You may have seen this phrase floating around the internet for the past few years and wondered what the hell it meant. Are Hollywood’s movie stars roaming the Hills, luring unsuspecting character actors back to their lairs with the promise of reading for a Wes Anderson part and then devouring them wholesale under the pale moon light?
No. I mean, probably not? I feel like if there was a cannibal epidemic in Los Angeles Damien Chazelle would have already written a whimsical love letter about it. That’s the part about that adrenochrome conspiracy theory I don’t think those Q-nuts understand: Hollywood physically cannot shut up about itself long enough to keep anything a fucking secret. If they were eating kids there would have been recipes in fucking TMZ.
Turns out this phrase is merely a metaphor, which makes for a less interesting but also less bloody world so let’s roll with it.
Leading Man vs Character Actor
I’m sure someone who is more intimately knowledgeable about the inner workings of Hollywood and acting could give a more nuanced and thorough take on what the difference is between the two, but from where I’m standing it seems the only thing that’s different is fuckability.
To be a Leading Man, a real Movie Star, an Above the Line type, you have to be Very Attractive. And not just any sort of Very Attractive. You have to be Traditionally Attractive, which seems to mean (according to Hollywood, anyway):
- The appropriate amount of built
- A good head of hair any color (but not red)
- Symmetrical face
- Crazy amounts of charisma, but this can be substituted for being able to make that pouty-fish face while talking
If you check all of these boxes, congratulations! You get to be Joe America in the newest movie Joe America Saves America and Has Sex With Sexy Lamp. And then you get to be Joe America for the rest of your career or until you lose one of the checks, at which point you age into a character actor.
If you cannot check even just one box, you do not get to be Joe America. You can be Joe America’s sidekick Ron Average, or the villain Potentially Gay Evil, both of whom have far more interesting backstories, motivations, and lines but do not get to fuck Sexy Lamp so it evens out.
To reiterate: this is what Hollywood has traditionally seen as the Ideal Male and doesn’t align with, well, anyone’s actual tastes as far as I can tell:
But (shockingly) there’s a big problem with this system. Well, there’s a LOT of problems with this system. But let’s look at this one:
Just Because You Check All the Leading Man Boxes Doesn’t Mean You Are Good At Playing Joe America
While it may seem like a limited role, playing any sort of Joe America still takes skill. Because Joe America is ultimately pretty fucking boring. He’s a good man who loves women and America and his family and drinks beer and works hard and smoked marijuana once in college where he did not inhale. Joe America is the male equivalent of all those Young Adult heroines: very pretty to look at but ultimately stripped of any meaningful characterization so the viewer can project themselves onto that perfect figure and face.
So if you’re going to play Joe America effectively you have to be able to be bland and charismatic at the same time. You have to know how to put in the right amount of personality. Enough humor or charm or danger to keep the ladies hooked but also generic enough that Gary from Tucson can totally see himself in your dreamy blue eyes.
A lot of men who check all the Leading Man boxes cannot improve Joe America to something watchable but Hollywood doesn’t seem to care. They just want fuckable men playing Joe America and if they can’t be charismatic about it then they can make that male model face and be done with it.
There is another important factor:
I Don’t Think Most of These Leading Man Types Even Want to Play Joe America
At least not forever. Chris Evans almost literally played Joe America for ten fucking films until finally he had enough money and clout to raise his hand and say ‘I want to get off Mr. Bones’ Wild Ride.’
Joe America might be a good role to coast on your good looks if you need a quick couple million to buy a new house or a pony farm for your kid Zagnut or whatever, but if you actually care about the craft of acting at all I can imagine good old Joe gets really boring, really fast. And I think, generally speaking, people want to be remembered for more than being a pretty face with a tight butt.
Let’s look at some actors and their relationship with Being Joe America.
THE guy people are talking about when they use the ‘character actor trapped in a leading man’s body’ phrase and thus the perfect place to start. He’s been checking all the Leading Man boxes since the beginning of his career. Also since the beginning he has absolutely sucked at playing Joe America. Wait, does playing Death actually count as playing Joe America? Whatever, I’m rolling with it, because he phoned in that role so hard I think he actually fell asleep standing up a couple of times. I vaguely remember Brad Pitt being written off as a bad actor floating on his good looks in the nineties.
And then they finally let him be the weird icky man in stuff like Fight Club, Snatch, 12 Monkeys, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and you suddenly understand why he keeps showing up to work every day. He was bad at being Joe America because he found the role boring. Once you put something interesting in front of him he wakes the fuck up and does his job.
Being a nepo baby obviously has its perks because despite being one of the most conventionally attractive white dudes on the planet he mostly plays guys you absolutely do not want to be stuck in an elevator with.
They made him be Joe America in Love & Other Drugs and I guess Source Code and he was so mad about it he immediately made End of Watch and Prisoners back to back. It’s really telling that they got him to be in the MCU as a character that uses his good looks and charm to trick everyone into thinking he’s a hero while actually being a spiteful, sociopathic villain who will kills thousands of innocent people just to get revenge on a bad boss who is notably already dead.
This is actually a case study in the reverse: a man in a character actor body who somehow got himself into non-stop Joe America roles for over a decade through sheer force of will alone. You might be inclined to believed he physically threatened Hollywood until they let him play Cop Dad Who Just Wants to Protect His Kids and America but actually he invited Hollywood over for a nice homemade dinner and charmed the pants off them and the next thing Hollywood knew they woke up to a world where he was the Kindergarten Cop.
Tom Cruise checks all the Leading Man boxes and he’s happy about it because by now he would have actually, legally changed his real name to Joe America but no one will let him. It’s often said he’s America’s last real movie star and that’s because he’s really the last person who wants to be. His dream in life is obviously to be the handsome, lovable every man who always saves the day and that’s all he’s ever played since the eighties, minus the handful of times he’s agreed to play a villain, and let me tell you something: his villains fuck. He needs to play villain roles more but he won’t because people thinking he’s the bad guy, even in fiction, makes him sad. He will continue to take on Joe America roles right up until the day he achieves his life’s goal: dying in the middle of filming an outrageous stunt for the next Mission Impossible movie.
One thought on “A Character Actor Trapped in a Leading Man’s Body”
I wasn’t sure I’d seen Tom Cruise as a villain so I wasn’t sure I agreed with your estimation…and then I remembered Lestat. And I was like “yes”