With the recent announcement that one of the Bonds (not THE Bond unfortunately) will be joining the cast of Chuck for a multi-episode arc it got me thinking about all the high-profile and interesting casting going on this season. Stunt casting is a term for a rather unique way of integrating guest stars into a series. A high-profile guest star may play a minor role, the villain of the week, or may be a recurring or non-recurring character in for a few episodes. It’s been written about before by Alan Sepinwall, our friend Aardvark7734, and the Sarah Walker Fan Girls. At times Chuck has raised stunt casting to an art-form. Think of John Laroquette as the suave yet boozy ladies man or Nicole Ritchie as the snobbish and popular cheerleader who ran the school social scene. There is something in the persona or image of some actors (be that true or just perceived) that allows them to step into a role and own it. The sudden perfect fit allows TPTB to use a sort of shorthand rather than having to spend time developing a character that won’t be around too long. So with all the announcements it got me thinking about stunt casting. When it works, how it works, and when you should avoid it. After the jump.
So what makes a great stunt casting? Why do some work and others seem to fall flat? Well I have a theory. I’m sure you’re shocked. I think the stunt castee needs to have 4 things going for them. Fame, nerd-cred, a persona that fits the part and a style that fits the part. We’ll cover each of these and go through some examples, but first I want to look at the ultimate stunt-cast Chuck pulled off, how it didn’t quite follow the rules so much as make them, and how it has helped make Chuck.
Adam Baldwin has been a journeyman actor since he was a teen. Look at his IMDB page and I doubt you’ll see an empty year. He’s made a living as a character actor in TV and B-movies for 30 years with some higher profile roles in big budget movies thrown in for good measure. That doesn’t include his voice work for both animation and video games. This is the kind of guy that used to get the roles as villain of the week before Chuck started playing with the formula. But something happened to Adam in one of those TV jobs. He actually landed a role as a regular cast member in a sadly doomed show called Firefly. It wasn’t a huge role. He was comic relief but as a bad ass killer armed to the teeth at all times. But what happened with Firefly is the stuff of legend. To say that it developed a cult following would be an understatement. To say that Adam transformed his role as Jayne Cobb into something more than intended would be a far worse one.
The first role cast for Chuck, even before Chuck, was Adam Baldwin as John Casey. The bad assed cold school killer, who would provide comic relief while armed to the teeth at all times. Do we see a pattern? With that one move Schwartz and Fedak had made a bet on cashing in on some of Adam’s cult following, and with that bet they bought the goodwill of the sci-fi and Comicon fandom before the show had ever aired. Why? Or more to the point, how?
Chuck is my first ever involvement in an ongoing fandom. I discovered Firefly after it ended, and Chuck after the second season. Just a little over a year ago. But I think I’ve learned a few things. I’m sure you’ll all correct me if I haven’t and I’m wrong. The core support for a show comes from the fandom. And face it, we’re nerds. We’re sci-fi watching comic book reading pop culture junkie mythology loving taking things way too seriously TV addicted nerds. To put it mildly. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be loved. Or taken seriously. Schwartz and Fedak and the rest of the cast may have stumbled on occasion, but by and large they go to extreme lengths to let the core fan base know they love us, and they listen. That is their investment in us. Adam Baldwin was the down-payment on that. John Casey, aka Jayne Cobb 2.0 was a great big wet kiss to the people who they knew would be at the core of the fandom.
So look at Adam Baldwin. Did he follow my four pronged stunt casting guide? Well not exactly. He sort of invented it. He was the mold and the lodestone for how to do it right.
Fame? Baldwin, like many journeyman character actors is someone we’d all see as the villain of the week and say oh yeah, that guy. But where it mattered he had a measure of fame. He guaranteed a core of dedicated fans would at least check out Baldwin’s new project.
Nerd-cred? Hello! Firefly!
Persona? Uhm, Jayne Cobb 2.0.
Style? See above.
Adam Baldwin established how to do stunt casting right. But there is one more thing. Acting chops. As a series regular Baldwin was clearly going to have to be more versatile than your average villain of the week. Someone who is going to be a part of the series for longer than an episode has to be able to carry a range of emotion (yes, Casey has emotions) and is going to need to fit with the rest of the cast. I think you may see where I’m going with this. The rest of the cast wasn’t a stunt. Zach Levi and Yvonne Strahovski read and auditioned for their parts, and they did it together to make sure they fit. The rest of the cast was done the old-fashioned way. Except maybe for Scott Krinsky as Jeff who I understand has a history and a similar character with Schwartz from The OC.
