Chameleons and dare devils
Christian Bale going from emaciation in The Machinist (2004) straight to comic hero muscle mass in Batman Begins (2005). Jake Gyllenhaal going from a gaunt look in Nightcrawler (2014) to ripper boxing champion in Southpaw (2015).
These physical transformations showed their level of commitment. Likely inspired by Robert Deniro going from ripped to overweight in Raging Bull (1981). Will Smith transforming to play the legend Muhammad Ali, in Ali (2001) getting down every mannerism and fighting style.
In Charlize Theron’s early career the gorgeous South African actor showed how she was not a slave to her glamourous looks when she ugly cried and looked distraught in The Devil’s Advocate (1998) as her character descended into madness. Theron who later starred in the Patty Jenkins directed film, Monster (2003) added weight, changed her teeth, hair and posture to accurately portray homicide convict, Aileen Wuornos who won’t land on any beauty list of convicts. Not bad for a former supermodel who Larry King once described as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
Theron’s willingness to lose self-awareness, poise, vanity and dive into the character was the turning point of her career, it won her an Oscar.
An actor unwilling to lose their poise, vanity, self-awareness or whatever imagery they associate with their public image or brand, will always be limited. Their roles will just be an extension of themselves and offer nothing new or interesting after a few films. They will never be challenged or stretched because they stay in a wheel house which allows them to coast, “phone in” every performance.
This is usually the major difference between an actor and a movie star.
A movie star sells tickets, get butts in seats and selling soda and popcorn. Sometimes they may not even know how to act, they just have to be a big enough draw and carry a movie. This explains why there are so many untrained people in movies and producers casting people based on social media following or reality tv fame.
An actor loves to be challenged, take on something they haven’t done before, something frightening which may not work and leave them with egg on their face.
Every once in a while, you find a Hollywood box office King or Queen who happens to be the rare hybrid of movie star and actor; Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert Downey Jnr etc.
Tom Hanks also departed from his genial man roles when he played hit man Mike Sullivan in The Road to Perdition (2002) far removed from the comedy and everyday man roles he had played through the 80s and 90s. Denzel Washington did the same with roles in Training Day (2001) and Man on Fire (2004) playing a deplorable character and an alcoholic and suicidal former Black Ops soldier.
Actors tend to get put in boxes in Nollywood, imagine the actor who has played a woman wrapper for 20 years now disappearing into the role of a mob boss in the heart of Benin City. The wicked mother in law playing a matriarch who selflessly holds up the family.
The helpless battered housewife playing an MMA fighter. The friend zone MVP now playing a charming con man who the ladies can’t resist. The comic relief gateman now playing a stoic businessman or man dealing with grief.
It would be wonderful to get to a time in Nigerian Film where budgets can include preparation and researching of a role, preparing mentally, physically for whatever transformation is necessary. Where an actor can spend time studying how to play Funmi Ransome Kuti, Jaja of Opobo, Obafemi Awolowo, Nnamdi Azikiwe and others historical figures. Look at what was done with Ojukwu on the short film The Encounter, imagine that on the big screen with more funding.
Bringing to life the beloved characters of Achebe, Adichie, Soyinka, Ekwensi, Habila, Cole Elnathan, ,Okri novels. Just as great American novels and plays have been immortalized by Hollywood because we have such rich material waiting to be translated to the silver screen.
Bringing to life original characters from original screenplay from the minds of screenwriters, the soul of actors and the canvas of directors. Nigerian cinema deserves towering characters who become a part of pop culture, transcend generations and are cited in acting classes as a masterclass in characterization.
Someday we will, I hope that will be sometime soon.