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Dear West End Producer: ‘Is there a difference between a character actor and an overweight leading man?’

West End Producer West End Producer Photo: Matt Crockett
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The Collins English Dictionary defines a character actor as: “An actor who specialises in playing unusual or eccentric people.” It defines a leading actor as: “Someone who plays the main part in a film or play.” So if you’re playing an eccentric main role then you are a ‘leading character actor’. And if that eccentric main role happens to be overweight then you are an ‘overweight leading character actor’. Simple.

Character actors have the reputation of playing the funnier supporting roles and they are frequently played by actors who are slightly larger. Some of my close friends class themselves as character actors and put their success down to their size. They get a lot of work and they know, quite rightly, that a lot of it is to do with how they look. And that, of course, is why every actor gets roles – it’s often down to their look. The only problem comes when it is unhealthy to have a certain look – if an actor is too heavy or too thin, for example.

I know an actor who was told to lose weight by his doctor, but his agent strongly advised him against it, as it would affect his casting. He had a reputation for being big, and if he lost weight he was warned he wouldn’t get as much work. After much deliberation the actor decided to stay the same size, ignoring his doctor – which in my opinion was the wrong choice. Life is more important than a job. Health should come first. After all, you don’t want to play Mr Bumble for the rest of your life, dear.

In Hollywood films now, even on television, many leading actors put on weight so they can transform into their ‘character role’. Leading actors are stereotypically the handsome ones, with Popeye arms, a six pack, and nice cheek bones (on both their face and bottoms). But these leading actors love playing the character roles and often put on extra pounds to prove how dedicated they are (using the ancient practice of doughnut eating). It shows that leading actors secretly want to be character actors – as they get the much more interesting roles.

The joy of our industry is that there are actors of all different shapes, sizes, colours and backgrounds. If you happen to be a little overweight, then good for you – it’s who you are. And it won’t stop you playing leading roles. Every character has quirky elements – it’s what makes them human. We are all individuals, and all have our mannerisms – that’s what makes creating truthful characters so interesting.

There is no difference between character actors and overweight leading actors. In fact, the terms ‘character’ and ‘leading’ should no longer be used – they are the same thing. So don’t worry if you’re a little overweight, because as Stanislavski famously taught: “Who, what, when, where, and Walkers crisps”, dear.

Send questions to your dear agony aunt via Twitter @westendproducer

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