Versatile Actors?

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While reading a recent TNOs column on Janet Jackson’s contribution to a horrible movie (not that I’ve seen it), tnocs.com Contributing Author Pauly Steyreen suggested we discuss actors who play the same role in every movie, and offered Bruce Willis as a prime example.

But what if we went the other way?

One of the greatest conversations I had while hanging out at my favorite dive bar in Philadelphia was on this topic.

And I thought I’d pass it along to the collective.  Who is the most VERSATILE actor we have TODAY?  

Criteria:

When we had this conversation amongst the suds of Yuengling:

Ben Kingsley was in the conversation.

I mean, his filmography includes Gandhi, and he was a god as Don Logan in Sexy Beast. Comedy? He was amazing in the criminally underrated Without a Clue, among others. 

And accents? He has them all in his bag of tricks, including a subdued American in Searching for Bobby Fisher, one of my favorite movies of all-time. 

But I haven’t seen much of Kingsley’s later works. Is he still worthy of the discussion?

What about Meryl Streep? 

The Academy loves her: having been nominated for 21 awards. And so do I.  She gets accolades for her dramas (Sophie’s Choice, Kramer vs Kramer), but solid in Death Becomes Her and Mamma Mia! Accents? Has everyone seen her as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady?

Sidebar

Americans have a reputation for not doing foreign accents well, maybe because of whatever Kevin Costner was doing in Robin Hood, but Meryl Streep (and Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones) seem to have done it right.

My final choice that evening was Gary Oldman. 

He has ALL the accents: a Russian in Air Force One, corrupt New York City cop in The Professional, and a variety of English ones throughout his career. In fact, my wife was shocked to learn he was not American (joining Hugh Laurie and Jason Isaacs in that regard). 

Comedy? He was in Friends, for god’s sake!

It’s 2022. You’re an executive producer.

You have three movies in development: a musical, comedy and drama; the main character in each unlike the other two.

But you want to pick ONE actor for all three.

Who’s your go-to?

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Phylum of Alexandria
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September 6, 2022 7:46 am

Gary Numan is a real chameleon. I love how muted he chose to play Commissioner Gordon for the recent Batman movies. Contrast that with how flamboyantly he played Count Dracula (though his accent there was a bit…supernatural).

Meryl Streep is absolutely incredible; one of the few actors where I feel privileged to see them work their magic.

Another such figure is Emma Thompson. Both of them can play a range of serious dramatic roles, do different accents, can be utterly hilarious, and both can sing too! They both stole their respective shows, in Sondheim musicals, no less.

The HBO series production of Angels in America really shows off Streep and Thompson’s versatility, as they both play a number of very different characters throughout the story.

Last edited 21 days ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Phylum of Alexandria
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September 6, 2022 9:45 am
Reply to  thegue

Lol, I guess in my own journey toward old-man, I am confusing new and old.

Who’s to say that Gary Numan wasn’t just Gary Oldman in costume all along…

Pauly Steyreen
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September 6, 2022 9:49 am

… and the Old shall be made Nu again…

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 1:28 pm

You don’t know how badly I wanted this to be true.

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 1:55 pm
Reply to  thegue

Just wanted to say that I love Searching for Bobby Fischer with every fiber of my being. I like the part of the film when the Ben Kingsley character turns into Terrence Fletcher. Speed chess is not his tempo. Before he goes to his grave, he can say that he tried to give the chess world another Bobby Fischer. Whiplash is Searching for Charlie Parker. Hoosiers makes me tear up. “Your kid moves pieces in combination to attack, lady,” gets to me. I think of Samuel L. Jackson’s character as Nolan Richardson. Searching for Bobby Fischer doesn’t get credit as being a great, perhaps, the greatest sports movie of all-time. I bought the book at a time when I didn’t read all that much.

cstolliver
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September 6, 2022 4:47 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

Hoosiers features another actor in this category, Gene Hackman. He played for camp (fairly successfully) in Superman and to a certain degree The Poseidon Adventure, but was better known for his dramatic roles.

Also, the late Robin Williams was amazing at drama as well as comedy. What a gifted man, and what a loss.

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 5:31 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

Gene Hackman is famously difficult to work with. I like how Wes Anderson wrote it into the script. It’s a great line. I like movies based on comic books that don’t aspire to high art. Joker and the new Batman depressed the heck out of me. Love the original Superman.

