Murray Ferguson on ten actors who have shined in their non-franchise roles…
Some actors become so closely associated with certain characters that it can be easy to forget their work outside of a franchise. This may be because the characters are beloved within pop culture, their franchise failed to resonate with viewers, or simply due to the fact the actors were never given enough material to really sink their teeth into and show viewers what they are capable of. Below are ten actors who all reflect one or more of these criteria. In order to earn a place on the list, they have to be known largely for their involvement in at least one franchise which tends to overshadow their other work.
Han Solo. Indiana Jones. Rick Deckard. There aren’t many actors whose filmography boasts three iconic characters, all originating within the span of a few years. Harrison Ford truly has been immortalised by his franchise work, and it is commendable he is still passionate about donning the fedora once more, even at the age of 78. However, he is so much more than a dashing professor with a whip or the captain of the Millennium Falcon. While it’s hard to completely shake his famously dry sense of humour and self-cultivated image of an exceedingly likable grump, there are a few roles in particular where he offers another side to his personality.
Witness boasts a more pensive performance, ranging from festering rage to bemusement and quiet adoration. The scene where he dances with Kelly McGillis to Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’ brims with romantic tension and demonstrates his lovably goofy side. His talent for comedy is never more apparent than in Working Girl, as the naïve and flirtatious love interest of Melanie Griffith. Ford is absolutely game to play a supporting role in a romantic comedy as the subject of female desire. Conversely, courtroom thriller Presumed Innocent goes in the opposite direction, with Ford bringing subtlety to a tortured character fighting for his innocence. He doesn’t need a blaster or a whip to prove his power onscreen.
Michael J. Fox
Who doesn’t like Michael J. Fox? Except for, perhaps, Larry David in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the 1980s star hilariously spoofed his good-natured image as a nightmare neighbour version of himself. Brief turns like this reveal the boldness of an actor who made his name in silly comedies and family-friendly fare with the sitcom Family Ties and the Back to the Future trilogy. While he remains effortlessly watchable as Marty McFly, it is his foray into darker territory that illustrates how much more he has to offer as an actor.
Fox was intelligently cast in Casualties of War as the moral compass among a group of soldiers, who horrifically abuse a kidnapped Vietnamese girl. Standing his ground against a rageful Sean Penn, Fox effectively plays against-type in a difficult role unlike anything else in his filmography. Later in his career, his committed performance as the guilt-ridden and morally corrupt protagonist of The Frighteners refreshingly turns his likable image on its head. Fox’s health issues may have impacted his film career, but he admirably continued to lend his star quality to television, building a legacy that goes beyond time travels in a DeLorean.
The moment he donned the infamous rubber nipples and garish earring, O’Donnell probably realised things weren’t exactly going to go the way he had hoped after landing the role of Robin. Taking things in a vastly different direction from Tim Burton’s Gothic blockbusters, Joel Schumacher’s Batman films embraced the ludicrously camp. Two misguided adventures with the Boy Wonder stalled an otherwise promising early career.
O’Donnell had already cultivated a sweet, wholesome image starring in relationship dramas like Circle of Friends. He was praised for holding his own against Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, earning a Golden Globe nomination for an understated turn that becomes increasingly endearing as his working-class student in crisis forms an unlikely friendship with a blind and irritable former Lieutenant Colonel. While struggling to gain roles after Batman & Robin before shifting to television, O’Donnell did display a surprising knack for comedy as a dim-witted sheriff’s deputy in Cookie’s Fortune, a heart-warming and witty slice of Southern charm.
Starring in not one but two beloved blockbuster franchises as a young actor is an impressive feat in itself, but it can stifle talent due to type casting. Bloom’s angelic expressions and the image of Legolas using a shield to surf down the stairs of Helm’s Deep while firing arrows at Uruk-Hai helped transform a literary elf into an iconic film character. He was underappreciated for his deft movement and comic timing in both The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. In the latter, he effectively demonstrated Will Turner’s transformation from shy blacksmith to dashing and impulsive swashbuckler, but later instalments left him helplessly marooned with an underwritten character.
Often dismissed as merely a pretty face, Bloom has proven his potential outside of franchises. While overlooked as a cowardly prince alongside a scene-stealing Brad Pitt in Troy and for his restrained if uneven performance in Kingdom of Heaven, Bloom’s natural talent emerged in later projects that stripped away the movie star to reveal the serious, introspective actor beneath. Bloom is fantastic as the survivor of child sexual abuse in Romans; his slow-burn character study exudes silent resentment, with flashes of violence leading to self-destruction before giving way to some effectively anguished monologues. He has also shone as a hardened solder in The Outpost and as the lead in the ambitious and underrated fantasy series Carnival Row, where he convincingly portrays a solemn detective haunted by his past, who distances himself from everyone in his life.
