Fresh faces, stale reactions

Published on September 25th, 2013

Alex writes about how we set our opinions on certain celebrities, and why he’s excited for Shailene Woodley and Michael B. Jordan’s futures in Hollywood.

Acting is an odd profession, and acknowledging affection for an actor is an equally odd feeling. Appreciating a performer, and their work, is always filled with a variety of feelings, most of which somehow revolve around the idea of authenticity, or at least perceived authenticity. And most of the time, this question actually pertains less to a character George Clooney might play than it does to George Clooney himself. If we think Clooney’s arrest in Washington last year was bullshit and all for show, we can’t enjoy him in Gravity, despite that movie’s lack of being about getting arrested in Washington. We have learned too much about Clooney’s life and his work through the years. Our opinions are set. Most of us like him, and those that don’t are often socially ostracized during cocktail hours. Similarly, we know we like Ryan Gosling for his reckless self-awareness in interviews, and his tiny, blue soul windows. Even if we don’t love her film choices, we all love Meryl Streep because she’s likeable, and she is always regarded as impossibly talented. She’ll be good in every movie she’s in until the day she dies, because that is what we have decided Meryl Streep does. But what about actors that we’re unsure on as a culture? What about the new faces? When do we make the distinctions that will follow them for the rest of their careers? How do we decide how we feel about them?

First, a celebrity has to become known. We didn’t talk about Clooney at all before ER, even though he was on the highly-rated Roseanne for a bit. We talked about Denzel Washington’s role as a doctor on St. Elsewhere even less; his pop culture glory came with Glory. These are people who made good first impressions, and then spent the years following that proving us mostly correct for liking them. And for pretty much all of the celebrities discussed so far, they have remained in the cultural conversation for prolonged periods of time by being good at what they do, but never being so noteworthy in their personal lives that we become tired of them. Ryan Gosling constantly tries to act like Marlon Brando on screen, but he knows better than to act like Marlon Brando on set. These people in Hollywood were able to become lasting figures simply because they have proven their talent, while managing to remain consistently discussed without ever being talked about on a Miley-esque national scale.

Sometimes, though, we’re wrong. We’ll probably all look back on the ‘Jeremy Renner is a leading man’ era with confusion. In 2003, we were all certain Scarlett Johansson’s performance in Lost in Translation was the beginning of her growth into the next great female superstar, with her previous work in Ghost World and All the Pretty Horses as indicators of her range that we thought would continue to grow. We have since discovered this is not the case, but she remains very much a part of culture because she has been able to remain present by way of singing Tom Waits covers and being in The Avengers. She’s always around, but never intensely enough that we wish she would just go away. We similarly discovered that making out with Rachel McAdams on a rainy afternoon does not prevent Ryan Gosling from being great as a drug-addicted teacher. James Franco went from attempted early 2000s flyboy to whatever it is we’re calling James Franco today. Selena Gomez is currently attempting to form some sort of Hollywood image, but will fail because she’s too focused on establishing her role in pop music, and also because she looks like a well-coordinated baby. There are two people operating within Hollywood right now, though, that are truly good at their craft, and seem to have the potential to become superstars in the coming years. They are interesting, they are talented, and they have each proven both of these statements this year. They are Michael B. Jordan and Shailene Woodley.

Woodley and Jordan have each been working fairly consistently for over a decade – Jordan notably appearing on The Wire and All My Children, and Woodley on The Secret Life of the American Teenager – but each really started to come to prominence with a great performance in the last couple of years. In late 2011, Woodley played Alexandra King in The Descendants, a performance that was widely seen as good, and was the best part of the film. Around that same time, Jordan was completing his role as Vince Howard on Friday Night Lights, giving one of the most compelling performances in a show that was often full of them. Both Woodley and Jordan’s performances were well-liked, and each performance was overshadowed by something else about the product; The Descendants was an Alexander Payne film starring George Clooney, and nobody could ever like a Friday Night Lights character more than Coach or Tami Taylor. But each project helped these actors get to where they needed to be: a role in a 2013 film that seems to have them on their way to superstardom.

