Based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin invites audiences into a parallel alien world where Scarlett Johansson plays an otherworldly seductress luring unsuspecting men into a van. Much has been made that Glazer had the actress perform this erotic stunt in reality, adding a fascinating layer to Glazer’s murky, hypnotic world. Eventually the entranced men were made aware of the truth and consented to be part of the film, which explores constructs of desire and power. It’s one of the stranger ways non-professional actors have been used in cinema. Here are ten other films starring non-actors in strange roles to rival it.
A true homegrown affair, director Harmony Korine took a fascinating approach to casting, populating his debut feature Gummo with non-professional actors (faces we won’t soon forget), combing the streets of his hometown of Nashville, local bowling alleys, and even fast food restaurants looking for his stars. Korine also featured childhood friends in the nihilistic indie about the lonely residents of a tornado-stricken Ohio town. The director set the stage for his “bracingly realistic and hauntingly dreamlike” Midwestern drama in the actual homes of Nashville residents, all left untouched by production crew. The stars were outfitted in thrift store “wardrobe,” sourced by star Chloë Sevigny. Gummo took the ultimate biographical approach. “I just wanted to show these kids, kids beating each others brains in. I wanted to show what it was like to sniff glue. I didn’t want to judge anybody,” the filmmaker stated in an interview with artist Mike Kelley. “This is why I have very little interest in working with actors. [Non-actors] can give you what an actor can never give you: pieces of themselves.”
Leading an entire cast of non-professional actors, all little people, Werner Herzog constructed a Kafkaesque vision with Even Dwarfs Started Small, commenting on spectatorship, the tragicomic perils of modern life, the cruelty of social systems, and metaphysical irony. For Herzog, the dwarfs weren’t “deformed,” but their mere humanity is satirically linked to oppressive orders, transforming notions of the grotesque.
Steven Soderbergh’s call girl drama, starring former porn actress Sasha Grey in her first mainstream feature, cast numerous non-actors, including folks like film critic Glenn Kenny (as the “The Erotic Connoisseur”). The director spoke about his choice to use non-professionals in a 2009 interview with Collider:
I’m really interested in it [working with non-professional actors]. I’ve been playing around with it for awhile. All of the six films that I’m supposed to do for 2929 Entertainment, under this deal, are planned to be done in this way, where you write a story and detail the outline, and then cast real people and use these controlled improvisations. It’s interesting because they don’t act like actors. And, that’s not a slam on actors, but they’re not trying to do anything. They don’t have goals, the way actors have goals. You need to give them a goal. You need to tell them what the scene is about.
Dracula director Tod Browning cast real-life carnival and sideshow workers in 1932’s Freaks, his love triangle tale set at a circus — a move that was unheard of for the time. Browning continued to challenge studio moviemaking by portraying his exotic cast with tenderness, revealing their humanity and illustrating their capacity for love and pain. The filmmaker’s controversial approach wasn’t well received, but Browning’s film has since been regarded as a cult masterpiece.
The second film in Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy,” the director was one of the first filmmakers to depict a high school shooting since the Columbine tragedy with Elephant. If that weren’t controversial enough, he set high school-age non-actors in the roles of the killers. In keeping with his informal approach, Van Sant allowed the stars to freely improvise and collaborate on directing several scenes.
The ultimate “Most Controversial Movie Ever Made!” and an innovator in the found footage style, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust tells the story of a documentary film crew who went missing during a trip to the Amazon Rainforest to study the area’s cannibal tribes. The gory movie plays like a real documentary and was so convincing that the Italian courts seized the film, and Deodato was arrested on murder and obscenity charges. The controversy also surrounded Cannibal Holocaust’s non-speaking non-professionals, as the animal deaths in the film were real. Deodato cast real indigenous Amazon tribespeople in the movie and local prostitutes — leading audiences and critics to deride the filmmaker for what they believed were exploitive tactics. “Of course they understood they were being portrayed as cannibals, but it’s part of their tradition,” he responded. “It’s an ancestral thing. When they had a battle, the leader of the losing tribe would be killed and eaten by the winners. It’s part of their past. They don’t deny that.”
Revealing an inside look at southern Italy’s modern crime organizations (the Camorra), director Matteo Garrone found his authentic cast on the streets of crime-ridden Scampìa in Naples — the same infamous suburb where Garrone lived for two months before making the movie. Amongst the cast was a real-life Camorra crime boss (complete with tracheotomy scar), who Garrone spotted outside a bar. “When I choose an actor I always start by looking at their face,” the filmmaker told the Wall Street Journal. “For me it’s not so important sometimes what they’re saying as the way they look when they’re saying it.”
“Godfather of Gore” Herschell Gordon Lewis won his moniker after making the first splatter film, Blood Feast. The non-professional cast was chosen largely due to Lewis’ low-budget approach (and convenience, in the case of the police captain who was a carnival talker who happened to be available at the time), but the crude and fearless style worked in Lewis’ favor.
Most of John Waters’ films
Dubbed the Dreamlanders (after Dreamland Productions), the eccentric cast of regulars in John Waters’ acting arsenal is made up of friends from the director’s hometown of Baltimore, customers at the Hollywood Bakery and Pete’s Hotel, and students from Maryland Institute College of Art. Midnight movie icons such as Divine, famous for roles in Waters’ Mondo Trasho, Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, and Female Trouble, became underground stars thanks to Waters’ avant-trash. Critic Roger Ebert once wrote that the movies take on a fascinating “documentary stature” due to Waters’ casting style.
Taking a strange pseudo-educational approach, Harry Revier’s 1938 film Child Bride centers on a schoolteacher in a rural community who attempts to ban underage marriages. On the surface it doesn’t sound so bad, despite its uncomfortable topic (especially for the time period), but the film featured a nude skinny dipping scene with 15-year-old Shirley Mills in her first film role (amongst a cast of non-actors). Did we mention this was made worse by the fact that famed exploitation film figure Kroger Babb presented and promoted the movie? Yep.