For a franchise that tantalises with endless possibilities, being cast in Star Wars can close as many doors as it should open. There is perhaps no one more criticised for their performance in the film series than Hayden Christensen, saddled with the role of creepy and petulant Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker. Although there are glimmers of a decent performance – mostly longing gazes which exhibit a silent attitude of self-loathing – he struggles to sound believable when delivering some truly dismal dialogue. While he had his own shortcomings, much of the blame can be rightly apportioned to George Lucas’ writing and direction.
Christensen’s performance in Shattered Glass gives a better indication of what Lucas saw in the actor in the first place. Playing Steven Glass, the disgraced journalist exposed for fabricating news articles, Christensen compellingly demonstrates Glass’ act as the disarmingly awkward ‘nice guy’ trying to please everyone before gradually revealing the manipulative, snivelling child underneath. As his stories begin to collapse under scrutiny, the performance shifts between cool detachment to desperation – whatever he thinks will be most convincing to weasel his way out of the situation. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch him squirm when probed by Peter Sarsgaard’s magazine editor, with Christensen successfully delivering a character you love to hate.
Wonderfully charismatic as a young Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek franchise and a major highlight of DC’s Wonder Woman, Chris Pine has the makings of a huge star but rarely seems to get the opportunities he deserves. Engaging and playful as a Hollywood leading man, he’s also shown a more subtle and calculating edge in a variety of films, such as Z for Zachariah and The Outlaw King. The latter film may emphasise grizzly battle scenes over a strong emotional arc, but Pine conveys a crucial sincerity in portraying Robert the Bruce. His sullen determination is well paired with moments of relief where he displays that warm smile that makes him believable as a noble leader.
However, his best work can be seen in neo-western Hell or High Water, bringing a great level of pathos to the role of a desperate bank robber. Accomplishing much while saying little, Pine moves and feels like a man who knows his time is running out. It’s a quiet and complex performance that solidifies his dramatic talent and proves that, yes, he is the best Chris in Hollywood.
Despite recently co-starring in Big Little Lies, Shailene Woodley spent several years stuck in the now-cancelled Divergent series. Quite frankly, her talents were wasted in the sci-fi action blockbusters. Landing her breakthrough role in poignant family drama The Descendants, Woodley displayed tremendous depth in the difficult role of a teenager who must be at once defiant and irresponsible, but also mature enough to take care of her younger sister and support her father through immense grief. She effortlessly slips into the part, managing to make the rebellious Alex intelligent and entirely relatable while verbally sparring with George Clooney.
Woodley further demonstrated her natural quality in The Spectacular Now. In a performance that feels similarly authentic but completely different in tone to the previous film, Woodley expertly conveys her character’s innocence and nervous enthusiasm as the unconventional and memorable love interest. Later dramas like White Bird in a Blizzard may not have achieved the same success, but nevertheless showcase Woodley’s underutilised talent.
Only now gaining attention for a major role in Marvel as the lead of WandaVision on Disney+, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch had frequently been side-lined on the big screen in favour of her fellow Avengers. As likeable as she is in the role, it’s unfortunate she has yet to surpass the greatness of her theatrical debut, Martha Marcy May Marlene. It’s a remarkably intuitive performance, able to capture the varying emotions a young woman feels when recovering from trauma in an eerie portrayal of life after escaping a cult.
Olsen went on to convey an authentic, intellectual girl-next-door persona in dramedy Liberal Arts and stood out as an FBI agent in thriller Wind River. Such a talented actor should have a higher profile by now and deserves more challenging material than what she has been given so far within the comic book subgenre.
After appearing in two lacklustre instalments of the Percy Jackson fantasy series, Logan Lerman has gradually been establishing an admirable filmography. His other most known film role is probably The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in which he served as an empathetic guide through adolescence, full of nervous energy whilst navigating the pitfalls of high school and first love. Although he has an ‘everyman’ likability that made him reasonable casting for Percy Jackson, he has performed with greater impact in films that chip away at this notion.
In Fury, his terrified soldier, suddenly thrust into the brutality of war, effectively contrasts with Brad Pitt’s numb veteran. Lerman is agonised in his attempt to resist the callous violence of his peers, with his baby-faced appearance making him stand out among the ragged troops. He deals with themes of faith and mental illness in Indignation, while playing an ex-con in End of Sentence shows how Lerman has evolved from his breakout role in franchise blockbusters to hone his skills in much more interesting and varied projects.
Following his successful debut in Attack the Block, John Boyega delivered one of the best performances in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Filled with energy and a great sense of humour, you could feel his excitement radiating through the screen and bolstering the work of his co-stars. It’s quite shocking that his character, Finn, was treated so carelessly throughout the rest of the Disney-era trilogy. Teased as a major character in the first instalment, Boyega’s outspoken disappointment is completely understandable.
Fortunately, he has since demonstrated his dramatic skills to stirring effect in both Detroit and Small Axe: Red, White and Blue, effectively proving his worth as a rising star that Disney and Lucasfilm were unable to realise. More than capable as a leading man, Boyega has the screen presence to create a long-lasting career, emulating successful Star Wars actors such as Harrison Ford.