The Fisher King. It still shocks me. I am patiently awaiting for Criterion to rehabilitate Popeye.

Pauly Steyreen
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September 6, 2022 10:41 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

What did you think about Fresh? The other chess movie that came out around the same time as Searching for Bobby Fisher (and also features Samuel L. Jackson)?

https://youtu.be/a_9hTnNErbo

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 11:56 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

Chess was used as a metaphor. There was no competition. The game was to stay alive. He had to outsmart people in order to keep playing. Was his dog female? If the dog was a she, her fate makes sense, because that could be interpreted as a chess move, the same move Josh is encouraged to unlearn by the Ben Kingsley character in SFBF. I remember that his best friend wanted his life to be like a gangsta rap video. “Fresh” mostly had the same expression throughout the whole film, so when he cries, silently, you’re startled. So short answer, I liked it.

One thing that Kurt Anderson gets wrong in one of his books is that some rap artists are not playacting; they really do live the life they’re writing about.

mt58
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September 6, 2022 10:38 am

I particularly loved the theme song in his epic film:

gary.png
cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 1:31 pm
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Gary: The Principle.

Aaron3000
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September 6, 2022 12:24 pm

Agreed on Gary *Oldman* being a chameleon. He’s one of the very few (maybe only) prolific actors who l often have a hard time identifying if I go into a movie without having seen the cast list first.

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 1:38 pm
Reply to  Aaron3000

Agree with your “agreed”. I’ve watched Sid and Nancy so many times, I just googled right now the late Sid Vicious to remind myself as to what he looks like. Gary Oldman also replaced Lee Harvey Oswald.

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 8:57 am

This isn’t my final answer. Tracy Ullman, in my opinion, has the same unlimited range and mastery of accents as Meryl Streep, and would have been an interesting choice for the role of Francesca in The Bridges of Madison County. Ullman played an Italian-American in Nancy Savoca’s Household Saints, so when the film was announced, I immediately thought of her.

“Metal” should have been released as a stand-alone single instead of being the B-side to “Cars”.

Virgindog
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September 6, 2022 9:16 am

I first became aware of Sam Rockwell in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, where he played the two-headed president of the universe, Zaphod Beeblebrox. While many of his characters are similarly manic, they’re all over the map. He played the German soldier in Jojo Rabbit, Chuck Barris in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, and the investigator in Frost/Nixon. I think the reason I didn’t notice him before Hitchhiker’s is that he disappears into the role and doesn’t call attention to himself.

Virgindog
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September 6, 2022 3:32 pm
Reply to  thegue

I haven’t seen it but it’s on my list.

Pauly Steyreen
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September 6, 2022 10:44 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Moon is awesome. Bucket list level. See it, dog!

Pauly Steyreen
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September 6, 2022 9:57 am

Thegue, didn’t you call me out for saying Bruce Willis plays two types, so he was a bad example? (Wisecracking asshole and stoic action hero.) Lol!!! Maybe he was a bad choice — should we call devote the no variation actor to O.J. Simpson instead? (I guess he only played Nordberg in the Naked Gun movies, so maybe not enough data points. )

I immediately thought of one of my all-time favorites: Toni Collette.

She’s an Aussie whose American accent is just about flawless when she wants to turn it on. And she has soooo much range: from Muriel’s Wedding to About a Boy to Hereditary to Little Miss Sunshine, she has left her mark on every kind of role, never missing a beat or lacking the spark the role requires.

She’s definitely in the conversation for my favorite actor of all time.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 6, 2022 10:11 am
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I think Bruce Willis has some range, certainly not the worst of the typecast bunch. He was great as the spineless cad husband in Death Becomes Her, as the sweet-tough fighter in Pulp Fiction, the man trying to hold onto his sanity in 12 Monkeys, and the rich d-bag in Four Rooms.

I thought of Toni Collette as well, I just haven’t seen enough of her films to judge her on, for instance, her handle on comedic roles. But man, she really is fantastic.

cappiethedog
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September 6, 2022 2:05 pm
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Toni Collette is an all-timer. Somebody on the mothership called Little Miss Sunshine the best movie ever. I deleted a 200-word response. It always jolts me when I hear Collette’s real voice. She is an American mom. Collette is also amazing in The Sixth Sense. Generous actor. She allows Haley Joel Osment to shine, especially in the car scene. That’s how you should look when your son tells you that he sees dead people.

