Thursday, December 9, 2010

Cookie Cutters

I was tinkering on facebook when I found that one of my friends had posted this,
a series of short pieces which illustrate classic film types with the help of people like Tilda Swinton, James Franco, and Natalie Portman. Give it a look. They are lovely portraits of classic characters that we all know.

There is something about the concept of types that I see actors latch on to, possibly because it is something definable, or because it is one of the few things we can control or shape. My college performing arts department has a particular fetish with “typing” it's students, which often leads to actors scrambling to perfectly define themselves in appearance. I'm a bit of a rebel when in comes to practices like this, but after I had been pegged as the “Juno” of the department, I found myself showing a picture of Ellen Page's haircut to the hairdresser. (Admittedly, Ellen and I both can rock some cute bangs.) I even recall students who knew what they were going to wear to an audition before they knew what monologues they were going to use. Understanding your type, how to dress to it, and looking like the best possible you are all crucial. There, I said it. You have to look good. I hate superficiality, but there it is. As someone who loves a good pair of sweatpants and has heard “You are such an Ellen Page!” or sometimes “You are so Anne Hathaway!” a few too many times, I approach types a little cautiously. Here are some thoughts:

1. Beware the list of types.
In an audition techniques class during my study abroad in Provence, I was assigned to read parts of a rather helpful book called How To Be A Working Actor by Mari Lyn Henry and Lynne Rogers. In their chapter “Getting Your Act Together,” there is a section on image types based on the concept of “universal style” created by image consultants in the 1990's. There was a list of styles followed by keywords to help you define yourself. They were...
  • Sporty: friendly, casual, unpretentious, comfortable with who you are, likeable
  • Traditional: businesslike, conscientious, loyal, organized, reliable, trustworthy
  • Elegant: refined, polished, cultured, poised, discerning
  • Romantic: caring, compassionate, charming, sensitive, vulnerable, nurturing
  • Alluring: provocative, body conscious, seductive, sexy enticing
  • Creative: adventuresome, free-spirited, imaginative, original, fearless
  • Dramatic: commanding, confident, intense, self-assured, sophisticated.
In class, we were given time to pick which one we were, and then we stood in front of the class, one at a time, and the class determined which best suited us. I went last and there I stood, in 100 degree weather in southern France, rocking some cargo shorts, a t-shirt, and my Chacos, probably sweaty, with my hair in a tangled pile. Essentially, I was a hot mess. The rest of the students could do nothing but eliminate “Alluring.” Eventually the professor ironically guided them into a combination of “Romantic” and “Elegant.” A year and a half later, I am still not satisfied with that. I lean towards those categories, but I can find one or more keywords in each of the others that describe me.

These lists are meant as an initial guide, not as a stamp to declare precisely what you are. Henry and Rogers even say “It is important to realize that we comprise all the styles to a greater or lesser degree.” You are not a Christmas cookie stamped out of a sheet of dough. There are not a dozen just like you. My recommendation? Take a look at one of these image type lists, get an idea of where you stand, and forget about it.

2. No one can define your type but you.
There may be teachers, fellow actors, mentors, etc. who might guide you in a certain direction. Consider their advice before taking it. If you think what they suggest shapes your appearance in a way that doesn't feel natural and reflective of your personality, please fortheloveofgod don't do it just to please them. They can handle it if you decide that that's not really the route you want to go.

3. Take pages, not the whole book.
I'm actually very pleased about my shared qualities with both Anne Hathaway and Ellen Page, both suggested by my peers and professors. I love both of these actors and how they present themselves, particularly how Page can move between quirky layers and a fabbity little black dress and Hathaway's use of color and texture. However, I'm going to steer clear of her use of the sheer:

4. If you like it, buy it.
If you have the money, that is. I've found that I don't have the “Sweet baby Jesus I must own this” reaction to clothes that don't suit my personality well. Buy to fit your personality, not your type. (I am currently pining over these wedges in bark) Trust your instincts. Unless your instinct is to go on a shopping spree you can't afford. Or go bear wrestling.

5. In the end, you're your own type.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to enjoy speakers at the Savannah Film Festival for a few years and over and over I heard casting directors, actors, agents, say the same thing, reiterated at last by James Cromwell. “There are no types.” A different version of an already-famous actor is not nearly as interesting as your completely unique set of appearance, skills, and personality. Instead of refining yourself to be someone else, refine what you have to become the best possible version of yourself.

All this being said, I am writing this down as much for myself as anyone else. Anyone who knows me knows that my wardrobe is not exactly fabulous, so if there are any extra thoughts you want to add on types, defining yourself in appearance, or just getting dressed in the morning, pop it into a comment!

Henry, Mari Lyn., and Lynne Rogers. How to Be a Working Actor. New York: Back Stage, 2008. Print.

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