It is Jordan who was been in the more notable film, the much talked about Fruitvale Station, about the real-life death of Oscar Grant on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system at the hands of transit police. The film is well made and engaging, if occasionally problematic, but the one thing that is impossible to avoid throughout the film is that Michael B. Jordan is a pretty great actor. While everybody in the audience knows where Grant is going to end up, and that story alone is tragic in and of itself, it is Jordan’s performance that makes the film resonate. He is in nearly every scene of the movie, and he is perpetually magnetic. Jordan is charming and likeable even in situations where the morality of his actions could be viewed as questionable, and his shifting emotions in other scenes is jarring in a way that only makes the performance better. When the film does falter, Jordan doesn’t. I assume that his will remain my favourite dramatic performance of the year; I can’t imagine anybody thinking otherwise. And the only other contender so far is Woodley.

In The Spectacular Now, Woodley plays a nerdy teenager named Aimee Finecky, a character we only see having one friend until the recently single and cool kid Sutter Keely comes into her life. The Spectacular Now isn’t by any means a great film, but it’s occasionally really, really good, mostly because of the honesty in its performers, and of Woodley in particular. In a long take of Aimee and Sutter getting to know each other early on in the film, the naturalism of Woodley’s performance is able to permeate the idea that anybody with those cheeks could ever be seen as anything less than gorgeous. Even when her character does nonsensical, impossible things, Woodley somehow makes the character (mostly) likeable; she takes everything that made her great on the beaches of The Descendants and transmits it into the woods of The Spectacular Now. She has been notably good in two notable films, which, since Woodley is a young adult, means she will soon be seen in an adaptation of young adult fiction.

This is the way things go now. An actor is well liked by critics in an independent movie, perhaps a television show before that, and then they are transported to the world of being the lead of a franchise*. Woodley is about to be everywhere when Divergent is released next February, temporarily if the movie fails but perpetually if it succeeds, in much the same way Jennifer Lawrence was everywhere when Katniss Everdeen took over Hollywood. Michael B. Jordan has nothing so concrete lined up, save a rumour that he’d play the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot or Apollo Creed’s son in a Rocky spin-off, but it’s only a matter of time until he finds something. Woodley and Jordan are already in the public eye, but it is inevitable that they will soon be famous. How they handle that will determine how we handle them.

*This movement for actors is similar to the way that independent directors now seem to make low-budget movies specifically to be handed the reins to a franchise. Christopher Nolan accidentally ruined a lot of promising careers.

The idea of either Jordan or Woodley becoming a notable public figure is more than mildly interesting for Hollywood. They seem to both be drastically different people, but each of them has been saying all the right things so far regarding their influences, their goals, and the idea of fame itself. Woodley goes out of her way to reject the idea of being famous, or generally being liked as Shailene Woodley the person, instead of as a character she plays in a film. Jordan in particular seems quite smart (although this could likely be attributed to the fact that he’s five years older than Woodley). The way he addresses any criticism he receives regarding the idea that the most notable characters he has played so far tend to be social miscreants seems like the perfect way to handle such a question.

“Sometimes people will look at my roles that I’ve played on television and look at stereotypes, like, ‘Oh, you get pigeonholed playing the troubled kid,’ or whatever. It’s a two-part answer to that. One, these are the roles that are available to myself at the moment. Two, when I see an opportunity to take on a role like that and become this person that represents so many real people out there […] But if I give him a different spin, or if I show another side to this character, it might change their point of view on a person or a certain class. So that’s something I like to go for when I play those type of characters.”

Jordan is cognizant of the fact that, as a black actor, he is currently working with fewer options than his white counterparts. He’s constantly reminded of it as well, whenever somebody tries to compare him to another actor; Will Smith and Denzel Washington comparisons run rampant. But Jordan is also aware that he’s talented enough to potentially do more diverse work than young black actors in the past have been able to do. He accepts the go-to comparisons, as they each embody sustained success, but he prefers to add his own additions to the mix. Put simply, anybody loudly voicing their appreciation of Giovanni Ribisi is actively trying to be heard.

“I love Will, I love Denzel, I love Sidney Poitier, I love Forest Whitaker, I love Don Cheadle, I love Anthony Mackie, I love Chiwetel Ejiofor. I love those guys. Why can’t I be Ben Affleck? Or Matt Damon? Or Ryan Gosling? I love those guys too. I look up to their work. Why can’t I be compared to them? Because I don’t look like them? I’m humbled to even be put in that category [of Smith and Washington] because they’re doing it, and they’re the best at what they do. But I have to get other people that think I can be outside the box. I can’t put myself back in that box all the time.”

