Actor’s Key Roles: Career Defining or Career Ending?

Sam Barnes

When we discuss actors in defining roles, often spanning decade-long franchises, there are three factors which are used to judge whether the role ultimately boosted or impeded their career. The star’s growth of wealth, popularity gained from these performances, and the prominence they have in continuing mainstream future filmmaking are all common ways to determine a person’s success as an actor. However, it is quite often seen that when looking beyond these key roles, many actors can fall out of the public eye and it’s hard to judge whether committing to these big roles was really a good idea for their career going forward. Yet is this really a definitive mark of failure? Ultimately, should this be seen as so black and white? It all comes down to how we define success.

One of the most well-known examples in the past 20 years is Robert Downey Jr. (RDJ) as Marvel’s Iron Man in the Infinity Saga, playing the character for just over a decade, certainly defining his career.  For RDJ, his role of Iron Man, whilst not closing his career, certainly seems to have come at the latter end of it, and he now faces issues when carving a path beyond Marvel. More specifically, a problem faced by RDJ is the fanbase he has built up around himself. Embodying the character of Tony Stark both in and out of the films, he has captured many comics book fans’ hearts, but most of these fans have since moved on. One of many reasons for his next project Dolittle (2020) being a major flop at the box-office was that it was attempting to capitalise upon the success of RDJ, following Endgame the year before. But the big issue with this is that he just isn’t the same character. No fault of Downey, but he had committed wholeheartedly to Iron Man for almost six years, building one singular fanbase, therefore it’s jarring to see him become someone else. One failed blockbuster does not spell the end of Downey’s career, however. By studying other actor’s careers in similar positions, it’s possible to gain insight on how to escape from where his success has trapped him.

Robert Pattison is one of the best examples of how long-lasting success can be gained from these key roles. Coming to real prominence after his appearance in the Twilight Saga as vampire Edward Cullen, he almost completely disappeared from the mainstream public eye. However, this was most definitely not the end of his career. Instead, Pattison built up his acting credentials for the next decade in indie films, notably Good Time (2017) and High Life (2018).

Pattison was able to build up a critic following, as opposed to a fan following, arguably far more useful

Essentially, Pattison was able to choose these roles for himself. In a Guardian interview in 2011, he noted how the Twilight franchise was a “safety netfor him which essentially allowed him to do whatever other projects he wanted. His key role has not confined him, but instead offered greater freedom. He was able to get his role in the Oscar nominated The Lighthouse (2019) because he sought out director Robert Eggers after enjoying many of his other works. By doing films that he felt really challenged him, showing off his brilliant talent as an actor, Pattison was able to build up a critic following, as opposed to a fan following, arguably far more useful as we now see him step into the role of Matt Reeves’ Batman, a role he specifically wrote with Pattison in mind after following his career. And, with its release, it’s clear Pattison’s career is going to be defined by The Batman as opposed to Twilight.

Pattison is no anomaly either. His vampiric co-star Kristen Stewart followed a very similar journey after Twilight, now an Oscar nominee and possible winner for her performance in Spencer (2021). Daniel Radcliffe, known by all for his portrayal of the titular character in the Harry Potter franchise, but really not much else, seems to actually be having a hell of a time. In an interview with the Independent he claimed it to be “liberating… to do things that just make you happy, actively encouraging actors to do their biggest roles at the start of their careers.

So, what does this mean for the future career of RDJ? Downey has since stated how he is able to pursue new desires beyond acting now his commitment to Marvel is up. Whilst maybe marking the end of his time in the spotlight, it’s certainly not the end of his acting career. His next appearance will be in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which could be a great chance for him to highlight his acting talent in a different type of role.

The key role can define a career, but it’s what comes before or after that is really important

To define an actor’s success purely by their mainstream prominence suggests success is only granted by how long an actor can remain in the public eye. This is problematic as all films do not appeal to everyone; some films intentionally cater to a very specific audience. Not all are attempting to be major blockbusters, but instead seek critical praise. To not focus on experimental indie films is to neglect what is often an actor’s best performance. Therefore, key roles hold two great opportunities for actors. It can kickstart a new chapter for their careers, broadening their freedom to develop their talent in more unique roles, or it can highlight a not so prominent actor and really show off their capabilities to wider audiences. The key role can define a career, but it’s what comes before or after that is really important.

Sam Barnes

Featured Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image 1 courtesy of robertdowneyjr via instagram.com. No changes made to this image. 

In article image 2 courtesy of thebatman via instagram.com. No changes made to this image.

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