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September 6, 2022 4:19 pm
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Ohhh, good call on Toni Collette.

Your mention of Toni reminded me of Kate Winslet since they’ve been the only 2 female actors who totally convinced me they GOT the Philly accent.

Kate Winslet is an excellent chameleon too.

Last edited 20 days ago by dutchg8r
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September 6, 2022 5:02 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

OJ was also in Capricorn One playing, well I guess he was just playing OJ as an astronaut.

Pauly Steyreen
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September 6, 2022 10:45 pm
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The exception that proves the rule. Lol!

He also played an innocent person — very badly — in his very public murder trial.

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September 6, 2022 10:21 am

Oldman and Rockwell are two great picks and Streep reigns as an actress.
I’m going to nominate two of my favorites.
Hugh Jackman and Amy Adams are extremely versatile and can easily slip into a drama, a comedy or a musical without missing a beat!

mt58
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September 6, 2022 10:21 am

I certainly like watching movies and appreciate the craft of film, but as a critic, I’m not feeling qualified to answer this question. I have to think on this for a bit.

That said, my litmus test for a great performance is when I find myself thinking after watching someone in a role: “Wow, I didn’t once think of them as {insert another role, or their real-life persona}.

Recent example: Having heard about its critical acclaim, I coughed up the money to binge and stream the series Better Call Saul. In the final few episodes, a dramatic character was introduced. This person is famously known for their television sketch comedy work from the 60s and 70s.

But the performance was excellent, and not once did I think that it was anything but real.

Just for fun: I’ll not reveal, in case anyone is considering watching the show.

mt58
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September 6, 2022 10:41 am
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Thanks so much for the fun article, friend thegue. I’m so glad we had this time together.

Last edited 21 days ago by mt58
Phylum of Alexandria
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September 6, 2022 11:05 am
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Totally agree on The Wire, and on Breaking Bad as well. BB was mostly great, but I was disappointed with the finish.

I have only watched the first few seasons of Better Call Saul, but I liked it quite a bit. I will have to check it out now that it’s finished.

JJ Live At Leeds
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September 6, 2022 12:41 pm
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Totally with you as well on The Wire. Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul are outstanding too. Not sure I can call which one is better. Agree on the endings but I think BCS needed BB to set it up and introduce us to Saul with the prior knowledge of what he’ll become to work so well.

JJ Live At Leeds
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September 6, 2022 12:33 pm

The point about accents works both ways. It always gets highlighted (and mocked) here whenever an American actor plays a Brit and the accent goes awry but there’s plenty good ones too as you point out. And I’m sure there’s plenty of Brits that have done terrible accents playing American. Though the king of accent work has to be Sean Connery. Nevermind the nationality or accent required, just plough on regardless playing them as Scottish.

Not an A-lister but for versatility I give you Michael Sheen. Perhaps better known own here but he does TV, film and theatre in both sides of the pond. He’s Welsh but has played a number of real life Englishmen; Tony Blair, Brian Clough, David Frost and Kenneth Williams all with wildly different personalities and accents. He’s been Hamlet on stage, does comedy and drama. During lockdown he and his friend David Tennant played themselves in two very funny series of Staged, filmed primarily via video-conferencing. Plus he’s a good guy, does a lot of charitable work and roles within the community in Wales.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 6, 2022 1:21 pm

Well, speaking of The Wire, Dominic West’s accent as McNulty was a bit off.

Idris Elba fared much better. He didn’t sound like a Baltimore native but hey, neither did Method Man.

Irish actor Aiden Gillen was good as well, give or take an odd syllable or two.

blu_cheez
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September 6, 2022 3:33 pm

I have no idea if Tatiana Maslany can sing, but, her.

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September 6, 2022 7:23 pm
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I like Orphan Black better than Westworld. It gave me an idea about what a David Cronenberg-created show would look like.

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September 6, 2022 4:14 pm

Gary Oldman for sure is always one of my top choices for most versatile actor these days. Sid & Nancy, Fifth Element, The Professional, and the Dark Knight Trilogy as Gordon, he is all over the place with his roles, and he nails every one. However, he hasn’t quite done a legit lol funny movie (Fifth Element doesn’t count!), which is where Ben Kingsley has him beat, having been The Mandarin (aka Trevor Slattery) in the Marvel Universe.

