Sunday, June 30, 2002

Small-screen actors making big movies

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The surprise $100-million-plus box-office tally for Scooby-Doo brought joy to Hollywood for more than mercenary reasons. The movie reconfirmed that young actors groomed on TV can draw ticket-buyers to the big screen as well. That is cheerful news to an industry fretfully seeking the stars of tomorrow.

        Sarah Michelle Gellar, 25, appeared in a few other popular teen flicks after establishing her small-screen charisma with Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a bona fide hit among the fickle young audience that moviemakers covet. Linda Cardellini, 26, though less renowned, earned respect in the critically acclaimed Freaks and Geeks.

        “What do they need to make it in movies?” said author and television historian Ed Robertson. “Magnetism, charm, charisma to pack people into movie theaters. That's the bottom line. How many tickets are they going to sell?”

        Television harbors a wealth of talented young actors, particularly on the youth-obsessed Fox, UPN and WB networks. If it sometimes seems that every under-30 actor with a sitcom spot is making a movie, that's because the film business uses television as a kind of farm system. In 10 years, the goofy neighbor or troubled loner on your favorite weekly show could be among the tiny elite of monster movie stars.

        Those monsters are the ultimate prize in an industry driven by big stars. Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks command eight-figure salaries because, more often than not, their movies make enormous profits for the studios.

        Tom Hanks is 46. Tom Cruise is 40. George Clooney is 41. Brad Pitt is 38; so is Sandra Bullock. Julia Roberts is 34. All are at the peak of their creative powers and surely have long careers ahead of them. Still, in the high-dollar end of the movie business, the eternal question of the day is: Who's next?

        Industry movers and shakers hunt ceaselessly for actors young enough to click with youthful audiences and exciting enough to become major stars. The latest example of a youngster tagged for superstardom is Josh Hartnett. At 23 and flush with the success of Black Hawk Down and 40 Days and 40 Nights, he is being compared to the legendary Gary Cooper. He was first spotted in a supporting role on the failed TV series, Cracker.

Who's who this year

        This year's movie slate contains a broad sample of young TV-tested actors with big-screen aspirations.

        In February, Frankie Muniz, the star of Fox's Malcolm in the Middle, and Amanda Bynes of Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show scored a respectable hit with the comedy Big Fat Liar. Both are considered promising candidates for long-term screen success.

        Other TV transplants have made good impressions in less-than-stellar films, including Ryan Reynolds in the unfunny Van Wilder, Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville) in the awful Sorority Boys, and Colin Hanks (Roswell) in the just-OK Orange County.

        Ensemble movies are popular testing grounds, as in the case of Scream (Neve Campbell, Rose McGowan) and I Know What You did Last Summer (Ms. Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt).

        This year, a large crew of young TV actors pin their hopes on The Rules of Attraction, directed by Roger Avary, who collaborated with Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. The Rules cast includes James Van Der Beek (Dawson's Creek), Jessica Biel (7th Heaven), Ian Somerhalder (Young Americans), Thomas Ian Nicholas (Party of Five), Clare Kramer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer), Joel Michaely (Unhappily Ever After, Popular) and Jay Baruchel (Undeclared).

        Television stars who score big in movies are exceptional cases. Michael J. Fox, Will Smith and Denzel Washington did it. But Jonathan Taylor Thomas, wildly popular co-star on the series Home Improvement, has made only a few low-profile independent films since leaving the series.

Tougher for women

        The transition is immeasurably harder for women; none of the few females who command top-dollar movie salaries — chiefly Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore — came out of TV. Former top earners Meg Ryan and Demi Moore worked in soap operas before cracking the movie business.

        Scores of other TV favorites simply failed to catch fire on film.

        “They connect or they don't,” said Gwen Gordon, a Cincinnati casting specialist. “It's a different kind of connection on film.”

        “I can't really define what it is. You have people like soap opera actors (such as) Susan Lucci; even when she does a movie for TV, it doesn't come across very well for me. I would never think she would be on the big screen. But you also have Debbi Morgan (Charmed), who was in soap operas (All My Children, General Hospital, Port Charles). She made Eve's Bayou, and she was excellent.”

        “There's nothing scientific about this,” said Mr. Robertson. “Some of this is kismet, some of this is plain luck. It's not like if you're a big star of a television series, you're automatically going to be a big star in a movie.”

        Mr. Robertson said each medium has unique needs. “On the one hand, television rewards subtlety, it rewards idiosyncrasy, because television is intimate. People on TV are 20 inches tall. People on movie screen are gigantic. Things are magnified on small screen and lost on the big screen.”

        Ms. Gordon said, “Television is about comfort levels, about situations we recognize, things that can happen to us every day. In film we're taken to the limit. That would reflect to me on the actors, too. I think the actors in (film) are expected to take it to the limit every time.”

        Ironically, the bigger a star becomes on television, the tougher it can be to establish a movie career. Many of the most successful cross-medium migrants were supporting players on TV, and many of the biggest names in TV never clicked in films. David Duchovny, for example, has made several films, but only the movie version of The X-Files was a big hit.

        “Television punishes you for your success,” said Mr. Robertson. When we commit ourselves to watching the same show and the same characters in our home week after week after week, we only think of actors in terms of that one role. Which is why Michael Richards (Seinfeld) is always Kramer. Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeannie) is always Jeannie.

        “It is the eternal lament of actors that they will only be known for the one role that made them rich and famous.”

Guaranteed sequel

               Ms. Gellar and Ms. Cardellini made enough of a mark in their newest big-screen venture to win a guaranteed berth in the inevitable Scooby-Doo sequel, already set for 2004 release. While a fluffy cartoon-inspired comedy may offer slim measure of their acting talents, it serves just fine as a barometer of their appeal to 12-to-25-year-olds who are the most avid filmgoers.

        Meanwhile, watch for a constant stream of films showcasing bright youngsters aiming to parlay TV exposure into big-screen magic.

        “You'd think perceptions had changed,” said Mr. Robertson, “but television is still considered among actors as the big comedown. Everyone wants to be a movie star.”


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