“Where are the Pacinos? Where are the Hoffmans and the DeNiros? Where are the up and comers like the guys who made the edgy, grimy films of the 70s so great?” Such was the lament during an era when film goers had experienced a shift to a newer, softer and younger “model” that helped usher in the 1980s.
And oh, had the teen-agers piled in and piled on: Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio and others, most of whom became known as “the brat pack” soon became the “newer” breed of film star. There were traditionally trained actors in the mix, to be sure, but Hollywood latched onto “kids” whose training was either flat-out nil, or who cut their teeth, not on stage as had so many of the generations before them, but while the cameras were actually rolling.
The trend continued with an endless stream of children and adolescents: Leonardo DiCaprio, Andrew McCarthy, Meg Ryan, Scarlett Johansson, Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dakota Fanning and Jennifer Lawrence, to give just a small sampling. “Kids”, many of whom started in television and, once proving themselves in that medium, were moved along the Hollywood conveyor belt and graduated to roles in feature films. Increasingly, this, along with sketch comics (from such venues as Saturday Night Live) had become the process of development for the new American movie star. And so, with some exceptions, most notably foreign actors from English speaking countries (e.g. England and Australia), it continues.
What happened? Certainly, there was no dearth of the swelling number of conservatory trained actors coming out of the increasingly popular and competitive degree programs in the United States. Yet many of this group seemed to be moving into an ever-expanding television market while the more “established”, if less formally trained younger actors kept graduating to the more rarefied air of film stardom. By the 1990s a seismic shift in the way Hollywood recruited their young had taken hold and the culture of men and women had now made way for the boys and the girls.
In more recent years, however, Hollywood, largely through the burgeoning power of the internet, has been able to discover, or at least “see” more of the work of actors in foreign countries, who appeared to have a certain gravitas- largely attributed to training- that was perceived to be lacking in the new American actor.
Increasingly, foreign actors were being recruited and in the minds of some at least, “taking over” the American film and television industry. Hollywood was aware that many, if not most actors in countries where English was the mother tongue, were eager to work in the United States. Here the chances of having an international career were far greater than staying home in the United Kingdom or Australia would be likely to provide. And most of these actors were willing to work for moderate wages, at least in the early stages of what would often turn out to be ever-expanding careers.
Still, we were told repeatedly that the “training” of the foreigners was key. Well, not always. Some of what was written in this regard did not hold up under actual research, although the knee-jerk “they are better-trained” seemed to be a de-facto association, especially with the British.
However, over time a surprising number of British actors, some Academy Award/Emmy Award nominees, happily revealed that they “had no training whatsoever” (The preceding quote comes from the Emmy-nominated star of “House”, Hugh Laurie). Perception and presumption go a long way.
As we moved into the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century the quantity of scripted American television product was in a state of seemingly unlimited expansion, doubling and tripling the previous amount of content found on the air some years earlier. “On the air” itself took on a somewhat new meaning as broadcast television had made room for cable and both were now facing competition from the newer streaming services of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.
And so, the demand for new “series regulars” expanded, or so it seemed, along with the quantity of television itself. It was then that that we really started to observe the escalation of British, Australian, Scottish and Irish actors who were often being selected over Americans, and many Americans wondered why there weren’t “enough of us” to fill the demand.
There were. Yet there is more to being cast as a regular on a series or a lead in a feature film than the ability to be able to “do it.” Much, if not most of being a candidate for employment at high levels of the industry involves being at a career level to realistically expect to be considered for the assignment. Understandably, studio and network executives want/need to feel that whomever is chosen has, at least to some degree, already proven themselves and have shown proof of consistency in both work and reputation.
What was unknown to most Americans was just how many of the British and Australian actors being outsourced to America had attained remarkably impressive credits in their homeland prior to their engagements here in the USA. Many had already appeared as regulars on a series or two and had either won or been nominated for major acting awards including those given out by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).
