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Casting Against Type With the Aid of a Computer

May 29, 2008

When I first heard that Ray Winstone had been cast in the role of Beowulf in Robert Zemeckis' digitally-enhanced movie adaptation of the famous Nordic legend, I was confused. I couldn't quite see how the balding, middle-aged English actor with a pronounced paunch and history of playing thugs in terse British gangster flicks, could convincingly play the role of the sexy Scandinavian superhero.

It was only after watching the "special features" section about the making of the film on the DVD that I understood just how far the physical transformation of an actor can go in contemporary movie-making without entering the realm of cartoon animation one hundred percent.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the movie (which came out last year and starred, alongside Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie) Zemeckis employs an unusal hybrid filming technique. The director and his team create a cross between a fully-animated film and a live-action feature by employing computers to capture and manipulate performances by real actors via the use of tiny electronic nodes attached to many parts of the actors' bodies and faces.

The half-real, half-cartoon look gives the film an otherworldly aesthetic, which works rather well in the context of Beowulf's larger-than-life story.

What's interesting is to see the extent to which different actors are transformed on screen. While Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins are very recognizably Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover and John Malkovich look a lot less like their real selves. But even though Glover actually undergoes the greatest physical transformation of any actor in the movie in the role of the monster Grendel (his gnarled trunk is reminiscent of a Giacometti sculpture that's been melted in an oven) Winstone's Beowulf provides, for me personally, the biggest shock.

I think this is because of the unsettling relationship between the character's appearance and the actor's voice. The film mutates both Glover's body and voice. But Winstone, though transformed from a pudgy middle-aged actor into a studly, 6-foot-five legend with flowing blond hair and a six-pack, retains his own purposeful-gritty voice. The combination is unnerving.

I like the idea of an actor getting to embody a character so vastly different to his usual physical "type" in a Hollywood movie. This happens rather more frequently on stage than it does on screen. For example, one of the best performances I ever saw in the theatre was the hefty actor Simon Russell-Beale take on the role of Ariel, the light-as-air spirit in a production of The Tempest directed by Sam Mendes at The Barbican in London about 15 years ago.

It's a shame that the movie industry doesn't take the risk of casting against type more often. It would be great, for instance, to see Zemeckis cast Winstone in a future production of Beowulf without feeling the need to enhance the actor digitally with the aid of a computer. I don't suppose that'll happen any time soon though.

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