Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

“Containing the Spread of Misinformation”: “Chernobyl” and Historic Truth

Fresh off the series’ Emmy win for Outstanding Limited Series, we take a look at how HBO’s Chernobyl makes us reconsider how we think about “The Truth”.

By Daniel Rose

Growing up in the shadow of American media has given me a stilted view of Russian and Soviet history.  From the patriotic cheese of “Rocky IV” to the tales of espionage and intrigue in “The Hunt for Red October”, we have been led to believe that Eastern Europe is the homeland of villains who are dastardly at best and incompetent at worst. Today, some people still believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was the inevitable victory of the “good guys” from the West over the “bad guys” from the East, a gross oversimplification that some media is still eager to support. The tenuous relationship that exists between Western depictions of the Soviet Union and the reality of life in Eastern Europe’s communist bloc is what makes HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries so refreshing.    

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) coordinate cleanup at Chernobyl.
Photo: IndieWire

“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”

Jared Harris as Valery Legasov in “Chernobyl”

Set between April 26, 1986 and April 27, 1987, Chernobyl follows events set in motion immediately following the explosion of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat (now in modern-day Ukraine). The disaster, which exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe to frightening levels of radiation, is framed in a way that balances the truth of the incident with the portrayal of the explosion in Soviet media. Rather than presenting the subject matter in a fully-realized, academic light, the series only provides viewers with as much information as characters on-screen have access to at any particular moment. When plant engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) remarks that the level of radiation in the aftermath of the explosion, 3.6 roentgen, is “not great, not terrible”, we are not immediately given context as to what roentgen measures (the exposure of x-rays and gamma rays) or what would constitute an alarming measurement. Even the soundtrack, which maintains a constant sense of unease throughout the six-episode miniseries, leaves the viewer in the dark as to when misfortune will appear on-screen.

The narrative structure adopted in Chernobyl mirrors the cultural climate in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s. After decades of extreme government censorship of the press, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of openness or “glasnost” as part of a larger restructuring, collectively known as “perestroika”, aimed at maintaining parity with the West. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, however, Soviet media repeatedly under-reported the damage and risk of exposure to radiation, even as Western scientists as far away as Scandinavia reported alarming levels entering the atmosphere. In Chernobyl, viewers are reassured by characters that the situation is under control, contrary to the scenes of fire and destruction on display. It isn’t until later in the series, when expert scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) is introduced, that the scale and impact of damage becomes apparent to the viewer.

What sets Chernobyl apart from other historical dramas is the effort to capture the Soviet Union in this brief moment as accurately as possible. In particular, Chernobyl‘s cinematography does a masterful job at showcasing the cost of the cleanup in contrast to the measured takes of its characters. The portrayal of radiation poisoning turns the viewers’ stomachs, with the camera lingering long enough on victims to evoke sympathy as well as horror. The effort goes beyond the actual series, with the writers collaborating on a podcast that explores each scene in every episode to give viewers insight as to how some events are framed. The filmmakers are open about any inaccuracies in the series, including the fictional character Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson), a composite of the many scientists who contributed to the cleanup.

Chernobyl is an eerily accurate representation of a long-changed era. The miniseries does a phenomenal job of placing the viewer in the action, equipping those of us who grew up after the fall of the Berlin Wall with the tools to understand why people acted and thought the way they did in 1986. Outside of time travel, Chernobyl is the closest people can get to life in the Soviet Union.