When a highly experienced actor from an English speaking foreign country is chosen over an equally experienced American actor, the understandable risk-averse aspect of Hollywood scores on a couple of fronts. The American public is presented with a “new face”, but it is often an experienced, tried and true, highly vetted “new face” at the same time. That cannot happen within our own ranks. For one simple reason: Hollywood cannot take an American actor who has been on a series or two, perhaps had an Emmy nomination or two, put the actor on a new series and still deliver a “new face” to the American public. By choosing the experienced British or Australian actor over the experienced American actor, Hollywood does get to eat its cake and have it, too. Everyone wins, except the American actor.
None of the current trend could have happened without the the aid of the internet, which has provided our industry with an easy way to “discover” and cherry-pick the cream of the crop from English speaking countries. Increasingly, and even today, studio and network executives spend a great deal of time in their offices streaming television and film from foreign countries. In times past, this method was a non-option.
So to those who said “Why?” one response seemed to be “There’s a lot of high-level casting to be done and there are a lot of highly experienced English speaking actors we can consider.” In other words, to those who asked “Why?” the simple answer seemed to be “Why not?”
Dab smack in the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century there emerged in the United States a classically-trained stage actor, a man not a teenager, who began his training as a young adult. He was getting some early “buzz” for his extraordinary work in drama school and being discussed, potentially at least, as “the young generation’s answer to the days and likes of Al Pacino.” Oscar Isaac Hernandez Estrada, born in Guatemala, was brought by his parents to the United States as a five-month-old infant. The family arrived in Baltimore, moved to Louisiana and ultimately settled in Miami, where Isaac was raised and educated. Showing a strong talent for both music and acting early on, Isaac auditioned and was accepted into The Juilliard School’s prestigious Drama Division where he performed a wide range of contemporary and classical works culminating in his final production in the title role of “Macbeth.”
Following graduation, more Shakespeare immediately beckoned with Isaac garnering a lead in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” There is nothing unusual about a newly minted alum from an A-list conservatory being cast in a NY Shakespeare Festival production, but landing a lead role so quickly-two weeks after graduation- is a tad out of the ordinary. But then, so was Isaac. He continued to do more classics and contemporary productions at other A-list theaters including Manhattan Theatre Club, along with the expected-at-the-time New York actor’s rite de passage performance on an episode of TV’s “Law & Order”, along with one film.
Then something happened. Television pursued Isaac, and in a pretty big way. Not unusual for a high-profile well-trained New York actor appearing in lead roles at the city’s top theaters, but what was unusual was that Isaac declined. Nicely, politely, as is always his way, but nevertheless, he declined. It wasn’t that he had a different or specifically planned strategy, nor was it ego, but such was his talent that Isaac was pretty much able to accept what interested him and decline what didn’t. And so, minus television he proceeded to build his career in the more old-fashioned New York style of long ago and maintained his focus by going back and forth between film and theater, very much like the career of, well Al Pacino, to whom he was now being regularly compared. None of which is to say that had he opted for a television series his film career would have derailed, but given the commitment and scheduling that accompanies most television, he would have been far less likely to have been able to choose the film projects that interested him and be available as their schedules would require.
In fact, after the “Law & Order” episode, Isaac would be absent from the small screen for many years until he was well-established in film and an HBO mini-series called “Show Me a Hero” would prove irresistible to him. For his performance in “Hero” he was honored with a Golden Globe. If audiences felt they needed a young Pacino, they had one.
And then some. One big difference between Isaac and Pacino was that when Pacino decided to tackle Shakespeare it was only after he was established as a movie star. In addition, his efforts with classical material were met with negative response by both New York audiences and critics alike. Considered well-trained in his era, Pacino’s background lacked the training that a classics-oriented conservatory would provide the newer and equally serious actor of today’s generation.