In one way it’s unfair to call Adam Baldwin a stunt casting. The role was practically made for him. It may have been for all we know. And not to bash on Adam Baldwin who clearly brings a lot to the show but widespread fame to lasso in new viewers, which is the real reason behind stunt casting, isn’t one of those things. What he does do is inform us on what to look for to honor both the core and general audience, and perhaps how to make a guest star a draw. With that in mind lets move on to look at some of the tests I set up.
The first is fame. In a perfect world George Clooney and Sandra Bullock would be Chuck fans and would work for scale just to help out the show. Not gonna happen. But Jerome Bettis or Chevy Chase come close. People with some measure of fame in the broader culture can help by, if nothing else getting Chuck mentioned in the news as the show Jerome Bettis is going to be on after the Superbowl. Failing that recognizable stars, people with some measure of fame or a following outside the nerd-centric sci-fi world can fill the bill, like Scott Bakula or Angie Harmon, or (from my keyboard to God’s ears) Nathan Fillion. Oh how I wish Nathan Fillion had been cast as Shaw. Sorry, just letting my mind wander. Linda Hamilton and Timothy Dalton are perfect in this respect. Both have been stars of major motion pictures with the perfect connections to the sci-fi and nerd world. Bond counts in case you didn’t know. Armande Assante, making a return visit as Premier Alejandro Goya is another pretty high-profile star who fits the bill. Others like Harry Dean Stanton or Dolph Lundgren may have a measure of wider fame than the purely nerd-centric sci-fi and 80’s pop culture veins that Schwartz and Fedak love to mine so thoroughly (they do know their audience well in some ways), but they bring something else.
Nerd-cred is a big one for the fan base, but not so much for the general public, so if there is a quibble to be had with this point I understand. And I should allow that not all cred needs to be nerd-cred. Think of Jerome Bettis for a post Superbowl Chuck, or Michael Strahan as a mighty jock, they each brought something to their roles too. But overall it’s the sci-fi and nerd worlds, plus the aforementioned ’80’s pop culture, where the best guest stars reside. Scott Bakula is probably the best example here, though now that we have both Sarah Connor and James Bond we may need to re-consider. But here is the fun part. Nerds being obsessive in their attention to detail and trivia are easy to please. Just show us you get it with a few obscure connections like casting Tricia Helfer as Sarah’s replacement and then having Chuck ask if Sarah has been replaced by a robot and we’ll be giddy for weeks. It says you like us. You really really like us. Yvonne in a Frak Off T-shirt is along the same lines, but this is more about casting. We could do a full post on all the clever references and pop culture trivia.
Probably the most important of my criteria is the persona. For this one I always like to use the example of Nicole Ritchie. She isn’t really an actress, other than on a reality show as Paris Hilton’s sidekick. But Nicole Ritchie has something invaluable. An image. I’m not going to claim that Nicole is like her image, but for better or worse, better in the case of Chuck, Nicole is seen as a popular party girl snob by many, interested in the flashy fun and high living. She can step into the role of Heather Chandler with virtually no back story, and we get it. We know who she is. Robert Patrick was another great example of this kind of casting. Many are familiar with him from The Unit, but he has a bearing and an image from playing a lot of military men as a character actor. We get the character the second he appears on-screen. I look at the next season and I see Dolph Lundgren as the prime example of this type of casting. Although I will be shocked if Bronson Pinchot doesn’t infuse a lot of Serge from Beverly Hill’s Cop with a dash of Balki Bartokomous into his role. And this is where we sort of start blending the persona with the style.
