It would be nice to think that every Hollywood actor is a versatile, chameleon-like performer along the lines of a Daniel Day Lewis or Robert De Niro. In actuality, the vast majority tend to play the same characters over and over and over again. To help break your silver screen sense of Déjà vu, here is a guide to 15 performers who play the same parts again and again.
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On the whole, Clint Eastwood has been playing a variation of two different types of characters the majority of his career. During his Western period, he mostly fell back on “The Man With No Name” archetype that made him a star thanks to A Fistful of Dollars and its ensuing trilogy. Eventually, the character type was retired after the release of Eastwood's Academy Award winning film Unforgiven. Nowadays the actor continues to fall back on his Dirty Harry archetype—the gruff, grouchy, antisocial but morally upstanding man of action. This "grumpy old badass" has characterized his recent performances in everything from Million Dollar Baby to The Trouble With The Curve.
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Jesse Eisenberg has made a solid living playing Jesse Eisenberg since he was 14. The fast-talking, socially neurotic type garnered him a lot of praise in his indie debut, Roger Dodger. Since then, Eisenberg has adapted the archetype to a variety of genres, from horror-comedy (Zombieland) to biopic (The Social Network). Thankfully, the actor will soon be trading his geek cred in to play a “charismatic magician” (Wikipedia’s words) in the upcoming thriller Now You See Me.
The stigma of George Michael Bluth has followed Michael Cera throughout his career. The nerdy Arrested Development character became a television fan favorite and catapulted Cera to more mainstream movie success like Superbad and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Unfortunately, these roles more or less reprised his sensitive nerd schtick from Arrested Development, as did Paper Heart and Youth In Revolt. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World saw Cera attempt to imbue the archetype with a sense of action film heroism, but the film failed to hit with mainstream audiences. Soon, Cera will be going back to the role that started it all with the Arrested Development Netflix series and spin-off movie.
The best kind of girl is a quirky girl. At least, that’s how the Saturday Night Live standard “Bein’ Quirky With Zoey Deschanel” went. The sketches notoriously parodied the actress' “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” performances which can be seen in everything from Almost Famous to 500 Days of Summer. The type seems to work for the actress—her current series, New Girl, has been a surprising hit for Deschanel and Fox television.
Seth Rogen has been playing loveable stoner characters starring in the short lived series Freaks and Geeks. In 2005 he re-purposed the archetype for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The success of the part led to Rogen’s starring roles in Knocked Up and we all know how things have gone from there. It’s interesting to note that the few times Rogen’s box office have come up short, the actor was playing non-stoner characters (see The Guilt Trip or Observe and Report).
James Earl Jones
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James Earl Jones has a thing for playing flawed father figures. In the latter part of his career, the actor played a string of troubled patriarchs in Star Wars (voicing Darth Vader, father of Luke and Leia), Conan the Barbarian (playing Thulsa Doom, Conan’s surrogate evil father figure), Coming To America (as King Jaffe Joffer, father to Eddie Murphy’s character), and The Lion King series (voicing the doomed Mufasa).
Making a high-concept action film? Need an experienced actor to fill the role of a morally-ambiguous CIA director? Look no further than English actor Brian Cox. While it’s far from the only type of character Cox has played, he has come back to it several times in The Glimmer Man, X-Men 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Bourne Identity series. He’s also played a few unhinged psychologists in his day, dating back to his performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter (Cox was the first to play the character).
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Will Smith has two modes of acting—giving an actual performance (see Ali or The Pursuit of Happyness) and playing Will Smith (see just about everything else). Smith’s performance as Will Smith dates back to his days on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. On that sitcom Smith refined his wisecracking screen persona—a loose, comedic version of the real-life Will Smith that had a flair for mild expletives (like his iconic “Daaaaamn” or “Aw hell no”). Following the end of the sitcom, Smith found great success tweaking his persona into that of an action hero for Independence Day, Bad Boys, Men In Black, and I, Robot. The wild success of MIB III proves that audiences still love watching Big Willie play himself, though this summer’s After Earth will likely prove a more serious departure for the actor.
