Recognize any of these guys?
Do I know these guys? I would have known the first two faces, then I would have snapped my fingers, hit my head a few times, trying to remember the first guy’s name — ultimately to surrender and ask one of my kids. The second guy I would have recognized immediately for his role in Mad Men, but I wouldn’t have the slighest idea what his name might be. If IMDB is to be believed, the third guy is the #3 hottest actor in the world, but I wouldn’t have recognized his face or his name.
Personally, I haven’t really ever been good with names, and connecting them to faces, even with people, very, very close to me. (It’s a little embarrassing.) Years ago, at the premiere of a movie called The Killing Fields, I was standing outside after the show and I saw a guy on the sidewalk who looked incredibly familiar. I was this close to walking up to him with the question, “you don’t happen to know my parents, do you? Ray and Bea Riley?” Before I said anything, turning crimson, I suddenly realized it was Paul Newman.
Every small project is advised to secure “a name.” In fact, most projects don’t start until the name is secured. It could be the most dramatic story in the world, but until “the name” is found, the story remains about as well known as an old email.
I suppose the benign way of looking at this is to compare it to sourdough. You need a starter. You need someone else’s credibility, or audience, to build your own, to make names of the new cast members, and the new franchise. I guess it helps on every front. Young up-and-coming actors are excited to perform opposite the big star. Investors like a known quantity. All of the production team ups their game to impress the mega-talent. Sales people have someone to talk about. If the project works, the “name” value of everyone associated with it goes up as well. The sourdough keeps working and you keep baking bread.
But I just checked the price of a sourdough starter and you can get one mail order for $9.95. I can’t even imagine what one of those guys up top would cost, even for a half day.
I resent the system for a few reasons. In the first place, I really do believe story is far more important than actors. It is true that great actors bring words alive, and you can’t tell the story without them, but there are literally thousands and thousands of great actors out there, a lot of whom are actually better than the ones who, by chance or pedigree, have risen to the top. (Does anyone really believe Leonardo Di Caprio was right for his role in Titanic? My word, he made Kate Winslett look like his wet nurse.) If we really believe “it’s all story,” this “get-a-name” refrain starts to seem like a crutch. It really is the story, but get Jack Nicholson to prop it up, just in case.
In the second place, no one can really tell me what a “name” is. Is it Meryl Streep, the actress that small children in African villages can name, or is it Traylor Howard, the winsome lady who played Natalie, Monk’s sidekick? (She’s the one whose agent won’t return our calls because we don’t have a name yet.)
Which brings us to the third objection. You can’t get a name until you have a name and you don’t get a name until you have a name. Who has time for this nonsense? There are thousands of great actors who want to act. Why spend time and money seeking someone who doesn’t want to be sought? Someone who knows they are doing you a favor? What would that working relationship be like?
Finally, my big question: how has the whole name system been working out for you? The last five years have shown that the really well produced, intelligently written dramas are not name-centric. I think I barely recognized one of the actors in Mad Men during its first season. They were all just good journeyman performers. The same is true for Breaking Bad — no mega stars, just an interesting premise and a well told story.
Bottom line, I guess: I’m not very good at names. If someone wants to volunteer one, fine, but I’d rather buy a really good dolly rig.