They are somewhat linked, but I don’t think they are the same. Nicole Ritchie has a persona or an image, but no discernible acting style. John Laroquette as Roan Montgomery was all style. He inhabits the role effortlessly, and it’s magnified by his having played a similar style on Night Court. Angie Harmon slipped into the spy vixen style established by Mini Anden with total ease. Sometimes an actor can have a style so down that even going against type you buy him almost immediately in the role. Christopher Lloyd is probably the example I like best here. And here is one of the drawbacks. An actor or guest star can so define a role or our expectations that it can make it impossible for another actor to make the role their own. When that happens you adapt or die. Tricia Helfer had to step into the role of a female spy, and she couldn’t rely on being a Cylon. The problem was that we had seen some really strong female spies as characters. I’m thinking Carina and Sarah. But agent Alex Forest couldn’t be either of those for the story to work. So she became John Casey, the ultimate by the book spy. It was an incredibly clever way of one actor using another actor’s established style to pull off the kind of shorthand stunt casting can do. That is an example where it worked. And now I come to the dreaded counter-example.
Matt Bomer basically defined the role of a Sarah love interest, much to Brandon Routh’s misfortune. Bryce Larkin was cool and charming, sincere when the situation called for it, slightly roguish in a charming way, and a little dangerous in that good bad-boy way. And very dangerous in the spy way, but that’s a minor point in the love interest department. Jonathan Cake played Cole in a similar way, and the kind of guy Sarah dated before Chuck turned her world upside down was set. With Shaw they wanted to cast Hero, for the guy that Chuck would have to overcome. Shaw had to be heroic. Routh played the role as a stoic, controlled, closed off and authoritative. Like Superman. When he went for charm the chemistry wasn’t there, and he didn’t have the same style or vibe that both Bryce and Cole had. As a result we all just looked and said he’s not Sarah’s type. He’s not Bryce, he’s not Cole, and he’s certainly not Chuck. It was no sale from that point on for a lot of the fanbase. They cast Shaw as a hero and mentor, which I think Routh could have pulled off with the way he played Shaw, but forgot he also had to be Bryce or Cole. As many have said, maybe they attempted too much with Shaw, especially since Matt Bomer had already defined the role of a Sarah love interest. The way the hero and mentor was being played was entirely against type for the love interest. I don’t know if Routh was essentially a stunt-cast, and I understand that his role changed a bit too, but a part of me thinks it was more about having Superman as the hero and rival of Chuck than an actor who fit the part and all the roles he had to play. Routh was in 11 out of the 19 episodes. He wasn’t a guest star, he was a cast member, and as I said above, you can’t stunt cast that.
Now that I’ve said that I’m going to play devil’s advocate. I teased my other example above. Imagine another actor cast as Shaw. Me, I’d go slightly older to give him more of an authoritative air, but he’d also have to have a commanding presence and a hint of danger about him. In addition he’d have to be able to turn on the charm and have a slightly roguish way about him to be attractive to Sarah. What if Nathan Fillion had played Shaw? For one thing Nerd-dom would have had a collective seizure with Mal and Jayne back together again, but that’s a bonus. For those of you familiar take a bit of Malcolm Reynolds and a bit of Richard Castle, shake well and let Fillion add a few original touches and see what sort of Shaw we get. Older, yes, but not too old for Sarah. Charming, handsome, a bit dangerous. He can be commanding if he needs to be, but he can be sincere and a friend too. I think Fillion, or someone more like him could have pulled it off. But here’s the problem. He could have pulled off the dangerous mentor who tosses Chuck into the thick of it and the charmer who woos away Sarah. But could he have then switched to the dangerous psychopath bent on revenge? There was a lot riding on the character Shaw, and perhaps casting it perfectly was never going to happen. But then maybe it’s time to consider the part as written if you can’t find a fit. Sometimes the part needs to adapt to the actor as much as the actor needs to fit the part.
As we head into season 4 the casting seems absolutely inspired. Linda Hamilton and Timothy Dalton are both marvelous actors in addition to having the nerd-cred and a bit of fame. How they play their roles is not likely to be determined by Bond or Sarah Connor, but there is that well for them to draw from. Dolph Lundgren is practically iconic as the deadly Russian, and will likely have a lot of fun with his role. Eric Roberts, Joel David Moore, both are fine actors in addition to bringing an image that looks to be a great fit with their roles. Bronson Pinchot and Armande Assante are both likely to be an absolute hoot in roles that seem written for them. Add to that the Greta of the week and a Yvonne catwalk fight with Karolina Kurkova and a possible Heather Chandler vs. Sarah Walker re-match, I’m practically giddy.
Now about that Firefly reunion…