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Ben Stiller also has his stock archetypes to fall back. There’s the raspy-voiced “super jerk” character from Billy Madison he has re-purposed in different variances for Zoolander, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Tropic Thunder, Heavyweights, Mystery Men, etc. Then there’s the terminally unlucky but loveable straight man role that date back to Flirting With Disaster and was repeated for There’s Something About Mary, Meet The Parents, Along Came Polly, The Heartbreak Kid, etc. Thankfully, Stiller does bother to take dramatic roles in between these parts, as you can see in films like Permanent Midnight, Greenburg, and The Royal Tenenbaums. In these films he tends to play actual three dimensional characters.
Adam Sandler may be the most versatile actor to ever play the same character again and again. His “Screaming Man Child” schtick first became popular in his SNL days but translated well into big screen efforts like Billy Madison. Recounting the times the actor has played the type would border on rattling off his entire resume. However, it is worth noting he’s rarely strayed from the character even for dramatic films—see Reign Over Me, Spanglish, or Punch Drunk Love for examples of Sandler’s range with the seemingly one-dimensional archetype.
There’s a reason why the majority of Steven Seagal’s movies have taglines that read “Steven Seagal is…” and then the title (Under Siege, Above The Law, Hard To Kill—take your pick). This is because Steven Seagal only plays Steven Seagal. Or, at least, an idealized version of himself—a zen master steeped in Eastern philosophy with a vaguely Mafioso/spec-ops background and penchant for twisting thugs into odd angles. While mainstream audiences tired of this performance by 2001 (thanks to the bomb that was Half Past Dead), Seagal has spun his persona off into a steady stream of direct-to-video movies, commercial parodies, UFC promotions and multiple reality TV series.
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Ryan Reynolds has spent most of his career playing to his strengths—the actor is good looking, charming, and fast with comedic quips. Thanks to early efforts like Van Wilder and TV's Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place, the archetype steadily grew in popularity. With Blade Trinity, the actor bulked up to create comedic action hero Ryan Reynolds, a role he’s played in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Smokin’ Aces, and Green Lantern. Despite having played this type so often, the few times Reynolds has done a role straight he has knocked it out of the park (such as in Buried, a film with a cast comprised solely of Reynolds buried alive in a coffin).
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Bruce Willis has been trying to recapture the magic of Die Hard since 1988 and not just in the film’s sequels, either. It’s evident in every other action film the actor has ever starred in. Willis specializes in playing burnt-out losers on the ragged edge who happen to have superpowers when it comes to surviving firefights, fist fights, jet plane wrestling (Live Free or Die Hard), etc. From The Last Boy Scout to 16 Blocks to A Good Day To Die Hard, Willis has returned to this action persona at least fifteen times over the course of his career.
Keanu Reeves became typecast as a dead-eyed, stiff speaking “surfer dude” following the success of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in 1989. He played variants of the “bro” in everything from Point Break to Bram Stoker’s Dracula (France Ford Coppola seemed to cast him as dull Victorian foil for the magnetic title character played by Gary Oldman). Speed saw Keanu break typecasting to play an action hero who, while still somewhat dull, carried an action hero competency and sense of self-sacrifice to him. This part would-be character he reused in such films like Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix, and Constantine. The type also has a semi-frequent penchant to commit suicide for the sake of humanity (see The Matrix, Constantine, and The Devil’s Advocate) which seems too frequent to be coincidental.
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If you’re reading this, Jason Statham, do not take it as a slight—you are the modern day equivalent to Steven Seagal. Despite being a far superior actor, Statham typically plays the same Jason Statham character in the majority of his post-Transporter movies: competent, stoic, ultra-professional, and honorable to a fault. Crank, The Mechanic, Safe, Parker, The Killer Elite, War-- aside from changing the characters' names, it's hard to buy these parts as anything more than Statham’s idealized, action hero version of himself. So long as he manages to stay in better shape than Steven Seagal, we think most audiences are fine with this.