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Primary Colors, Oddball Casting and Character Actors

Written by: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer

A random surf through the Netflix archives reminded me of one of my favorite maxims in movies: Oddball casting works.

Case in point: Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors, the adaptation of Joe Klein’s bestselling political satire and roman a clef about Bill Clinton’s run for the White House. Klein’s original novel, which chronicles the political hopes of a unknown southern governor named Jack Stanton, dropped in early 1996, just in time for Clinton’s reelection campaign.

Mike Nichols’ movie came soon after, hitting theaters in 1998 with an all-star lineup, including a portly John Travolta as the Falstaffian Jack Stanton, whose big appetites work both to his advantage and his detriment. We can discuss the movie in detail in the comments, but for now I want to sing the praises of Travolta in this role. I don’t count myself an expert on the acting career of John Travolta, but for a guy who’s known for his twinkle-toed bad-boys (Grease and Saturday Night Fever) and action roles (Swordfish, Face/Off, Basic and too many others to mention) Primary Colors fell into the same sublime category of character performance that Travolta demonstrated he was capable of in Pulp Fiction.

Side note: Let’s talk about my last sentence and what I am and am not saying. I’m not drawing a straight line between his performances in Pulp and Primary, and neither am I saying that they’re both on the same plane. His turn in Primary is one step more broad, more overstated — that’s a function of working with Mike Nichols versus working with Quentin Tarantino, I suppose — while his turn in Pulp is a master-class in relaxed non-acting. (I think the only time he raises his voice is when he’s freaking out over Mia’s overdose and on the phone with Lance.)

Here’s what I am arguing: They’re both character roles in the old-fashioned, “acting class” sense of the term. They’re roles that demanded Travolta craft a character with his own unique quirks and mannerisms, and while I don’t think physical transformation is a necessary part of a character performance, it’s often a hallmark of them. Travolta not only gained weight for both roles, but his physical presence is distinct for both. (Though to be fair, both characters features a similarly relaxed gait, as well as the low-slung center of gravity you’d expect for moderately overweight men.)

The terms “character acting,” “character roles” and “character actors” get used a lot. I feel like the original idea of a character actor has been replaced by a new, more modern one. No one’s ever going to mistake me for an expert on acting, but here’s what I mean:

Meet Dick Miller. He’s 84 years old. He’s appeared in more than 170 movies since he landed his first role in 1955. You’ve probably seen him in a few. I know I have. He’s been in some of my favorite movies, including Innerspace, Explorers and The Terminator. (You might remember him as the doomed gun shop owner who sells the T-101 its first weaponry in the 20th century.)

Miller’s what I would call a character actor in the modern sense of the term. He has a very specific look and type that plays well for a certain array of roles — tough guys, cab drivers, gun shop owners, cops.

But here’s the thing: Miller, with few exceptions, very seldom has to act in a way that deviates from his default setting. Miller has an easygoing, gruff demeanor, and that lends itself to the roles he plays.

Side note: To be sure, I’m exaggerating to some degree. To wit, here’s a retrospective of some of Miller’s many roles:

The guy clearly has range, but it’s more on display in his younger roles. As he settled into a groove in Hollywood, he wound up playing roles cast from the same mold. And that’s fine. There’s an old bit of conventional wisdom about leading men and ladies versus character actors: The leading actors will get bigger parts, but in the long run, it’s harder for them to work consistently. Character actors, by contrast, will always have work.

Dick Miller has clearly always had work. (IMDb tells me that his last role was in 2009. I hope he’s settled into a well-deserved retirement.)

So what does all this talk about Dick Miller and character acting have to do with John Travolta? Well, I submit that Miller isn’t a “character actor” in the original sense of the term. I’m about to segue into a discussion of acting technique and theory, and while the craft isn’t unfamiliar to me, I bow to the great many professional actors I know and invite suggestion and correction from them. Here goes:

The edicts of Method acting — AP style geeks: Should that take a capital M? — call for all actors to invest every role with the kind of preparation that, for example, a Daniel Day-Lewis would. There have been oodles of books written about Method acting, but I’m sure you know the basics: Actors should get to know the interior life of their characters, all while figuring out how this person would (or wouldn’t) move and interact with the world, both psychologically and physically.

Sometimes Method acting sounds insane to a layperson. (And indeed — sometimes it sounds insane to me.) When you hear about Robert DeNiro living like a bum for months at a time to prepare for a role, it sounds insane. Certainly to me, that level of preparation seems to be an activity of the privileged. But can you imagine a movie like There Will Be Blood working unless Day-Lewis had done the kind of prep he needed to do to assemble a performance like this?

(Side note: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more compelling portrayal of mental illness than Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Second side note: I could have easily chosen any of his scenes in that movie as an example of great acting.)

I have no idea how much preparation Travolta did in advance of his performances in Pulp and Primary, but both roles register well. Let’s take a look at a famous scene from Pulp — the dance contest. To be sure, his physical life is funny and detailed throughout the scene, but notice how his Vincent Vega takes off his shoes: He removes them one at a time, squats on his haunches and sets them stageside in a neat row.

I couldn’t find a good clip online of Travolta moving in Primary, but if you watch the movie, pay attention to how his Jack Stanton carries himself, especially when he’s agitated. Travolta packs his performance with specific details, like how he holds his hands akimbo — he doesn’t simply prop his hands on his hips; he presses the tops of his hands against his love-handles. It’s a small detail, but it speaks to good preparation and a really lived-in performance.

I don’t know who might’ve been up for the Jack Stanton role when they cast Primary Colors, but I love the casting of Travolta. Like I said, over his career he’s been known less for playing roles like Jack Stanton, where he gained a lot of weight — far more than he did for Pulp, by the looks of it — and known more for playing action heroes and more traditional leading-man roles.

Incidentally, when it comes to most of our leading men, I’d compare the bulk of their performances to those of a modern-style character actor. Take Tom Cruise. To be sure, there aren’t many actors who go to the lengths he does to prepare for an action role. (How many guys would dangle off the side of the Burj Kalifa? Not many, I’d wager.) But the majority of Cruise’s leading men all fall along the same charming, intense lines. To be sure, he’s played a few character roles — the vampire Lestat is one, I’d say — but not many. Like Dick Miller, he usually shows up and plays his default setting. For example, is there a marked difference between the timecop in Minority Report and the secret agent in any of the Mission: Impossible movies? Not much. Yes, yes, yes — they do different things in those movies, but I’d submit that their essential animating energy is roughly the same.

And that’s a shame, because when it comes to most performers, I prefer it when they’re playing oddball roles. I’ll take Travolta in Primary Colors over Swordfish. I’ll take Tom Cruise in Collateral over Mission: Impossible or A Few Good Men. I’ll take Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights over Planet of the Apes.

One movie that throws a wrench in this analysis is Magnolia. Cruise is perfectly cast, and his super-intense performance not only catalyzes the movie, but it also expertly sends up his own super-intense persona. It’s also impressively raw and vanity-free. If you haven’t seen this deleted scene, which gives us a glimpse into his character’s home life, you’re missing out:

Holy Crom. He’s playing an Asteroids machine, and he walks across the room to reveal a floor-to-ceiling poster for a RUSH greatest hits album? Pure joy.

Gang, I welcome your feedback in the comments or on Facebook.