Dictionary.com defines the word “actor” it as “a person who acts in stage plays, motion pictures, television broadcasts, etc.” Articles about movies starring a debuting performer tend to complicate that definition. There are nonprofessionals, amateurs and, in the case of something like the just-released Tangerine, even non-actors.
Tangerine is the latest reminder that Sean Baker is one of the most remarkable filmmakers in the American independent scene today. It’s also a reminder that the way we write about new actors is a double-edged sword. After all, isn’t an actor simply one who acts? A SAG card and long list of IMDb credits shouldn’t be the litmus test.
What first bears mentioning is that none of these descriptions is intended to be negative. Almost all of them are meant as praise, but that praise is often faint — a pat on the head for the new kids trying to hang with the veterans.
This is understandable for a number of reasons, namely marketing. It’s always a selling point when a first-time screen actor gives a strong performance, as is true of everyone from Yana Novikova in The Tribe to Oscar-winning turns by 12 Years a Slave's Lupita Nyong'o and Paper Moon's Tatum O'Neal. None of these actresses had acted in a feature before, and Novikova (who, like everyone else in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's remarkable film, is deaf) didn't even intend to.
The list goes on. Beasts of the Southern Wild introduced us to Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry a few short years ago, and Kids, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, featured a cast of such unknowns as Chloë Sevigny and Rosario Dawson making their silver-screen debuts.
Emphasizing a performer’s lack of experience is meant to make his or her achievement all the more impressive, but it can also be minimizing and reductive, a way of making someone such as The Tribe’s Novikova seem like an outsider rather than a talented individual who simply hadn’t gotten an opportunity to prove it until now. (Speaking of, if there are any filmmakers reading this, please write a movie entirely around Novikova — she’s brilliant.)
Articles that imply that we should be surprised when inexperienced actors can actually act also skirts the fact that this phenomenon is neither uncommon nor new. The further you get from the Hollywood studio system — both in geography and in spirit — the more likely you are to come across directors who work exclusively with neophytes, many of them intentionally.
The Bicycle Thief was named the greatest film of all time in Sight & Sound’s inaugural poll of critics and filmmakers. Like a great many other examples of Italian neo-realism, there isn’t a single trained actor in the entire cast. Some directors specialize in wrangling memorable turns out of debutantes, which isn't to detract from the thespians' hard work.
Even when these things begin more as a matter of financial necessity than as deliberate creative choices, the results can be astonishing. If you don't believe me, just watch Tangerine or The Tribe, both of which are more than worth seeing regardless. It’s a disservice to both the films and the actors to pay them backhanded compliments, so it’s time to drop the qualifiers.
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