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Are Science Fiction Actors Doomed To Get Typecast?

POSTED BY chrisdvanne ON Sep 30, 2013 / 4 COMMENTS

Matt Rorie wrote in October 2011 an interesting and without concession piece about genre actors.
The premise of the article is that many of our favorite actors from sci-fi and fantasy media wind up doing...pretty much nothing but sci-fi or fantasy for the rest of their careers? The author of the article mentions many sfi-fi actors, including our very own Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and now Arrow's Summer Glau.

Are Science Fiction Actors Doomed To Get Typecast?

I have reproduced below a paragraph but please bear in mind that Summer is not as the center of the article.
Another example: Summer Glau. From Firefly to Serenity to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles to Dollhouse to The Cape to her upcoming fan-service-y appearance in a comedy about LARP-ing with a name that embarrasses me even when I think about it, I would be shocked beyond belief if she did not wind up signing autographs at the Great Lakes Comic-Con in 15 years in order to float her rent. That sounds cruel, and perhaps it is, but if Glau was going to escape the whirlpool of genre acting and break out into something more mainstream, it certainly seems like it would’ve happened by now, right?
This is the kind of career arc that seems to befall genre actors fairly often: you make a splash early in your career in some beloved and well-known (or beloved and cultishly-adored) sci-fi show or horror franchise, and jump to another sci-fi show or horror franchise, and then...your career is effectively locked into place (see also: Linda Blair, still awkwardly hosting SyFy channel programs about possession 30 years after The Exorcist). You continue down the path of genre filmmaking, taking what paychecks come your way, while always looking for a role that never quite comes in something that might gain you a bit more credibility.
Read the full article article at Screened.
This article reminds of a 2008 lecture by renowned genre writer Neal Stephenson, who has his own rather sophisticated (using the term descriptively, here) theory on why sci-fi actors become niche actors, specifically using Sigourney Weaver, Lena Headey and Summer Glau as one of his examples. His ideas here are part of a larger argument in the lecture (entitled "Science Fiction as a Literary Genre"), but you can watch the short version below:

KortoloB at the Summer Glau Reddit made an elaborate and interesting graph that details the minutes of genre vs. non-genre episodes/films she's been in so far:

Summer Glau minutes of genre vs. non-genre episodes/films

KortoloB's comments on the graph: 
You can see from the graph that the only times that she hasn't been in something non-genre is when she's been working on big genre projects, such as Firefly, Serenity and TSCC.
Some fun facts from my statistics:
To watch all episodes and films Summer's been in in one straight run, you'd have to sit down for almost three days straight.
81% of that time you would be watching a genre show/film.
2004 is the only year in her career where she wasn't on a genre show, but in 2002, '05 and '08 Summer was exclusively in genre-shows/films.
Summer has commitment issues. The only years she has been faithful to a show (not counting Sleepover since she was in it for less then a minute) is in 2004, when she guest starred on an episode of CSI, and in 2008 when she starred in TSCC.
Here's a graph where minutes are divided between shows instead of genre:
Summer Glau minutes of genre vs. non-genre episodes/films
On a similar topic, check out Summer Glau's detailed Filmography.
Summer Glau is an amazing sci-fi actress. She has played two of the most iconic characters in recent sci-fi history, River Tam in Joss Whedon's Firefly and Cameron Philipps in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Her action shots during Firefly & Serenity alone qualify her to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with action 'diva' Sigourney Weaver. But she's also somewhat of a low profile actress and that is very respectable. The hollywood jetset seems to crave popularity at a too high cost. Up to now it seems, Summer is doing a pretty good job. 
That said, I hope she becomes more recognized and more successful; She deverves that much, such a talented actress. Whatever role she’s played, and regardless of which was the first time you saw Summer perform, you knew at that moment you were seeing something special. When she cried, you were crying with her in sympathy, when she was kicking ass you were cheering her on like nothing else, and when she was troubled you wanted to tell her it was going to be okay. That ladies and gentleman is what Summer Glau does with her varied roles. She doesn’t just act, she makes you believe.
Summer Glau is and always will be my number one favorite actress. 

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Total comments: 4

  Message #1 | chrisdvanne | 2013 Sep 30, 15:52 GMT

I'm glad Summer Glau gets roles and I'm very well aware many actors would envy her. That doesn't mean she should not try to explore new genre.

  Message #2 | Thierry | 2013 Sep 30, 18:11 GMT

Very interesting.... I partially agree with Rorie's article. It is not only the case for SciFi, but also in other genres (I would say all...) : let's take some examples. Keira Knightley is really struggling to do something else, not only historical or period films. The comedy actors have to wait for quite a while until they play in dramatic movies. In television, that's the same thing, this in all countries.

I think this is first a question of money. I have already written about this point several times.
The question is about the trust a film director or a producer can put on an actor or an actress. Unfortunately, that is not always an artistic choice, but first an economic choice... Movies/TV shows are considered as means to do money. Art ? Well, let's talk about this another time....

To resume : first the money reason, then comes the luck, and finally, the talent...

Yes, let's talk about talent. Summer Glau is quite a good example : she has a very wide range of acting abilities, maybe more than we know (or maybe than she knows herself). The question I am asking for quite a while : when will a director/producer give her the opportunity to express her acting talents, and not only in SciFi, but also in other styles. Comedy, drama, historical period films (one of her dreams, as she said some years ago), and why not, more independent/experimental movies. 

She can do it.
She deserves it.

  Message #3 | chrisdvanne | 2013 Oct 01, 06:10 GMT

The Power That Be in the sci-fi field know Summer and trust her, this is why she keeps appearing in so much sci-fi shows. Good for her and as an aside, this is also why all the comments from geeks about the so-called "SG curse" are irrelevant.

  Message #4 | chrisdvanne | 2013 Oct 01, 06:21 GMT

I'd like to make 2 remarks.

1) Summer Glau's resume lacks a successfull line. Contrarily to the BSG actresses for example, Summer has not played in a tv show that had a 5 years or more run. IMO, this is the main reason why TPTB, while they aknowledge their appeal in the sci-fi world, are reluctant to build a show around her. Think Tricia Helfer.

2) Summer Glau is petite build, she's not a statuesque woman. You'll notice that genre writer Neal Stephenson mentions in his speech Lucy Lawless, Sigourney Weaver, Lena Headey and Summer Glau as archetype of sci-fi icons; but then he mentions only the first three - and rightly so - when talking about sci-fi world loving statuesque women. Think Tricia Helfer.

That explains partially why Summer is not as successfull as she should. And despite that, she is a working actress with quite a following, that is remarkable.

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