The Anatomy of an Action Star

Action movies have turned into big business in Hollywood. Your summer movie “tent poles” nine times out of ten will have some sort of action element in them. They are spending upwards of 250 million a piece on production of these movies alone, not counting the 100 million that they are spending on marketing the same movies. Of course, if you want these movies to do well, that means you have to draw a lot of people to the box office. There are two ways to do this, have a concept everyone already knows and loves and fill that concept with super talented people and/or have a big name action star that people already know and love and hope the star will draw the people. Now, with so many big movies coming out at the same time, there is often only so much money to go around. So, that, at least now, if there is a critical financial ‘flop’ at the box office, there isn’t so much of a cushion to an actor or actresses career. A few financial ‘flops’ in a row turns what could be a rising star packing back where they came from.

It didn’t used to be this way. The action film genre was considered a solid “B” genre and got the low budgets to match its less then patrician origins. If a film ‘flopped’ in the “good old days” it was more than likely the actor (because female action stars were even rarer back then, hey Sigourney Weaver) would just shrug and move on to make another “B” movie. Some of the most ridiculous premises got two or three or more sequels. Whether it was the time or just pure luck, there was a pack, much like the Rat Pack, of action stars that people wanted to see more of over and over and over again, no matter what the premise was and others just, as they say, couldn’t “cut the mustard.”

No matter what era of Hollywood you’re in, there are just some actors and actresses that are put into an action movie that can carry it, while others just can’t. There is more to an action role than the ability to throw a punch or shoot a gun (or in some cases drive really, really fast). And while some actors who may not be able to throw a punch or shoot a gun can still pull off the swashbuckling end of things and swing a sword. Say what you like about Nicholas Cage, he tends to not be very believable in an action role. It says something that the most believable he gets is when he’s CGIed into a skeleton with a flaming skull. Because at that point we’re not watching Nicholas Cage, we’re watching a skeleton with a flaming skull! And as much as people liked Chris Pine as the young and the restless alternative universe James T. Kirk, they weren’t quite so ready to watch him Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Kit Harrington has a good following for his role on Game of Thrones, but that didn’t bring any better numbers for Pompeii. Whereas Jason Statham four years after his acting debut managed to carry The Transporter. After a short role in 1998 in Saving Private Ryan, in 2000 Boiler Room and Pitch Black proved he could act and in 2001, Vin Diesel had The Fast and The Furious on his resume.

So what makes some actors successful in the genre and others not. What makes audiences believe in some actors over others? Because there has to be a certain amount of authenticity for the actor to be able to carry the role. Sometimes, this takes more than one movie for the actor to reach that stage. For instance, Karl Urban wasn’t at all believable as an action hero in DOOM. By the time he hit Dredd, he was more authentic and the audience was willing to believe. Something had changed between DOOM and Dredd within Karl Urban and his abilities in acting.

Well, first off, if one wants to be an action star, one needs to look the part. Male or female, they need to have some sort of muscle to make the audience believe that that guy/girl can throw a punch or shoot a gun or swing a sword or whatever is needed and it’s actually going to hurt. Whether they’re body builders (Arnold Schwarzenegger), wrestlers (Dwayne Johnson) or martial artists (Jean Claude Van Damme, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan et al) or even bouncers (Vin Diesel), they need to have the bulk or we just don’t believe it (Nicholas Cage.) Women have it harder. Most women when they are chosen for an action role, start training for that role on set. Most of them don’t know anything about fighting before they start (Michelle Rodriguez, believe it or not). Gal Gadot is a rare case of a woman who actually served in the military (Israeli). She gets a lot of flak for it. There are a few actresses who are trying to make names for themselves coming out of the MMA circuit (Gina Carano, Ronda Rousey). These are exceptions and not the rule. Because there are fewer females in action roles, it feels that they have to work harder to be taken seriously in those roles.

