The Slow Erosion of the TV vs. Movie Actor Class System


I know you’re supposed to let a movie draw you into its narrative without excess baggage, and its characters should exist only as themselves and so on, but I had an odd moment of external realization when I first saw About Alex (which is out this week on DVD, and is pretty good). The scene comes about six minutes into this junior Big Chill, and there’s nothing earth-shattering about it as a scene; Siri (Maggie Grace) meets Josh (Max Greenfield) and Sarah (Aubrey Plaza) at the train station to drive them to the cabin where they and several other old friends are spending the weekend. But as the three characters embraced and reconnected, something in the back of my head whispered, “Look, it’s Schmidt and April Ludgate meeting up with Shannon from Lost.” And no, that didn’t make this scene the culmination of some sort of weird TV fan fiction; it merely accentuated, with a rare bit of clarity, how much the game has changed for actors, in terms of the transition from TV to film (and back).

This shift may have been particularly conspicuous for me because, when I initially saw About Alex last spring, I was working my way though the big, full-series box set of Hill Street Blues, one of the most (rightfully) acclaimed and groundbreaking television shows of the 1980s. Every performance on it is rich and convincing, and without exception, not a damn one of its cast members went on to anything resembling movie stardom, or even movie recognition. (The cast’s biggest cinematic success story is probably Betty Thomas, who went on to make several fairly big movies — as a director.) A show of that quality airing today is picked apart and raided by the movies immediately — see Mad Men, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, pretty much the Silver Age of TV drama of your choice — but when Hill Street aired, the movies weren’t interested. Ditto Cagney & Lacey, L.A. Law, Fame, thirtysomething, and on and on (to say nothing of comedies like All in the Family, WKRP, and The Cosby Show).

Sure, there were exceptions — actors like Columbo’s Peter Falk and Rockford Files’ James Garner, who made lucrative livings as cinematic character actors, or like St. Elsewhere’s Denzel Washington and Moonlighting’s Bruce Willis, who were just too big, too charismatic, too clearly Movie Stars for the tiny box to hold. But the ground was littered with actors like Tom Selleck, Don Johnson, Harry Hamlin, and Dana Delaney who tried and failed to cash in small-screen stardom for big-screen dreams — and they were the ones who were polite enough to make those stabs during hiatus, or after their shows went off the air. God forbid a Shelley Long (or, later, David Caruso or Rob Morrow) have the temerity to walk away from her hit show altogether; you could smell the schadenfreude when television actors failed on the big screen, the gleeful coverage of their failures serving as a sharp reminder that TV is JV, and those who think themselves above it must be slapped down to earth.

But then, somewhere down the line, this delineation shifted. It’d be easiest to trace it to George Clooney, but who’re we kidding — he’s of the Washington/Willis ilk, and the rest of that cast (even talents like LaSalle, Edwards, and Marguiles) stuck to TV. Yet right around the turn of the century, members of deep-benched ensemble shows like The West Wing, The Sopranos, and Arrested Development started showing up with increasing regularity on film. Now, using TV as a farm league for the majors of the movies is the norm — not just on indie flicks like About Alex (which also features Parenthood’s Jason Ritter, Suburgatory’s Jane Levy, and Mindy Project semi-regular Max Minghella), but also on such blockbusters as Godzilla (starring Bryan Cranston), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (co-starring Sebastian Stan and Cobie Smulders), and the year’s highest-grossing movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, fronted by Parks and Rec supporting player Chris Pratt (who also leads the TV-heavy voice cast of the year’s third biggest grosser, The LEGO Movie).

But most tellingly, it’s become a two-way migration. It used to be perceived as a giant failure for a film star to end up “slumming it” on TV (anybody else remember the gleeful cackles that accompanied not just David Caruso’s CSI: Miami gig, but also Michael Hayes, the failed one-season show before it?). Now, nobody bats an eye when Clive Owen does The Knick, or Anna Faris stars on Mom, or Maggie Gyllenhaal leads The Honourable Woman, or Billy Bob Thornton turns up on Fargo — and following Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson to True Detective has proven a more desirable gig than any movie we’ve heard about recently.

The logic, for these actors, is clear: whatever Oscars and accolades are accumulated by Dallas Buyers Club or Mud, McConaughey’s never gonna get a role as juicy as Rust Cohle on film, and he (and everyone else) knows it. Take a look at the movies Owen, Farris, Gyllenhaal, and Thornton had put out just before their TV turns. As the specifications for what mainstream movies are willing to do (and can do well) narrow, it’s become clear that for actors interested in crafting characters and exploring ambiguities (rather than running in front of green screens), the medium of choice has shifted — and for filmmakers seeking to fill out their casts, all the old rules are off.