Despite a relatively recent spate of magazine articles expressing sentiments including “The Crisis in American Acting” and “The Decline of the American Actor”, (articles which ultimately proved to be only about movie stars), training in the finest American drama schools is more extraordinary and challenging than ever before, as are the standards for acceptance into such programs. These articles spoke only of major film names- both American and foreign -and gave no mention to the fine American actors working in television today. For example, it was apparent to the author of this article some years ago that the American classically trained stage actor, Rami Malek of TV’s “Mr. Robot” had the potential to become a major draw in the world of film, but there was never a mention of his name anywhere in the articles above. Why? The focus was on movie names and movie names alone, skirting any mention of some of American’s finest actors who were– and are– performing brilliantly on the small screen. Update: Since this article was originally written Mr. Malek has been the recipient of an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Many top American acting schools that confer degrees upon their graduates have a one to two percent acceptance rate which consists first of: auditions, sometimes multiple call-backs with grueling twelve to thirteen hour days of being put to the test by the faculty and administration in order to gain acceptance. Those who nostalgically long for the days of the old New York theater training programs heralded in the articles referred to above, often forget that most of those schools of yore granted entree simply “by interview.”
And so we move to the second actor of this discussion: Adam Driver. Born in San Diego, Driver was also accepted into and trained at The Juilliard School. Again, we had a young man, in this case a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, beginning his formal training as an adult, and entering the profession fully grounded and classically trained. Immediately upon graduation, he succeeded at the highest levels of New York theater, which included performing leading roles in Broadway productions of British plays by such playwrights as George Bernard Shaw and Terence Rattigan. His return to Broadway was announced today; he will play the lead role of Pale in a revival of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This.
Driver, like Isaac before him, quickly did his obligatory appearance on “Law & Order.” Then something happened that proved very different from Isaac’s experience. Television beckoned in the form of HBO’s “Girls” and Driver accepted. And whatever “Girls” was or wasn’t, this was no ordinary television show.
From the very first episodes, many critics felt that Driver, from an acting standpoint at least, was the heft and substance of the show. As “Girls” was finishing its fourth season, the future of Driver’s character seemed uncertain. Not coincidentally, the demand for Driver’s services in the world of feature film was burgeoning. At this point, many felt that “Girls” was losing its edge and clearly “Girls” wanted Driver to stay. As the seasons wore on, it was Driver who kept getting Emmy nominations while Lena Dunham’s, at least for acting, eventually subsided.
But here’s the thing: “Girls” was a twenty-eight minute episode show which, with the exception of one season, ran only ten episodes per season. The amount of content along with the schedule of the show made it considerably easier for Driver to do other projects than if it had been a one hour show with twice as many episodes as “Girls.” So both Driver and Isaac had the good fortune of having somewhat flexible schedules enabling them to pursue what they wanted to pursue.
So what is the upshot here? Just this: contrary to what has reached mythical proportions in the media, there are actors who are raised, educated and classically trained by top American drama schools who start their careers as adults, not children or teenagers, possessed of the gravitas largely attributed to their British counterparts and who are moving forward in modern day film.
As mentioned earlier, there is no dearth of such actors who are wildly successful in American television at this time, but seeing a new breed of what some feel is an older world model of actor thriving in film today is a joy. And in the “unconventional” category as well. Call Isaac a “movie star”and he won’t like it. Call Driver a “leading man” and he says: “I’m like a sight gag.” Unconventional indeed. And if many in Hollywood complain about the lack of substance of the American film actor over the past few decades, they need to be reminded that this state of affairs is partly the result of a situation which they-along with evolving cultural changes- helped create in the first place.
I am blessed and grateful that my work includes the guidance and mentorship of many young artists of this caliber and commitment. There are more such actors emerging and I will continue to provide their professional profiles in upcoming “chapters” of this series. Please stay tuned.
Brian O’Neil is the best-selling author of Acting As a Business: Strategies for Success, Fifth Edition. A former talent agent, he teaches at many of the country’s top drama programs including The Juilliard School and New York University. He coaches privately as well. For more information: www.actingasabusiness.com.