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Archetypes and actors, or: what roles could I play?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023


The other day I saw an actor post two headshots on social media with the question:

’What roles could I play?’.


One of the responses was:

Really? You’re an actor … Don’t limit yourself. You should be able to play anything’.


This was me when I was younger, for sure. In a way, I’m still that person. A lifelong pursuit of mine is to be able to have the biggest possible range, I want to be able to do everything.


And yet, today, I’m a bit suspicious about this comment. It has a kind of utopian unawareness about it, and it seems at odds with the reality of our industry.


I want to understand archetypes on a slightly more complex and useful level.

Where do they come from and what might it mean for actors auditioning and working in film and television? How useful is the concept and how might we integrate it into our work?


Where does ‘archetype’ come from?






The word ‘archetype’ has it’s origins in the Proto-Indo-European language, which means it’s old. The Proto-Indo-Europeans are a hypothetical prehistorical group in Eurasia, who’s language is believed to be the ancestor language to: Germanic, Gallic, Italic, Balto-Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Albanian, Armenian, Hellenic, Anatolian and more.


Other than being mind blowing, this mean the origin of an ‘archetype’ is embedded in several many cultures, and also likely in cultures outside modern Europe, Asian and the 'Middle East'.


The original meaning is believed to be ‘to push’ or ‘to stick’, moving through ‘strike’, ‘press’, ‘sort’, ‘command’, ‘rule’ before getting to the ancient Greeks and journeying through ‘to lead’, ‘to begin’, ‘beginning’, ‘origin’, ‘mould’, ‘pattern’ and arriving at ‘first-molded’.


Plato believed archetypes are absolute essences that transcend the empirical world yet give the world its form and meaning. They are timeless universals that serve as the fundamental reality informing every concrete particular.


I find the definition of archetype as ‘pattern’ really interesting.


That there may be universal patterns of energy that we are able to recognise in a person. What I like about this concept, as a history nerd, is that it doesn’t presume this moment in time is isolated from the past. That our experiences in 2023 are not entirely new, that they have grown from many years of our evolutionary history.


I think this is why I get suspicious of, ’You’re an actor … Don’t limit yourself’.


Technology might have changed, we might have Netflix, YouTube and TikTok… but maybe we have an ongoing connection to the actors of our past, who embodied universal patterns of energy.


Maybe, just maybe, there’s something prehistoric that guides the way in which we perceive each other. In all our individuality; our personality, politics and appearance, when you hit record on a self-tape, maybe you transmit certain patterns that others humans are able to read and respond to unconsciously.


Alright, come through history channel...



What’s the modern

understanding of Archetype?


The modern understanding of archetype can be attributed to the twentieth century psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, who built upon the ideas set forth by Plato.

Jung believed in something called a collective unconscious, where every person in the world is connected by an understanding of patterns, symbols, tendencies, and situations. These patterns, symbols, tendencies, and situations are archetypes.


The collective unconscious is considered to be universal for all humans, it connects us as a species.


I understand the idea of universality can become problematic as it can be weaponised to erase differences in a culture.


I’m famously not an anthropologist, however (lol), I wonder if there may be some collective archetypes - or patterns - that shimmer in the unconscious minds of a great many culture, though not necessarily all.


Shakespeare?


Love it or hate it, Shakespeare has been translated into over one hundred languages. There have been over seventy five productions of Hamlet in languages other than English since 1960. In Shakespeare and World Cinema, Mark Thornton Burnett identifies over 70 films in languages other than English that were inspired by Shakespeare's plays. Many directors have adapted the story to their own countries unique cultural and linguistic contexts, giving us some of cinema’s most iconic films, such as Ran by Akira Kurosawa.


Maybe part of the enduring legacy of Shakespeare surrounds his ability to tap into archetypes that transcend the everyday to reveal something subterranean and unconscious about human experience.

Just putting it out there.


I can look at an actor, as I’m sure you can, and go: yep, an Ophelia. A Macbeth. A Brutus, an Othello, a Beatrice.


Why is that? What is driving us to make those judgments?


