In 1990 – legend has it – Home Alonedirector Chris Columbus decided not to ruin a young girl’s life. A brief scene in the Christmas classic involves Macaulay Culkin picking up a framed picture of his fictional brother’s fictional girlfriend and recoiling in disgust. “Buzz, your girlfriend!” the child actor exclaims, “Woof!” Rather than humiliate a real pre-teen girl, Columbus instead used a picture of a boy in a wig.
Other directors aren’t – or can’t be – as kind when setting up their casting calls. Films, TV shows, and adverts often require actors whose characters will be mocked for their appearance. When prosthetics and make-up are used (like Tom Cruise’s bald cap and fatsuit in Tropic Thunder, or Emma Thomson’s fake teeth, nose, and moles in Nanny McPhee) it’s hard to imagine that the actors involved will be too upset. But how does it feel to be cast as a character described as “ugly” or “fat” when no special effects are involved? When your own appearance is the punchline?
“I’m never going to be the prom king, I’m not going to be the quarterback of the football team, I’m the lovable loser,” actor Jesse Heiman tells me over the phone from his home in Studio City, LA.
“Maybe you get on the underground over there, or you get on the bus, and there’s some strange person who you wouldn’t want to talk to – I get to play that guy.”
In 2013, Jesse starred in a controversial Super Bowl commercial for the web hosting company GoDaddy. In it, Jesse – dressed like a stereotypical nerd – makes out with Israeli model Bar Refaeli. For 15 seconds, the camera lingers on their intense kiss. The press branded the advert “gross” and “disturbing”, while the Daily Mail went so far as to say that Jesse is “known for his ugly looks”.
“In this town, even if you’re being talked about in a negative way, it’s better than not being talked about at all,” Jesse says. He has played “nerds” in The Big Bang Theory, Glee, and American Pie 2 but says these parts are “not insulting”.
“If there’s a TV show about a hospital you have to have people that are missing an eye or a leg. If you’re doing a scene about people in a weight loss camp, they need people there like me.
“It’s never meant to be insensitive, it’s only meant to make this fictional universe as realistic as possible, as authentic as the real world.”
“I don’t take ‘fat’ as a derogatory term”
HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones is not set in the real world. There are dragons, and giants, and super-intelligent species of wolves. There is also, as per George RR Martin’s original novels, “Fat Walda”. In contrast to her cousin, “Fair Walda”, Fat Walda is described as “a round pink butterball of a girl with watery blue eyes” and “limp yellow hair”, whose “chins jiggled when she laughed”. Her weight is a gag – she was chosen by Roose Bolton to be his wife because her father offered one of his daughters’ weights in silver for a dowry, so Bolton “chose accordingly”.
“My agent phoned very excited, as always, saying she’d got me an audition,” says Elizabeth Webster, who played Fat Walda in the show. Elizabeth relives the conversation with her agent as we sit in a London café – “It’s an audition for Game of Thrones”, “Oh my God, go on!”, “Yes, it’s for the character of Fat Walda” – and ends the re-enactment with a long, drawn out sigh. “Oh, okaaaay”. Yet although she jokes about the call, she says the casting opportunity was more exciting than insulting.
“You can’t contain the excitement of ‘Thank God, thank God this one is for me, they are actually looking for me!’”.
Elizabeth is far from unattractive, but she has played multiple characters who are negatively identified by, or mocked because of, their weight. In 2009’s Taylors Trophy she played a character called “Big Shirl”, while in the 2014 TV movie Catherine Tate’s Nan she played a punchline. “Ain’t you got to go and have a big fat gypsy wedding?” Tate asked her. “I’m not a gypsy,” the character replied. The retort: “Well, two out of three ain’t bad.”
“I don’t take ‘fat’ or ‘big’ as a derogatory term,” Elizabeth tells me now. “It’s an adjective, it’s perfectly fair enough to use it.” She prefers directors to be candid about looking for “fat” characters, and gets excited when she sees these casting calls.
“If they’re specifically looking for me then I actually am in with a chance. Whereas if I go in for a character where they’re not specifically looking for someone ‘fat’, you then have to wonder about the level of prejudice that sits behind their decision to go ‘No, no’.”
