Acting and writing are not so different. Both require discipline, facility with language, and the ability to disappear into a world that is not quite reality. And with more credibility than the all-too-frequent actor/musician vanity crossover, the actor-as-author subset has its own self-congratulatory cachet. With a slew of new books by better known screen personalities hitting stores this fall, here’s a tribute to ten thespians who have taken on the literary arena.
Steve Martin’s makeover as a New Yorker-touting literary figure might seem a little self-serious for an actor best known as a comedian, but his dedication is evident in his sheer prolificacy. In addition to essay collections, plays, children’s books, and his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up, Martin has published two well-received novels (including this month’s An Object of Beauty) as well as a novella that was adapted for the screen (in which he also starred, incidentally).
Two-time Academy Award-winner Gene Hackman has written three novels in collaboration with undersea archaeologist Daniel Lenihan. These historically set stories lean somewhat toward grocery store thrillers — Wake of the Perdido Star is a coming-of-age adventure about early 19th-century seafaring and Justice For None is a 1920s Chicago murder mystery — but they are well-researched and highly engaging. Hackman announced his retirement from acting while promoting his latest, Escape From Andersonville.
Artistically eccentric without any pretense, Viggo Mortensen balances his blockbuster persona with a quiet literary alter ago. Mortensen is a prolific poet, often publishing his work in tandem with his art and photography exhibitions (and occasionally also in Spanish and Danish, both of which he speaks fluently), resulting in edgy multimedia volumes like the abstract volume 45301 or this year’s Canciones del Invierno – Winter Songs. The founder of indie publisher Perceval Press, he has also helped non-traditional writers get their material into print.
As we already noted in our list of 2010’s most fascinating people, James Franco seems to have all the creative bases covered. But in addition to his slash-heavy actor/artist/director/model/student subtitle, the multi-threat celebrity has given a concerted and sincere go at literature. After majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing at UCLA, Franco went on to study creative writing at both Columbia University and Brooklyn College, and is now pursuing a PhD in English at Yale. His debut short story collection Palo Alto came out this fall.
Beginning her career as a dancer, Meg Tilly became well known to film-goers in movies like The Big Chill and Agnes of God, for which she won a Golden Globe. Tilly has remained off the Hollywood radar since 1995 (unless you count a recent cameo on sci-fi series Caprica), but in the meantime she’s been busy writing. Her book Singing Songs candidly addressed incest and molestation through a story told in vignettes, and her third novel Porcupine was a finalist for the Sheila E. Agoff Prize.
Though he’s best known for his Sherlock Holmes-esque title character on House, Hugh Laurie got his start as a comic actor in early British sketch shows like the incomparable Black Adder. A sufferer of clinical depression, Laurie once claimed that reading prolific British scribe P.G. Wodehouse saved his life. Laurie’s debut novel The Gun Seller underwent multiple international printings in the ‘90s and his promised second novel is keeping fans waiting.
Writing has always been a big component of Woody Allen’s charm as a filmmaker, but snappy dialogue isn’t his only literary talent. Beyond the screenplays and stage dramas, Allen has also published four collections of short stories featuring pieces that have also appeared in highbrow lit publications like The New Yorker, The Kenyon Review, and The New Republic. He also won the prestigious O. Henry Award for his story “The Kugelmass Episode,” which appeared in his 1980 collection Side Effects.
Having most recently co-starred with fellow actors-turned-authors James Franco (in 127 Hours) and Hugh Laurie (on an episode of House), Amber Tamblyn has been in the public eye since appearing on General Hospital as a child. And for most of that time, she has also been writing poetry. Tamblyn has put out two chapbooks, a Thelonious Monk-inspired limited-edition volume called The Loneliest, and currently blogs for the Poetry Foundation, in addition to participating in poetry readings throughout the country.
Ethan Hawke has maintained a consistently varied cinematic output throughout the last few decades, balancing big Oscar-recognized movies with smaller, low-budget indies. But behind the scenes, Hawke has been persistent in his devotion to literature and literacy, serving as a co-chair on the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Committee and as the founder of the Young Lions Fiction Award. His debut novel The Hottest State was an affecting chronicle of the same Gen X angst that characterized Hawke’s earlier films, and Ash Wednesday garnered plenty of praise.
An icon of ‘60s and ‘70s horror films, Polish-born British actress Ingrid Pitt later developed a fanboy-beloved persona as the queen of the occult with books like Ingrid Pitt’s Bedside Companion for Ghosthunters. But she also penned several engaging novels that drew from her experiences living in South American (from the spy story Cuckoo Run to Argentina-set The Perons and Eva’s Spell). She also regularly wrote columns for magazines and periodicals until her death at 73 last week.