I'd offer that the archetypal qualities in Shakespeare's characters are often so powerful and primary, that we can readily understand them and align them with an actor or person's own natural facilities.


Even my partner's father, one boozy night, said to Philip: 'you'd be an Iago... wouldn't you?' ... before turning to me, pausing and saying: 'Hamlet for you'. We had a laugh but that's good casting (He's a GP by the way, not in the arts). He took Philip's high intelligence and... cheekiness... and my emotional sensitivity and transposed it onto the characters he knew.


I believe we may unconsciously (or consciously if you know what's up) use Jung’s work - assessing someone’s Sensing, Intuiting, Thinking and Feeling and transposing it onto characters which radiate with these fundamental energies.


Jung went on to define four major archetypes: the persona, the shadow, the anima / animus and the self.


He also defined, most usefully for us, twelve character archetypes under the umbrella of the unconscious: Ruler, Creator/Artist, Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Rebel, Hero, Wizard, Jester, Everyman, Lover and Caregiver.



These can be really useful concepts for understanding archetype as they often show up tangibly in stories. There has been a great deal of work done in understanding how these archetypes relate to the creation of screenplays.


Okay hold up.


If these archetypes are unconscious, primordial patterns of energy, it shouldn’t matter what someone looks like right…

Right?


How does this all relate to my physical appearance?


This is the hard part for me to stomach.


Remember I’m that dude who wants to frolic though the experience of playing all types of characters, the last thing I want to admit is that the way I look is going to impact the types of opportunities I get.


But this is not an article about talent, or skill, or ability.


It’s about typecasting, and whether that may be useful for the actor to embrace.


It’s well documented across many scientific studies that humans instinctively process someone’s physical appearance and make assumptions in mere milliseconds.

According to a psychological study at the University of Milano, our perceptual and neural systems have evolved to extract useful information from faces and moving bodies of other humans.

Tony Evans explains that there are three major factors humans assess in a face: morality, competence, and sociability. Morality being the most vital, as our priority is to understand if someone will harm or help us.

What was once a survival mechanism is now related to your self-tape for a new Disney+ series. If it doesn't get scrapped at the end of production (I can't...).


In a study of male ice-hockey players at Brock University, researchers found that a wider face in which the cheekbone-to-cheekbone distance was unusually large relative to the distance between brow and upper lip was linked in a statistically significant way with the number of penalty minutes a player was given for violent acts including slashing, elbowing and fighting.


They also found a link between the facial width-to-height ratio and the male sex hormone testosterone, men with wider faces have higher testosterone concentrations in their saliva… which begs the question: has evolution taught us to judge men with wider faces as more aggressive?


Conversely, baby-faced men are, on first impression, linked to submissiveness and naivety. Though a baby-faced man may possess none of these qualities, an observer is likely to respond as if they do.



Even if someone doesn't possess certain qualities, the observer responds to their face as if they do.


Getting interesting for us actors now.


Nikolaas Oosterhof recently put forward a theory which he says explains our snap judgements of faces in terms of how threatening they appear. He asked people for their gut reactions to pictures of emotionally neutral faces, sifted through all the responses, and boiled them down to two underlying factors: how trustworthy the face looks, and how dominant. They then worked out exactly which aspects of facial appearance were associated with looking trustworthy, untrustworthy, dominant or submissive.


I was sceptical of this study, though when I looked at the computer generated faces, I could absolutely see that I’m making very quick and definitive judgements about those faces.


You can view the image and description here: https://boingboing.net/2009/02/13/research-on-snap-jud.html




It would appear that the age-old adage never judge a book by its cover may not be entirely useful.


Of course people get cast against type. Of course we all want to see more and more interesting choices being made, and they are being made.


But we can’t ignore that in the visual world of film and television, our face is doing some of the storytelling before we’ve done anything consciously.

And this I believe is the greatest challenge to actors:


What do you do if the way you are perceived is vastly different to the way you believe you are? What if the outer and inner are not in alignment?


where to from here then?


