Actors, Character Actors & Stars: A Primer

I'm going to go over this one more time.

Actors (and I'm using this term to cover both men and women of the profession) are people who make a living by adopting other personae, personalities, characteristics, roles and portraying these things via a visible medium (television, film, stage). In layman's terms: they dress up and play pretend for our amusement (and often their own). For many an actor, this is a psychological exercise, a sort of exploration of "the other." After all, we define ourselves by what we are not as much as we define ourselves as what we are. Also, there can be a lot of money in it.

Character actors are a subset of actors who have become accounted as being good at a particular kind of role and have therefore established a niche for themselves. They are mostly known to audiences as "That Guy" (as in: "Hey, it's That Guy!"). Character actors would be stars except they don't have the power to draw large audiences on their own; they typically play roles that are incidental to a plot: judges, hard-nosed businessmen, secondary government agents, and the like. A character actor may or may not lack the range of other actors—that is, maybe they're just good at one kind of role, or maybe it's just the one thing they get hired for. But hey, either way it's a paycheck.

Stars are "actors" that play some hyper version of themselves in pretty much any movie. Whole scripts are written around them because stars sell tickets, and in the studio system it's often more important to have a big name and a mediocre script than a great script and no star attached. Stars have readily identifiable faces and names, though admittedly so do many actors. But a star's name will almost always appear above the title and his face is likely to be prominently displayed on the poster. Still, if you're wondering whether someone is an actor or a star here are the ways to determine the difference:

Make a list of the roles the person has played. Are they all more or less the same kind? Then this is either a star or character actor.

If you want to go deeper, take lines of dialogue from various movies. Do they sound interchangeable? Then it's a star or character actor.

Does the person use inflection when speaking his or her lines? Then he or she may be an actor. However, if s/he over inflects, s/he may be a star. If the line readings are flat and monotonous, it's a star or possibly a character actor.

Does the person in question have a set number of facial expressions he or she uses in every film (smirk, wink, grimace)? Star.

I'll assume you can tell the difference between a star and character actor in that you'll know the star's name but will sit and wrack your brain to figure out where else you've seen That Guy. (Hint: he was in that thing, that time, with that other guy.)

This isn't meant to suggest stars are bad people. I've worked with many lovely actors and stars. But there is a noticeable difference between the two when it comes to the actual work. Actors may eventually become stars, by the way, but once stars they seldom go back to being actors. The industry has a sort of pipeline; it likes to make things "easy" by pigeon-holing its talent. Many stars are fine with this because it's easy for them, too, and the money is good. But some actors (and even some stars) resent the narrowing of their opportunities. Certainly, as a writer I can sympathize. When people look to you for one kind of thing and you offer them something different, there's always the question of whether they'll be willing to try it. Actors, then, are a kind of buffet—they offer a wide variety of choices because they've done a lot of different kinds of work. Stars are the pizza. The toppings may change, but it's pretty much the same when you get down into it. There's a place in the world for both. Just depends on what you're craving.

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