What is typecasting? Why does it cause a shiver down the spine of many actors? And just what has it got to do with Doctor Who?
Recently, current Doctor Who star Matt Smith was asked if he had considered moving on from Doctor Who out of fear of being typecast.
He had a rather cool answer, one that we’ll come to in a moment – after a quick overview of the phenomenon that is known as “typecasting”.
A quick explanation would be that an actor who suffers from typecasting finds it difficult to win varied roles.
…the process by which a particular actor becomes strongly identified with a specific character; one or more particular roles; or, characters having the same traits or coming from the same social or ethnic groups. There have been instances in which an actor has been so strongly identified with a role as to make it difficult for him or her to find work playing other characters.
Now in a Doctor Who context, the first name that is probably going to come to mind is Tom Baker. After leaving Doctor Who in 1981, Baker played a succession of Doctorish characters, from a long-coat wearing dognapper in Remington Steele to Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles on TV and on stage. Even his Wyvern character in the remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) was rather Time Lordly, and it took almost 30 years for him to come to terms with his association with Doctor Who and reprise his most famous role.
The thing is, though, Tom was already typecast when he became the Doctor, often cast in mercurial roles either as villains or heroes. Most notably he played the Russian mad monk Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra in 1970, and was struggling to find work when he was eventually cast as the Fourth Doctor, mainly because there were so few suitable roles for him.
Jon Pertwee, too, could be described as suffering from typecasting, but in a different way. Known as a good all-round entertainer (he did voices, could sing and dance; he once doubled for Danny Kaye), he was rarely found in small roles, and when he did cameo it was as a larger-than-life character. The directors knew exactly what they were getting, which is how he made such a great job of Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge.
All actors that have played the Doctor have for some reason had a worry about typecasting, and this probably comes from the bread-and-butter nature of being and actor – being someone different. Playing lots of different characters allows actors to stretch themselves and this no doubt contributes to their development.
Second Doctor Patrick Troughton was one of Britain’s finest character actors, and cleverly limited himself to three years on Doctor Who, advice he later gave to Peter Davison. Both of these actors went on to have success beyond Doctor Who, although like Jon Pertwee they were both well known before entering the TARDIS.
Yet none of the series’ stars have gone on to appear in any leading roles in a science fiction franchise or movie, which does make you wonder if any of them were really afraid of typecasting. Even Paul McGann appeared in Alien 3 before he made his Doctor Who episode.
Which brings us to the modern day, and in particular Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant.
So, what was Matt Smith’s response to any potential typecasting concerns?
“Playing the Doctor hasn’t prevented Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant from taking on other parts.”
Say what you like about Matt Smith – he’s no fool. Catch him acting against type in the Christopher Isherwood biopic Christopher and His Kind later this year on BBC Two.