So Renée Zellweger doesn’t look like Renée Zellweger anymore. This discovery has prompted shock, outrage and consternation around the world – how dare this woman attempt to change her appearance? In the Guardian last week, Viv Groskop wrote:
‘There was plenty of proof that cinema audiences liked the way she looked, whether older or younger, fatter or thinner. They just liked her. They didn’t want her to look like someone else.’
But what if Renée Zellweger doesn’t know what Renée Zellweger is supposed to look like?
One of the most difficult things I have found in the years since I graduated from drama school has been to understand what my casting is. In a way, it could be in an actor’s best interests not to find out – self-awareness is just a short step from its destructive evil twin, self-consciousness, and that’s a sure route to disaster on stage.
However, we clearly do need to have some concept of the way we are perceived on stage or film. But what if our casting is not what we imagined it to be? Should we embrace it, or try to change it? Rebel, or go with the flow?
I’ve probably carried in my head a number of different imagined versions of myself over the years, from the romantic leading man to the distinguished diplomat type. But really I have no clear idea of how I am viewed by the casting directors of the world (if at all, that is) – although, as the years roll on and I start to look as if a whole murder of crows has trampled across my face, I have a dim sense that my casting is changing.
When I left drama school, I was rather smooth and blank-looking, rather Philip Franks-y or Martin Jarvis-y:
Now I look like this:
I have wavy hair, but only in the sense of the old joke, i.e. it is waving goodbye… There are now solid grey patches at my temples, which I occasionally attack with Just For Men in order, I tell myself, to give my hair a uniform colour instead of looking like Spiderman’s editor –
– though it’s probably just vanity and the fear of ageing. But along with my once-luxuriant hair, I might also be losing the rather bland blankness of my younger days, and perhaps gaining a bit of much-needed character in my face. Certainly the parts I am up for these days have a bit more meat to them than some of the ‘juve lead’ parts of my 20s.
Of course, some actors are able accurately to zero in on their casting, and then stick as closely to it as possible: some will maintain a particular hairstyle, or visit the gym religiously to preserve an athletic physique; there are resolutely bearded actors –
– available for all bearded parts, and I cherish the memory of the old lady whose Spotlight photo (in ‘Older Character’) showed her whispering conspiratorially into a telephone receiver – clearly targeting all those Agatha Christie-esque ‘village gossip’ roles.
But if you do fit into a clear casting bracket, there can be danger lying in wait if you try to break out: recently, a friend told me the story of an actor who, having been quite overweight, decided to slim down – for the sake of his health – and was told by his agent that she couldn’t represent him anymore, as he’d destroyed his casting. A case of the Zellwegers, perhaps?
Acting is one of only a handful of professions where we are almost entirely judged on our appearance. A friend of mine is a careers officer, who often talks to young people interested in becoming actors. He marvels at the fact that a casting director can legitimately search for a blowsy blonde barmaid-type (to pick a supremely clichéd example) and very specifically insist that the candidate must be blonde and, well, blowsy… It is hardly surprising that actors feel self-conscious and paranoid about their appearance – and for women in particular, it must add an extra level of stress into an already near-impossible profession. Of course, men are far from immune to this paranoia – there are many examples these days of male actors whose hair somehow gets thicker as they get older – but maybe evolution has taken a new turn…
Choosing to intervene, through plastic surgery or radical makeover, can certainly be hard for an audience to accept – not to mention the casting departments of this world, and the tabloid press. The likes of Mail Online and Perez Hilton thrive on tales of celebrities who have destroyed their looks – and careers – apparently in an attempt to recapture the lost beauty of their young selves.
But assuming the job of the actor is to tell stories about real people – at least, most of the time – then surely we need actors who actually look like real people. If we allow nature to take its course – if we can resist the lure of the surgeon’s knife or Botox needle, as Julia Roberts says she has vowed to do – then perhaps it might even benefit our careers. We might find ourselves passing into a different, more rewarding casting bracket.
Increasingly, it seems that writers are becoming interested in telling stories with older central characters. The thought that we might become more castable as we age must be one of the strongest incentives for staying in the game – and all the experience and road miles we clock up as we progress through this arduous career could lend us a true beauty that can never be found in a cosmetic surgeon’s clinic.