Age is more than a number; particularly in the world of film and television, where it can be a crucial deciding factor in casting an actor for a role. So much of acting for the camera depends upon talent having a particular “look”, which is really a euphemistic way of saying that every facet of a performer’s physical appearance is dissected and analysed. Everything from hair colour, length, facial features, height, weight, waist size and overall body proportions come into play. However, no detail is more daunting and unforgiving than your age.
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Character breakdowns are never removed from an age, because it signifies so much in society. While male members of the talent pool may not necessarily be as adversely affected by this requirement, some female performers however, have to deal with the panic-driven reality that one day some form of birth documentation may expose them.
I recently contacted The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network; a local casting agency and suggested that instead of making “age” a mandatory detail in their talent application portals, they can and should include an “acting age range” option; which interestingly, led to this article. See, the concept of an age range within itself is debatable, and some (who are none-the-wiser) may ask why this is necessary? Well, there are many reasons that can be argued. On one hand, an age range can serve to protect the talent from any ageism which may exist in the industry, but the most practical is that age is often viewed as a necessary part of conviction, in terms of a character’s portrayal. However, such a view is simply myopic, or at best, presbyopic. An acting age range can be a game-changer for performers and talent managers/agents, as it implies they/their clients’ ability to fluidly move through different spheres, in terms of their versatility. In a 2003 Backstage article, Elias Stimac puts it succinctly:
“Every performer has a range—the ages he or she can realistically play. But who says an adult can’t play a child, or vice versa? Enterprising and versatile men and women may be able to take on a wider range of character parts. If you can convince the casting team, the director, and, ultimately, the audience, you can open yourself up to a variety of other assignments.”
If the recently trending #10YearChallenge is any indication, some of us look like we haven’t aged a day since high school, or by only a few years at best. At the end of the day there is a clear difference between an actor stating they are twenty nine years old on an acting resume, as opposed to simply stating they are in their “twenties” or “can play teens to late twenties”. The difference can decide whether or not they land the job.
The most coveted film/television actors are the ones I view as “Peter Pans”. This is a personal definition I created from my many years of being glued to the television and silver screens. Ideally, said talent are mostly petite in frame, have exceptional skin, thick tresses and facial features that can transform easily with the addition of make-up. These performers never reach the age of thirty, theoretically; they stay frozen in time, where they take on the appearance of a “young adult”; never quite middle age, or pubescent. Think of Toby Maguire, Rachel McAdams, Gabrielle Union or Larenz Tate (more on him later). The point I am trying to make is that by the time most screen actors “make it”; they are in their early thirties, or late twenties. Most of the leading roles are delegated to youthful characters. If you are genetically blessed and you can look the same age for a decade and a half, then chances are you have more of a likelihood of being cast. Yes, over the years this has changed a bit, but the audio visual industry will more often than not crave the “Fountain of Youth”. Which I am beginning to realise is more of a concept, than an actual location.
The option of an age range, as opposed to your exact age, or date of birth creates more flexibility for the secretly ancient among us. There is a dilemma that eventually confronts these Peter Pans, because at some point they encounter projects where they can screen for either a parent or child, simultaneously.
It is one thing to be flagrantly dishonest and it is quite another to benefit from an assumption, or lack of information. Some of the most extreme cases of actors profiting off their youthful appearance include Stacey Dash when she portrayed seventeen year old Dionne at twenty eight years old in the 1995 film Clueless, as well as Stockard Channing’s turn as Rizzo in Grease at the age of thirty three. Rachel McAdams also had a career-defining role playing Regina George in Mean Girls at twenty eight years old (if you believe the casting agent’s interview in the E True Hollywood Story: Mean Girls episode).The actress was originally cast as the lead, but the project heads switched characters for her and Lindsey Lohan because of her age. They felt the actress had a maturity that worked better for the villain. There is also the curious case of Bianca Lawson. This exotic beauty and prolific TV actress started trending a few years back when social media memes revealed she had been portraying teenage characters for twenty years. True couch potatoes will remember her as tragic slayer, Kendra from the second season of the WB’s hit series, Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
Even more disturbing (or inspiring) is the fact that this actress, at fifteen years old starred alongside Claire Danes in the pilot episode of the iconic and short-lived My So Called Life television series. Now that’s some kryptonite genes! However, I think she jumped the shark when she recently did Pretty Little Liars and portrayed an eighteen year old. The internet will expose you.
I previously mentioned Larenz Tate because he has literally been around since I’ve had memory, and to me, looks the same. Back in 2017 when he showed up in Girls Trip, it was truly miraculous to see him look the exact way he did in Menace II Society, twenty three years prior. It is also heavily rumoured that Gabrielle Union did Ten Things I Hate About You when she was twenty eight years old.
There are some rare cases where young actors are either called upon to depict characters who are older, or said performers are cast based on a misconception about their maturity. Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson have been known to engage in this practice. While Sarah Michelle Gellar won a Daytime Emmy in 1995 for All My Children; portraying a character that was in her twenties, while still in her teens. These circumstances show how versatile actors can be and lend credence to the argument that age should not be such an unyielding pre-requisite. However, when Angelina Jolie is cast as Colin Farrel’s mother in the film Alexander, when in reality the actors are eleven months apart in terms of age, then we have a major problem. As this is an abuse of age fluidity that may promote discrimination.
At the end of the day acting is a tricky and at times dubious field. Performers work hard and make sacrifice for years before booking that big role. As a Trinbagonian actor, I feel blessed to even get work, so when I do, I try to not expose details that can limit my progress; such as my age. I believe all actors should make a conscious effort to preserve themselves. Some may opt for different procedures like cosmetic surgery or extreme weight loss to maintain that youthful appearance, however, I advise drinking copious amounts of water and putting raw aloevera gel on their faces at night. Trust me, it works!
Every career has its challenges, but there are always ways to skilfully make the system work in your favour. The most important factor when it comes to performance is the ability to execute the role. Then, it is up to the industry to decide whether conviction and suspending reality is more imperative than what is stated on said actors’ identification cards. Talent is and will always be, ageless; so put a range on it!
In the her next Op-Ed, the author shines a spotlight on the actors who have broken through that age barrier, and how the industry is changing to accommodate more diverse talent. CLICK HERE.
The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network or its staff.
Author: Pauline Mark
Pauline Mark is a Film Producer, Writer, Director and Actor who has been involved in entertainment, culture and the arts since 2003. She has appeared in noted Trinbagonian productions, including: Positive and Pregnant (2011), The Cool Boys (2012), Home Again (2012) and Bazodee (2015), and has been featured in many local and regional print and television advertisements.
Pauline has served as a content creator for state-media; co-producing and scripting two seasons of Wired 5.0 Carnival series. She also created, produced and directed X and Y TV series in 2016, and produced The Apartment: About Last Night pilot film in 2015, among other projects. A true patriot, Pauline continues to do work that promotes Trinbagonian culture, people and places.