George Konstand at Brandology Co offers workshops and one-on-one sessions where he distills your type from his experience in marketing. His thesis, and it’s a solid one, is that if you play to your type, if you filter the character through your type, you’ll be marketing yourself in a much more successful way.

According to him, my type is the Everyman.


Let’s check the receipts to see if the ‘everyman’ is the role I’m most being seen for.


I record all my auditions in an excel file.


The most valuable resource to me are casting directors. They see more actors than anyone else, and through their work, will have developed an incisive ability to synthesise an actor with the character.

I value their judgments as highly useful.


I document all necessary information in the excel file, including the character type according to Yat Malmgren’s Character Analysis.

If you don’t know this work, there are three main character types: Adream, Near and Stable. Think Timothee Chalamet, Sam Rockwell and Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady for general references of these types.


In 2022, a mere 7.5% of my film and television auditions (not including TVCs) were for the character type that I most closely resemble, which is called radiating Adream.


Another 7.5% were for the character type of Stable.

A whopping 85% of my auditions were for Near characters. They were cops, party boys, tradies, nice guys and simple boyfriend types. Only one of them a lead, the rest supporting.

These roles could definitely, more or less, be defined as the Everyman.


George seems to be on the money thus far.



The issue for me, as I mentioned earlier, is my outward appearance doesn't necessarily match my habitual inner mechanisms as a person and an actor.

I’m closer to the Adream quality of Timothee Chalamet... though it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be auditioning for these type of roles as my face doesn't broadcast those same signifiers.


It appears my physical appearance is a stronger determining factor for what my type is, rather than my natural facility as an actor, or essence as a person.


So what you going to do about it, Ball?


Using this information I’ve been able to go further and distill, to the best of my abilities, my type as it currently stands on screen.


My Adream quality as an actor has a time-stress, which means I’m intuitive. Processing ideas and using logic is a weak point for me, intuition is much better. This time-stress or Intuiting combines with my face and it’s physical signifiers to create the type; circumscribing Near.


Now this is not my natural go to as an actor, it's not a baseline for me as a person, however...

It’s the meeting point of what I can play really well and how I’m perceived physically.



And get this...


Every single role (in film and tv) I’ve been called back for, put on hold for or booked falls under the character type of Near, and 90% of those are this particular version of Near, which is called circumscribing.

It’s the main character type that comes up continually for me, and now whenever I see it in a brief, I think… thank you baby Jesus.

Circumscribing Near can sprawl across many archetypes and ideas: it can certainly encompass the Everyman, along with the Joker and all its contemporary equivalents.




The type is defined by a character who is extremely intuitive, in fact, they make all of their decisions seperate from their thoughts and feelings, and they can come across us incredibly impulsive, beautifully simple, sometimes earnest and often very funny. It’s mostly employed in supporting or comedic roles, thought not always, and the master of this character type is undoubtably Sam Rockwell.


My friend and wonderful human / actor Brandon Scane's baseline is this character type, which you could see beautifully demonstrated in his performances in The Italians and more recently, Saturday Girls at Belvoir 25a.



Brandon Scene in The Italians. Photo credit: Katherine Griffiths



This might sound very complex, and maybe it is. Maybe thinking about type requires more rigour than ‘you could play a lead… or the boy next door… or a vampire…’.


And maybe, you don’t have to think about it - maybe you’re swimming in auditions and work because everything is aligning beautifully. If that’s the case, don’t mess with what’s not broke!

But for those of us who need to consider type more in-depth; let’s do it with a gentle rigour and a compassion. Let’s try solve the puzzle without defence mechanisms; without condemning those we perceive to have it easier.

It is my hope that one day I’m afforded the opportunity to employ the vastness of my range as an actor, I want to do it all.


In the interim, maybe we can shift our mindset, maybe we can see type as a prehistoric pattern of energy that we all possess. As an asset in service of the ancient lineage of telling stories.


Go on the journey, even if it makes you feel vulnerable. Become curious about your qualities - physically and energetically. Find a way to understand your own type and your unique offering to this art form.


Or be mad about it. Your call.



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