won Bullock an Oscar. The character isn’t a particularly complex one other than that she speaks with a southern accent. What I can gather is this. Women are more inclined to help those in need than men. For that reason, I can see why this role would appeal to Bullock. She gets to save someone who otherwise wouldn’t have been saved. Ahhh, wait a minute. Maybe there’s more to this than meets the eye. Not unlike our friend Will Smith in Seven Pounds, Bullock is *saving* another human being. Maybe roles really are a chance for actors and actresses to massage their egos and play God. Before I get hit with a blind side myself, it should be noted that women rarely get offered roles where they’re not dependent on a man in some capacity. So actresses are going to jump on these roles when they pop up.

Actor: Steve Carrel
The movie: Dinner for Schmucks
The part: An obsessive clingy mouse taxidermist.
Why he likely chose it: In most comedies, there’s the straight guy and there’s the crazy guy. The more innovative you make your crazy guy – the more likely an A-list comedian is going to want to play it. Remember, there’s not as much range in comedy as there is in other genres, so comedians often play the same role over and over again. They yearn for something different. This role is different in that it’s not a character who’s overtly funny (a la Jim Carrey in Liar Liar) but more weird. Getting to play someone strange and “off” is probably a big draw to a comedic actor, because the character has more going on than the typical “Look at how funny I am!” character.

Actor: Matt Damon
The movie: Green Zone
The part: An officer in Iraq looking for WMD’s.
Why he likely chose it: It’s no secret that Matt Damon is a political guy. He forces it down your throat whenever he opens his mouth. So I’m guessing that was a big factor in why he chose this role. He basically gets to live out his dream – being the guy who *literally* discovers that there are no WMDs in Iraq. But that’s not all that’s going on here. There’s another trait that A-listers love in a character: The “My way or the highway” character. Characters that stand up to authority or refuse to follow orders will always appeal to actors because most actors are rebels themselves (they all rebelled against more conventional career choices when they gave acting a shot). You’ll notice that a lot of Matt Damon characters are like this, starting all the way back with Good Will Hunting.

Actor: Ben Stiller
The movie: Greenberg
The Part: A formally suicidal man who moves into his brother’s house.
Why he likely chose it: A lot of our funniest actors are also the most tortured. Judging by the roles Stiller plays outside the comedic arena, I’m guessing he’s one of these people. Greenberg is all about a character who hates the world around him, hates the people around him, hates his own life. He complains and whines about the most mundane of societal etiquettes. My guess is that Stiller is using this character as a surrogate to deal with similar feelings and frustrations. Indeed, a lot of actors use their roles as therapy, as a way to tackle things that they haven’t been able to resolve in their personal lives.

One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer is not seeing my story through an actor’s eyes. I just try to write the best story possible. That’s a problem because your script usually doesn’t get sold or made unless it has an A-List attachment. So you have to ask yourself when writing a script: Is this a role an actor would want to play? I’m not sure we can make any universal conclusions here, but I did pick up on some trends that might help us answer this question.

First of all, the role has to be challenging in some capacity. True, many of these actors are slapping down product in the middle of the summer where mediocrity reigns supreme, but that doesn’t mean they want neutered down roles. These thespians have gotten to the top of the heap by playing dozens if not hundreds of characters. They’re looking for something new and different. Brad Pitt plays a character not only at many different ages in his life, but plays those ages on a reverse timeframe. That’s challenging stuff. Denzel Washington plays a character who rarely speaks, who emotes only with his eyes and his actions. That’s a challenge. DiCaprio operates in a dreamworld where he’s imprisoned his wife. Every time he then goes into that dreamworld, he’s faced with a sea of conflicting emotions.

Next up, I think your character needs to be heroic. A lot of these characters are saving other people. I hate to state the obvious but actors are very egotistical. They want to play God and save others. There’s nothing more heroic than that. Just remember, heroism doesn’t always mean stopping an asteroid from hitting earth. It can mean delivering the last bible across a post-apocalyptic U.S. It can mean committing suicide to have your organs save seven other people. Whether you’re saving a nation or saving others, look for ways to make your characters heroic.

The last thing I noticed was that characters should have something going on inside of them as well as outside. Running around shooting people is fun but it’s not stretching any acting muscles. You gotta give’em some toys to play with upstairs. Benjamin Button has an ongoing physical transformation as well as having to deal with the realities of being different from everyone else. Denzel Washington gets to shred people into sushi yet must learn to open himself up to others. Tom Cruise gets to fly around on cars but still must learn to be selfless before he can find happiness. Note how in two of these cases (Cruise and Washington’s) the internal stuff is tied to the character arc and in Benjamin’s case, it’s more of a general internal battle that never arcs. That’s fine. Whether you’re arcing your character or not, at the very least, give them some kind of issue they’re struggling with internally.

Now by no means is this a conclusive study. The sampling is too small. I encourage you to look at some of your own favorite actors, the ones you envision playing heroes in your scripts, and break down their last ten roles like I did here. See if you can find any patterns in their choices. That could be the key to making them say yes to you.

The most important thing I take away from this is, before you write a single word in your next screenplay, ask yourself if an A-List actor would be interested in playing the hero. I believe this is such an important element to a saleable screenplay that from now on, I’m adding a new feature to my reviews. If the script I’m reviewing has an A-List attachment, I’m going to discuss why that A-Lister probably took the role. Now what are you waiting for? Get back to writing.