When a young actor is coming to prominence, comparison points are seemingly a must, and this is not something that only happens with black actors. Woodley has had to deal with it as well. This process happens with everything you are trying to sell somebody on; if you want your friend to see The Kings of Summer, you tell them it’s like a funny Stand By Me without corpses or Kiefer Sutherland. You draft Trent Richardson because you think he could be the next Adrian Peterson. And you like Michael B. Jordan because he could be the next Denzel Washington, or Shailene Woodley because she is Jennifer Lawrence 2.0. These comparisons are always easy, which is why everybody makes them. They are typically correct in some way, but in the best case scenario, they tend to be wrong.

The reason Jordan and Woodley’s careers look so promising is that, at least today, they seem to be actively skewing away from what people want them to be more often than not. Woodley shares Jordan’s affinity for moving in the opposite direction from those who she is readily compared to; she’s quick to mention Melanie Laurent and Mark Ruffalo as the careers she wants to emulate, for reasons that have little to do with Now You See Me. Both Woodley and Jordan are smart, seemingly freethinking individuals who look at their career as something that can be used as a new model for future stars, not just a retread for other young stars who come and go. They want to be Breaking Bad, not Low Winter Sun. Woodley and Jordan appear to be actors that see the predetermined tracks, and at least for now, choose to go another way more often than not. Jordan is actively pursuing projects that give filmgoers minority characters that differ from the norm, and Woodley has surrounded her Divergent calendar with smaller, more interesting parts, all while she hides little as she projects an image of conscious weirdness. When she was asked about her time in Hawaii on set for The Descendants, she responded with:

“I’m a huge outdoor person, so the fact that there is a limitless abundance of oxygen and trees is amazing,” she has told the VC Star. “There’s so many things you can do outdoors on a daily basis, and everything grows there. Kauai is definitely where I will be raising my naked babies picking avocados off trees.”

Woodley wears those finger shoes in public and brags about her mom reading her The Secret aloud, neither of which is the quickest way to being perceived as sane. Her lack of caring about these things is superbly endearing, and her alternative aloofness leads one to consider that perhaps Woody Harrelson is a better comparison point than Lawrence. While the positives of somebody like Woodley being given a platform to talk about herself and her projects constantly are less obvious than those of Jordan, putting a different public image of young womanhood out there is probably not a bad thing. Woodley might be odd, but she’s certainly not damaging.

Jordan and Woodley have been around for long enough that they’re aware of the impact of their words. Jordan’s been getting interviewed since he went to the ‘ship with Keanu Reeves, let alone state with Coach Taylor. A screening of The Spectacular Now is still filled with Secret Life fans, most of whom cared about Shailene Woodley long before people like me clued in. Both Woodley and Jordan have developed styles that are now providing us with great results; each is natural on camera, and they have the ability to project just about any emotion required. Jordan is effortlessly charismatic and egregiously handsome, and Woodley is equally likeable and gorgeous, qualities that will help them each produce interesting, prolonged careers. They’re good enough actors to become both famous and critically appreciated, and they’re smart enough to know how to operate once they get there.

I recognize that I think Jordan and Woodley are great young actors today, all while knowing I might not think that in two years, when they’re (presumably) megastars. I’ve changed my tune on too many actors over the years to be surprised when it happens anymore. My mid-2000s passion for Ryan Gosling has quelled, as have my hopes for Scarlett Johansson, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This happens to everybody eventually; even the impossibly great Al Pacino got tired of his own performances, retreating from himself for the mid-1980s. Actors have certain tricks they rely on, and sometimes those tricks run their course with us, and we get bored. Gosling is still very good in movies like The Place Beyond the Pines, but he’s not surprising anymore; the last time that happened was in Crazy Stupid Love, when it turned out he has some pretty great comic timing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt spent his mid-2000s having one of the better runs for a modern actor, but then people caught on to him, he adopted that weird voice, and generally started behaving like an overly confident star. Jennifer Lawrence’s inability to not grow past her country bumpkin shtick has now become grating, and she’s also proven to not be a particularly good actress consistently. People and actors grow with us, or don’t, and that affects how we react to their career choices. Any of the aforementioned scenarios could happen to Jordan or Woodley; maybe Jordan won’t be able to find the interesting roles he believes are out there, or maybe Woodley’s aversion to research will mean she ends up giving repetitive performances in everything. We simply haven’t gotten the answers yet.

I don’t know which way Jordan and Woodley will go. As with pretty much everybody, I assume they will eventually become boring, or disappointing, and I’ll become fascinated by whoever comes next. But maybe they won’t, and that definitely hasn’t happened yet. They’re still new to us. The hope remains. And that will do for now.

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