Acting vs. Personality

david duchovny displays his rangeJust a quick follow-up to my Joss Whedon post, below: one commenter understandably finds it weird for me to say that Alexis Denisof projects a “limited personality” when he played a character who changes drastically over the course of the series, and portrayed that change convincingly (like I said, he can act). It’s hard to explain why I think someone can simultaneously have range as an actor and be limited as a personality, but it comes down to the idea that most performers have a personality that is separate from, or at least complementary to, their ability to become the character they’re playing. A star actor like, say, Christopher Plummer plays many different types of characters, and adjusts his acting approach for each of them, but he also has a persona of his own — one that’s associated with his voice, manner, appearance — otherwise he wouldn’t be a star. An actor who completely disappears into every character he plays, so that he has no personality of his own, is not an actor that anyone will come to see. And this applies even more to TV, where we keep coming back week after week to see particular actors because we like them.

So some TV actors can be limited in terms of their acting ability, yet have a rich and interesting personality that they convey. I’ll just take Ed O’Neill as a random example because I’ve been thinking about Modern Family: O’Neill has played a number of different characters, and nobody thinks that every character he plays has to be exactly like Al Bundy. But he is also Ed O’Neill, a guy whose distinctive (unconventional) looks and style make him an instantly-recognizable personality. This is one reason why producers often fight to cast unconventional-looking people on their shows instead of the conventionally pretty people networks usually want: not because the pretty people can’t handle acting challenges (there are lots of pretty people who can act good), but because they don’t have a lot to set them apart from the pack in terms of personality, while unconventional looks can help an actor stand out, and make him or her more appealing to the public — or at least more identifiable.

And it’s also quite possible for a limited actor to be an interesting personality, like — I’ll pick this at random again — David Duchovny, a man with one facial expression who nevertheless projects a sense of being an interesting, funny, edgy type of guy. Another actor could play his parts with more range, but not as interestingly.

To move it away from making unfairly negative comments about Joss Whedon shows (for which you will no doubt be grateful), Josh Radnor on How I Met Your Mother is a pretty good actor in a technical sense. If they gave him a Very Special Episode where Ted becomes an alcoholic, I’m sure he could pull it off convincingly. But he’d still be bland, because while he can act, he has no personality. Whereas his other colleagues on the show have individual personalities that are useful for the characters they play, but not necessarily part of their characters. Jason Segel and NPH and Alyson Hannigan are all what they are, in terms of mannerisms and style, even when they play other types of characters.

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