Tag Archives: character actors

Together Again: Onscreen Actor Reunions and Viewer Pleasure

Watching last night’s  Justified (“Blind Spot”), I exclaimed aloud when I realized that Ray McKinnon was playing the week’s shady character.  Anybody reading this blog knows that I’m perhaps more attuned to character actors than I should be, but that’s not what caused me to clap my hands like a child who just got her first glimpse at birthday cake.  Ray McKinnon played Rev. H.W. Smith on Deadwood with Justified‘s star, Timothy Olyphant.  The two, sadly, never shared the screen on Justified, but I still felt the trill of happiness when I thought that the two actors were inhabiting the same universe again.  But why?  Why do I find pleasure in a casting happenstance?

Timothy Olyphant on Justified. Intrigued?

Certainly part of it is the pleasure of recognition–and in this example, a particular recognition that leads to intertextual cultural capital transference– and of insider knowledge.  Knowing that these two actors previously shared credits in a little-seen but much-lauded other television text lends cultural capital not only to me, the viewer, for recognizing the connection, but also the text itself through intertextual linkages.  Deadwood fans who recognize McKinnon on Justified are instantly reminded of the other brilliant-but-canceled program, and some of the nostalgia and pleasure related to Deadwood overlays onto Justified.  Moreover, the appearance has no “wink” at the audience or acknowledgment of the intertextuality so the pleasure in the moment of recognition also gains from the pleasure of solving a puzzle, but a puzzle that much of the audience–one assumes–can’t even see let alone solve.

I think the latter explanation for the sense of pleasure lies at the heart of what I felt.  It resembles the kind of pleasure surrounding cult fandom as a way to exceptionalize the self in regard to vast swaths of apparent sameness.  Part of the pleasure of being a fan of a cult text is the sense of distinction (generally without being elitist) from the masses through knowing and appreciating a text that few know.  This is perhaps easiest seen in an example of two cult texts meeting through actors: Kristen Bell guest starring on Party Down, which stars various former Veronica Mars actors.

Veronica Mars, still able to own Dick Casablancas

Though the characters are far removed from those they played on Veronica Mars, the relationship between Uda and Kyle on Party Down partially resembles the relationship between Veronica and Dick on Veronica Mars: Kristen Bell’s character is smarter, more powerful, and utterly competent at her job than Kyle and can therefore dictate with authority Ryan Hansen’s shallow, dumb, arrogant character.  It’s as if Veronica and Dick somehow entered an alternate universe where they’re caterers.  On such stuff is AU fanfic made on.

Michael Vartan and Bradley Cooper, Alias stars (friends?) on Kitchen Confidential

But there’s at least one more level of pleasure these actor reunions elicit: the extra-textual idea that the actors themselves derive pleasure from being able to work together again.  With certain series, especially those constantly on the brink of cancellation and/or with cult status, the actor narratives that persist are those that position the cast as a family.  Group interviews, appearances at fan conventions, and the occasional candid shot of the stars outside the context of the show create the narrative that these actors actually really like each other and enjoy working together.  This serves a few purposes: 1) It undermines the construction of actors (through connection with a common construct of “stars”) as selfish narcissists; 2)It adds an affective layer to the emotions and connections portrayed within the text between the actors (drawing on the “realism” of the emotions); and 3) for canceled cult shows, it comforts fans and can keep hope of one more iterations of the text alive (see: Arrested Development movie rumors).

Victor Garber is Jennifer Garner's Spydaddy even after the end of Alias

Some combination of all of the above elicited the admittedly girlish giggle of delight and aforementioned hand-clapping in me when I see actors reunited in a different television universe.  Am I alone in this feeling?  Perhaps in my explanations of them, but a cursory look at fan reaction to last night’s Justified proves that others similarly take pleasure in seeing actors reunited onscreen.  These slanted reunions represent an interesting intersection of text, intertext, and extra-text that certainly bears more investigation (and at least from me, more giggling outbursts in my living room).

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The TV Character Actor in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Garret Dillahunt and the Deconstruction of Aura

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I am not very well versed in star studies.  For someone who knows about that, check out Annie Peterson’s blog.  What I will be arguing is not so much about star studies, anyway, because in the acting hierarchy “character actor” is not the same as “star.”  Instead, I want to analyze one television character actor, Garret Dillahunt, and the trend of his recent appearances in deconstructing through inversion the idea of “aura.”

The unflappable Garret Dillahunt on White Collar

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the aura of a work of art becomes degraded through reproduction.  Moreover, he extends his argument to film actors, writing, “The aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays. [. . .] The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity” (Benjamin).  Though Benjamin argues regarding film, certainly the reproduction central to television distribution fits his argument as well.

Character actors share the “star” characteristic of being bringing a “personality” to their roles, for often character actors make their living by being typecast.  This plays not only on the intertextuality of their roles but also on the illusion of “aura” the actor can give a character.  The idea behind casting a character actor is for the audience to be able to instantly know what type of person he or she is supposed to be.  Go to That Guy! and you can sketch a general character for each actor.

Hey, it's that guy! (on Life)

With Garret Dillahunt, you can still read him as a “bad guy” through his cold stare and austere look, but there is something else.  Over the last few years, Dillahunt has played more ciphers than characters, or to be more accurate, he’s the character actor of choice when your character IS a cipher.  His characters are always more a flexible reflection of the plot or other characters (or his character’s own play-acting) than a set individual.  He’s played robot terminators, slippery mafia dons, killers, con men, and spies, but his characters are always a bit of a closed circuit.  This is done purposefully.  The “aura” that he brings to his character roles is precisely a lack of “aura.”  He could be anyone because he plays lack of specific character so well.

The following clip illustrates this inversion of “aura” nicely.  From Dillahunt’s appearance on Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, he plays “John Henry” with the body of a Terminator from the future and the first Terminator programming as his mind.

There’s a blankness to Dillahunt in almost all of his roles, a deliberate separation from both a connection with the viewer and a connection with the characters with whom he shares the screen.  It’s not that he’s a static actor, unable to connect.  His film roles tend to take him more in that direction (see especially his comedic performance as wide-eyed Wendell in No Country for Old Men), but on television, his blankness has become his “aura.”  His lack of “aura” intentionally draws attention to Benjamin’s articulation of the modern withering of “aura” in filmic media and actors.  However, Garret Dillahunt serves as a counterexample, a deconstruction of the idea of “aura” based around original/copy or character/cipher, for his recent roles reverse and displace these binaries–and their implied hierarchies–by making the cipher the character and the copy the original.  The idea of difference in undermined through inversion.  Dillahunt can play machine because he embraces the mechanical reproduction of character.  His blankness is valued in his villain characters because it captures the terrifying ramifications of the destruction of personal “aura” in the age of mechanical (and now more-widespread digital) reproduction.

Sometimes even the chyron doesn't know what to make of him.

Image credits:

1. Unflappable

2. Hey, it’s that guy!

3. Chyron