Ryan Reynolds has managed to move beyond just ‘funny guy’ to be like our present day Robin Williams.

My vote though goes to Hugh Jackman. He’s been Wolverine, and he’s been Peter Allen. I don’t know if any further extremes can exist on the acting spectrum. And he’s funny!

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September 6, 2022 4:25 pm
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Oh, almost forgot Cate Blanchett!!! She’s my vote for most versatile actress because she handles comedy much more deftly than Meryl Streep or Kate Winslet. I believe it from Cate; Meryl and Kate doing funny seems too forced if they do it at all.

Pauly Steyreen
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September 6, 2022 4:42 pm
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Just rewatched The Gift over the weekend (the 2000 movie, not the 2015 movie). Cate Blanchett’s Southern accent was very plausible, and her performance overall was amazing!

Kind of an underrated movie from Sam Raimi.

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September 6, 2022 7:36 pm
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Yes! Unfortunately, The Gift is best known for a screen capture.

Phylum of Alexandria
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September 6, 2022 5:56 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

Cate Blanchett is another Great, for sure.

But Meryl Streep can be damn funny! Death Becomes Her, Into the Woods, and the final part of Adaptation all showcase her goofier side.

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September 6, 2022 6:05 pm

Anyone who can believably capture pathos singing “The Winner Takes It All” in a camp musical deserves all the honors Ms. Streep gets.

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September 6, 2022 8:22 pm
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She also somehow never seems to age… My friend was saying Cate probably could’ve pulled off playing young Galadriel in the new Lord of the Rings prequel series (without any CGI help).

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September 6, 2022 7:33 pm
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I’ve seen prestige actors in films based on comic books. Ben Kingsley is the only one who seems to be having fun. It was kinda painful for me to see Nicole Kidman kicking Atlantis butt in Aquaman.

Somebody involved with Adventureland was a Connells fan. Ryan Reynolds plays Mike Connell.

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September 6, 2022 4:16 pm

Like , I feel ill-prepared to answer your question.

But I will say that “Searching For Bobby Fischer” is a huge favorite of mine. My eyes get all teary everytime Joe Montegna tells off the kid’s teacher.

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September 6, 2022 4:56 pm

In terms of TV, I thought Michael Boatman worked equally well as a dramatic actor (“China Beach’) and a comedic one (“Spin City”). Tom Hanks has already been mentioned, I believe, and anyone who saw “Ordinary People” would know how chilling the late Mary Tyler Moore could be when cast in a role unlike that of Mary Richards or Laura Petrie.

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September 6, 2022 5:18 pm

You mentioned Hugh Laurie’s accent abilities. I think he is a perfect candidate for this category. From the lovable doofus in “Jeeves and Wooster” to the irascible Dr. House on “House” to the bone-chilling yet utterly casual evil he projected on “The Night Manager”, there just doesn’t seem to be anything that he can’t do.

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September 6, 2022 8:04 pm

I remember mentioning Hugh over at the mothership during some thread, that my first intro to him was the Blackadder series with Rowan Atkinson. I’m sure many are used to him being all dramatic and are surprised with his comedy, but I STILL haven’t gotten used to him being in dramatic roles. He’s just so damn great at daffy Black Adder parts! His Prince George is comedic gold.

Last edited 20 days ago by dutchg8r
lovethisconcept
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September 6, 2022 8:22 pm
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My introduction to Hugh Laurie was Jeeves and Wooster. Laughed myself sick. Would never have foreseen “The Night Manager” as a possibility.

lovethisconcept
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September 6, 2022 8:27 pm

Having brought up “The Night Manager”, I realize that Tom Hiddleston is a good example of the actor who can play damn near anything. From Loki to Henry V, all of it excellent. His three play arc was the best part of “The Hollow Crown”, which was itself my probably my all-time favorite Shakespeare presentation.

Edith G
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September 7, 2022 1:08 pm

All of your choices were good, you can’t go wrong with Gary and Meryl. Daniel Day-Lewis is retired by now, and I didn’t watch “Nine”, so I don’t know if he’s good for musicals.

I could add Anne Hathaway and maybe Sandra Bullock, but I don’t know if the latter is good at singing and doing accents.

cappiethedog
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September 7, 2022 4:38 pm

My final answer is Adam Sandler, thegue.

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