“I was a loser all the time… it took its toll as the years went on”
Casting directors aren’t always that candid. Brianna Ancel is vice president of Clear Talent Group and Jesse Heiman’s agent. “I think character breakdowns for the most part avoid harsher terms,” she tells me over email. Instead of “fat”, she says, she will see casting calls for “zaftig”, “curvy”, “chunky”, and “big-boned” characters. Instead of ugly: “charactery”, “offbeat”, “interesting faces”, “distinctive”.
“There are times when a role requires dialogue or action that is offensive, insulting or degrading, and in those cases I will forewarn the client and we will make the decision together as to whether it’s an opportunity we want to move forward with,” says Brianna, adding that although the industry is built on labels, she tries not to keep her talent “in a box”.
Neither Jesse nor Elizabeth are insulted by their roles, but playing an “unattractive loser” can be hard. Sam Lloyd – who you probably know better as the pathetic lawyer Ted from Scrubs – tells me that playing a sweaty, pale, and frequently demeaned character “took its toll as the years went on”.
“As Ted, I was a loser all the time, he was really sad most of the time,” Sam says on a call from LA. He explains that Ted’s appearance was his fault because he asked the make-up artists to make him look ill, and asked the wardrobe department to give him an ill-fitting suit. “I kind of painted myself in a corner because then for the next eight years I had to be sweaty and pale.”
Sam says he once read a study where psychologists asked their subjects to spend weeks taking pictures of themselves pulling different facial expressions. The experts found, Sam says, that when people pulled sad expressions, they actually became depressed. “I kind of knew what they were talking about.”
Overall, however, the role was fun – and the fact so much makeup was involved helped Sam distance his own face from his character’s. When he tried to show his mum some of his Scrubs episodes, she would often fuss about how he “didn’t look well”, and fans are surprised at his appearance in real life. Once, at a gas station, a fan was in awe of Sam’s appearance. “He was like: ‘Wow, you look great, what’s happened in your life?’” Sam relays. “He couldn’t believe that I was smiling, wasn’t sweaty and my hair wasn’t a mess.”
“I’m a gaunt-looking guy who’s a bit sinister looking, there’s no getting around that fact”
“Unattractive” characters are often downtrodden in films, something that has frustrated both Sam and Elizabeth. “I lost my hair at a pretty early age, that made me physically available for certain roles,” Sam says, explaining that he was forced to adapt. “I like to think I can do all kinds of stuff, so it kind of was a bummer.”
Elizabeth says she was “a bit naïve” when she started, thinking she could “play everything”. She says she is often cast as the best friend, the nurse, the carer, or the downtrodden sister, and it can be “frustrating”.
“There aren’t enough fat people on television portraying the life I live,” she says. “I don’t see me on television, what I see is people who can’t get their shit together, people for whom losing weight is the most important thing rather than living with the weight.” Overweight characters, she argues, “don’t get the full spectrum of storylines” in TV and film. Both Sam and Elizabeth explain that in the theatre they are able to play much more varied roles.
Yet while some typecast actors wish they could broaden their roles, Hilary Reeves is happy with his lot. Hilary has been with London’s UGLY Models Agency for 13 years (“It could be called Gargoyles R Us and I’d still be happy,” he quips over the phone from his Brighton home).
When I ask if he ever wishes he could play a “kindly old man” instead of horror movie monsters (he recently played a creepy character called the Curate in The Ritual) he exclaims “No!”
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“The baddies are the ones everyone remembers,” he says with a laugh. “I consider myself really lucky, my glass is half full as far as I’m concerned”. Hilary has played drug dealers, “various creatures,” bugs, pirates, and death itself.
“I’m a gaunt-looking guy, who’s a bit sinister looking, there’s no getting around that fact.
“I’m never going to be the guy who wins the hand of the fair maiden who wanders off into the sunset, I’m more likely to be the guy that’s chasing you down with an axe.”
Overall, then, the film industry is built on honesty, acceptance, and thick skins. Actors aren’t deluded about the parts they’re best for, and all of the ones I speak to thoroughly enjoy all of their opportunities and roles. There are even, Jesse says, unexpected benefits.
“Because people get used to how I look and how I work, I don’t really have to change anything about myself,” he tells me.
“There are all these actors and actresses who have to spend money changing their hair or changing their appearances to uphold a certain image… I get by just being myself.”