Which leads to the next bit, training. Whether they’re street brawling or shooting a gun or swinging a sword, it needs to look to the average audience like they know what they’re doing. Even if the average audience is absolutely ignorant about what it is supposed to look like. (Fencing fanatics can be some of the most snobbish about this. Watching a modern fencing match is boring, I’ll stick to the movie version.) Different films go with different directions for this. Keanu Reeves had it easy in the Matrix. In the beginning, of course we didn’t believe that Neo was to be the one. But he got plugged into a computer and they downloaded kung fu into his brain, and there, on screen we saw the Neo character become a ‘trained’ fighter. Now, of course, we believe that he can kick ass and take names because he’s all out of bubblegum. Other movies start with ‘dump them into a training ground/fight’ approach, putting the character directly into the action within five minutes of the movie so that the audience can see for themselves that this actor has mad skills. In the Matrix, Trinity gets this treatment. Angelina Jolie does this in Tomb Raider. Daniel Craig gets to use this approach in Casino Royale. Other movies take the reputation approach, the fact that the actor has been in so many other movies and they had some sort of action sequence in them so of course they know how to fight or the actor has come from a background with martial arts in it, so this movie will have them displaying those skills. The reputation factor can be the biggest gamble, even with established action stars. Sometimes it’s just not enough to say “oh, he’s got so many belts, trophies or studies ju jitsu.” Because you can have these things and still not be believable in the role. This is where DOOM failed Karl Urban. He’d been in a few action movies before this, but they hadn’t been in fighting roles. He just wasn’t prepared to be alongside/up against the Rock. He didn’t have the training and that insecurity showed in the film.

A big part of it is ‘the stare.’ When an actor or actress looks their foe in the eye and says something witty or ominous and the audience gets the belief that this person actually means what they’re saying and that the foe better watch out because they’re about to get their buttocks beaten. When Liam Neeson looks you in the eye and says he’s coming for you, well, I for one am going to believe him. My favorite example of this is Nathan Fillion in Firefly, where he’s sitting in a wagon in a dress with a bonnet on and he looks the other guy in the eye and goes “I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.” This is mighty impressive, not only given he’s in a dress and bonnet, but at the time he’s sitting next to Adam Baldwin, the only guy on set who had enough action movie experience he never flinched when firing the guns. (Watch that sequence where they invade Niska’s base to rescue Mal. Adam Baldwin doesn’t flinch, ever. It’s uncanny.) There is a certain hardness to characters who are willing to mete out violence in the name of a just cause (and sometimes unjust cause.) Not every actor, like not every person, has the ability to look another person in the eyes without flinching or turning away. Not every person can convey that force with a look alone.

Now part of this is hugely charisma. Actors who end up in action roles that are successful often have a huge sense of presence about them. They have to in order to stand out from the rest of the cast. That’s just part of being a lead actor or actress. Charisma is what attracts people to others. Charm, glamour, whatever you want to call it, it is the stuff that makes certain people leaders and certain people followers. (And people like me who are ‘stay out of the wayers, thank you.’ Meaning, I’m not a leader. I’m not a follower. I’m over here doing my own thing. If you like it, good. If you don’t, oh well.) Part of the ability to be a leading actor or actress, beyond picking the right roles and luck, is this ability to attract an audience. It’s the ability to be likeable or at least pretend to be likeable. There are some actors and actresses that people will follow their movies no matter what type of drek they’re in, just because there is something about that actor that attracts them physically, mentally or emotionally.

Because connecting emotionally with the audience is a huge deal. If an actor or actress doesn’t have the ability to emote before the camera, they just aren’t doing their job. If I want to see a puppet on strings in a movie, I’ll just go see a puppet on strings. In fact, there are muppets who emote more than some actors and actresses. Even and actor or actress in the most stoic of roles, needs at some point make the audience laugh or “cry.” They need to elicit an emotional response of some sort so that the audience can connect to the character and sympathize with them. It doesn’t matter if they’re the good guy or the bad guy. They need to make us amused or angry or feel angst. When they stand there like an artist mannequin and say their lines by rote, they missed that part of the acting memo. Sylvester Stallone doesn’t always come off as all that smart, but he can make an audience feel something. John Travolta may be all over the map but he connects with the audience somewhere among the crazy shit. Nicholas Cage over emotes, but hey, at least he emotes.

Of course, there is a huge bunch of things that any actor or actress has absolutely no control over. There’s luck and timing. There are scripts that don’t suck and executives not screwing you over. Actors and Actresses don’t control release dates (authors got one up on them there) or marketing campaigns. And things out of their control can affect their careers as much as things in their control.

Physicality, fight training, and acting are all abilities that can be honed and perfected. ‘The stare’ and charisma are sometimes things that people are born with. In my opinion, being successful at all these things and the ability to bring them together at the right time and with the right project, are keys to the success of those who want to be an action movie star (or just a movie star.)

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