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‘Hey! I know that guy’ syndrome

Film industry

Years ago I had a conversation with a prolific producer and expressed my desire to see a certain plus size actor play characters outside of the goofy fat guy roles everyone seemed to cast him. I had seen him in a dramatic role and he was fantastic, I wondered why so many were wasting his talent on caricatures. I got my answer when the producer laughed and mocked “Should he be playing lover boy or lead roles”.

This brought to mind Hollywood plus size actors; Chi McBride (Human Target, Hawaii Five O), the late James Avery (Uncle Phil in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) James Gandolfini (The Sopranos), John Goodman (Cloverfield Lane) think of the interesting and diverse characters they’ve played and made memorable.

So, where are the meaty roles (no pun intended) are for those Nigerian actors who aren’t deemed as eye candy but are fantastic actors? Does everyone have to be ridiculously handsome or gorgeous to get a crack at a decent dramatic role?

The role of Red, in The Shawshank Redemption was described on paper as a red haired Irish man but Morgan Freeman impressed the casting team and won the role. Can you see anyone else in that role he made his own? How many roles in Nigerian film could be more refreshing if cast was like that? What about great roles for character actors?

For the uninitiated, “a character actor is an actor who specializes in playing unusual or eccentric people and filling the world of the story with people who look like everyday people. Thespians who embody a wide variety of characters while performing, their personalities completely immersed in to the fictional creation. These actors make significant physical, vocal, external or psychological adjustments from their primary persona”.

In contrast to movie stars cast as leads whose persona is part of what makes them appealing and tends to appear in everything they do, sometimes the roles is written to match their persona rather than them fitting into the character.

In film and television they can be relied on to give solid performances in a range of roles without drawing attention to themselves. They are those actors you see in numerous films or televisions shows but can’t quite always recall their name, the “Hey! I know that guy” syndrome.

Character actors don’t have the constraint and weight of expectations which come with being a movie star, in most cases (outside type casting) they don’t carry the baggage and expectations of previous roles. Admittedly this usually works more on television where we get to know them over several episodes.

What about the stories for such actors and characters beyond roles as comic relief, perverts and one dimensional plot devices. How about roles with depth, layers and which are fully dimensional. A character who doesn’t easily fit into a black and white division of good and evil, isn’t a moustache twirling villain or cape wearing hero.

If you’re a TV series or movie buff try to imagine a world where Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black), Peter Dinklage, Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), Steve Buscemi, Michael K Williams (Boardwalk Empire), Bob Odenkirk (Better call Saul), Octavia Spencer(Hidden Figures) Viola Davis (HTGAWM) never got to play the remarkable characters they’ve interpreted over their career because someone decided they don’t look like what movie stars supposedly should look like.

Now imagine Nigerian actors whose range we may never get to see because they don’t fit a certain aesthetic identity and are relegated to stereotypes and caricatures.

If in 2006 a time traveller appeared to you during the finale of “Malcolm in the Middle”, and told you, Bryan Cranston who played the goofy dad in two years would play a Walter White aka Heisenberg, a fierce Drug Kingpin and it will be one of the best television shows of the decade, would you have believed?

Though not easy as it one would assume, I suspect if we adapted more of our novels for the screen we would find remarkable characters. Numerous Nigerian novels have garnered global acclaim for the compelling stories and interesting characters. They exist in our prose and plays but rarely in our screenplays which is a tragedy because that is where most eyeballs interested in Nigerian narrative reside.

The game is the game and the “business” in Show Business will always take pre-eminence, casting will be calculated by who will sell the most tickets and return investment, not disputing that. But I hope we arrive at a time where that kind of knee jerk dismissive response is no longer the norm.

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