There are some roles that just about any talented actor should, in theory, be able to carry off, assuming they’re the right age and reasonably articulate. I mean, sure, you probably wouldn’t want Shia LaBeouf playing Dumbledore or Robert Duvall appearing as Huck Finn, unless he were Old Huck reminiscing about his life on the Mighty Mississippi. But you know what I mean. How many actors have successfully portrayed James Bond, for example? Or Jane Eyre? I loved Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as Benedick and Beatrice in the 1991 version of Much Ado About Nothing; but I also loved Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker in the 2012 version and anyone who didn’t can TALK TO THE HAND because they were MAGIC.
Then there are cases where a part seems to have been tailor-made for a particular actor (and indeed, many parts are written with a particular actor in mind). In these situations, the marriage of actor and role is so perfect that you can’t envision anyone else in the role, and in some cases you don’t want to imagine the actor in any other role. This happens less often than you might think. I mean, any rugged male actor over age 30 or so could have played Aragorn. Johnny Depp was certainly effective as Captain Jack Sparrow, but I can think of half a dozen other guys who would have been just as effective, or nearly so. I used to think that Colin Firth was the ONE and ONLY Mr. Darcy; then I saw Matthew Macfadyen’s interpretation of the role and realized the error of my ways. Likewise for Jennifer Ehle and Keira Knightley. And so forth.
Here, then, I pay tribute to six instances of the casting director’s art — six (well, actually seven) roles that not only can I not imagine anyone else playing; also, I don’t want to.
1. Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, The Hunger Games
Elizabeth Banks usually bugs me — I tend to find her a bit shrill and over the top. But Effie Trinket more or less defines “shrill” and “over the top,” and besides, Banks has somehow — somehow — manages to inject just the slightest bit of self-awareness and even, dare I say it, sadness into the ridiculous, clueless creature. My opinion of Banks as an actress is revised upward every time I see one of those movies. Plus, I’m not sure that anyone else could carry off Effie’s unique…look with the same aplomb.
Any reasonably talented young actress could have made a creditable Katniss. But there is only one Effie Trinket.
Quote: THAT is MAHOGANY! (in just as outraged a tone as you can possibly imagine)
2. Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, Once Upon a Time
Look, Once Upon a Time went from being an entertaining diversion to being a hot mess somewhere around the time Neil/Baelfire appeared on the scene, and even at its best it was somewhat ridiculous. A hidden Maine town where fairy tales are real…but the characters don’t realize it? Magic and spells and curses are everyday occurrences…but most of the characters are totally unaware? Somebody hired Jennifer Morrison…and in a lead role, no less? I swear, they should bottle that woman and market her for insomnia. But I digress, because there’s been one consistently bright spot in the whole affair, and that’s been the ridiculously talented Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin (in the Fairy Tale universe) and sinister Mr. Gold (in this one).
Carlyle, bless his heart, takes the role seriously. He throws his back into it. He never, for one second, gives the impression that he believes he’s above the material. The result is somewhat akin to watching Pavarotti sing a Katy Perry Medley backed by the Spongecake Elementary School Kindergarten Choir. But who wouldn’t want to watch Pavarotti tear it up in any context?
Quote: Just remember: Love is free, but all magic comes with a price.
3. Jon Hamm and January Jones as Don and Betty Draper, Mad Men
Much like Mad Men — the show — itself, Jon Hamm and January Jones came roaring out of obscurity to take the world by storm. As brilliant ad man/serial womanizer/all-around jerk Don Draper, Hamm brought the old-school glamor and unrepentant alpha-maleness that mesmerized audiences. And as Draper’s unfortunate first (well, second, technically) wife Betty, Jones embodied a certain Ice-Queen WASPY brittleness and suppressed rage that burned through the screen. (It doesn’t hurt that she was born to wear those expensive vintage styles the show’s costumier kept putting her in.)
The thing is, I’ve seen both of them in other things, and they were…fine? They were okay? Entirely forgettable, but adequate to the demands of the role? I guess? Frankly, I’ll be astonished if January Jones is as good in anything again. And as for Hamm…he could always pursue a second career as an underwear model. But as Don and Betty, they were brilliant. Iconic, even.
Don: I can explain.
Betty: Oh, I know you can. You’re a very, very gifted storyteller.
4. Ben Mendelsohn as Danny Rayburn, Bloodline
I had never heard of this guy before I watched Bloodline on Netflix this spring, but as the troubled black sheep of a close-knit family in the Florida Keys, he absolutely blew me away. His Danny Rayburn is charming, tragic, manipulative, lost, redeemable, irredeemable, angry, sad, determined, and cunning — all at the same time. You start out feeling curious about him, then you feel sorry for him, and then you hate him and want him to DIE. And you hate his family, too, because after all they created him. And then you’re back to feeling sorry for him. Then he pulls his next stunt and you wish he would just go away. And the whole time, you can’t take your eyes off of him.
Seriously, I have no idea what the Australian Mendelsohn is like in anything else (although I’ve read that he absolutely wrecks it in a movie called Animal Kingdom, which has moved to the top of my must-watch list). But he’s stunning in Bloodline. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should.
Quote: Your life’s not always going to be this perfect. Things happen to people. And then you’ll need me. Then you’ll know.
5. Aubrey Plaza as Darius Britt, Safety Not Guaranteed
Let me just get this out of the way: This woman usually annoys the crap out of me. Her dead-eyed, deadpan version of affectless cool would have played just fine in high school, but I’m not in high school and more to the point neither is she. I don’t find her particularly funny and I mostly just wish she would grow up already.
And yet, in Safety Not Guaranteed, a sweet little indie about, of all things, time travel, her thousand-yard zombie-eyed stare actually works. She wears the role of listless and depressed Darius like a comfortable robe, and she sells her romance with the very-possibly-but-not-definitely-crazy Kenneth (Mark Duplass) in a way that is effortless, compelling, and even touching. A peppier actress would have tanked in this role. Aubrey Plaza soars.
Quote: I have no funk. I’m totally funkless.
6. Owen Wilson as Hansel, Zoolander
Pity Ben Stiller. He keeps headlining these comedies, only to have the second lead quite neatly steal the movie out from under him. In Tropic Thunder, it was eventual Oscar Nominee Robert Downey, Jr. In those Focker abominations, it was Robert DeNiro. (He gambles rashly who pits himself against the great DeNiro onscreen.) And in Zoolander, in which Stiller played the titular role, no less, it was second banana Owen Wilson.
Hansel is easily the funniest thing about the movie, whether he’s philosophizing, affably reminiscing about plunging off the edge of Mount Vesuvius (kind of), swaggering down an urban alleyway in the company of his multicultural posse of Beautiful People, or giving advice (“This has been an emotional day for all of us. I think we should get naked.”) And Wilson plays him as a tousle-haired, perpetually stoned surfer dude who isn’t nearly as deep as he’d like to think he is. We’ve probably all known a Hansel or two, come to think of it.
Quote: I hear words like “beauty” and “handsomness” and “incredibly chiseled features” and for me that’s like a vanity of self absorption that I try to steer clear of.
Who are your “perfect pairings?” Let me know in the comments!