TV Actors Who Have Reinvented Themselves in New Roles

From Don Draper to Coach Taylor, TV is filled with actors who we strongly associate with one TV character. That’s what makes it impressive when an actor who we’ve seen for years as one person is able to completely reinvent themselves in another role. On this week’s episode of the Vulture TV Podcast, we talk about actors who have successfully done so, and why some may have more luck than others. Plus, Vulture’s Abraham Riesman sits down in-studio with Dan Stevens, star of FX’s Legion, who you probably know best from his work as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey. Listen here, and read part of our conversation below.

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Gazelle Emami: So this is usually the case with TV characters who are so big and larger than life that it’s hard to see them in any other way. One of the first examples that come to mind is Jon Hamm; he played Don Draper on Mad Men and he was able to reshape his image a bit as a comedic person, from 30 Rock to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Bridesmaids. He’s kind of embraced this persona to the point where I think you are able to see him beyond Don Draper.

Jen Chaney: I think what was smart about what he did is that he was doing that concurrently. So he was on 30 Rock, and Mad Men was still going. A lot of actors do the show that typecasts them, and then they try to get another role after that and it’s tough. He was already laying the groundwork so that you could see his versatility before Mad Men.

GE: Right, and that’s arguably hard too, to get those roles while you’re doing the role. And I imagine there was some element of, “This will be cool, to have people see this person who is so stoic in this incredible goofy way.”

Matt Zoller Seitz: We’ve seen actors who were strongly associated with one part who were able to have distinguished careers outside of that. But when you have a truly iconic part, you’re always going to be associated with that. I just don’t think there’s any way around it. I think of somebody like a Carroll O’Connor. Carroll O’Connor was Archie Bunker, that was his “first line of the obituary” role. And he was on another hit show, In the Heat of the Night, which ran for a number of years, I think almost as long as All in the Family. And he was excellent on it. But he’ll always be Archie Bunker. Hamm I think is an amazing actor, and it’s great seeing how good he is at comedy because you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you’d just seen him on Mad Men, but he’s always going to be Don Draper.

GE: Another one that comes to mind is Kyle Chandler, who was the coach on Friday Night Lights, and obviously that’s the role that’s the most definitive of his career. And then he did Bloodline, which was a very different, darker type of role. But part of it is the luck of the draw, whether the show is going to become a phenomenon, and Bloodline did not become a big enough phenomenon to overwhelm any other impression of him. So while he was able to obviously play a different role well, he’s still always Coach in my mind.

MZS: Yeah, and some actors lean into that. Like, Lucille Ball, of course, was Lucy on I Love Lucy, and every subsequent sitcom she had she was playing an incarnation of Lucy and the character was called Lucy and the show had Lucy in the title, so it’s like, why fight it?

GE: One that sticks out at me is Jennifer Aniston at the height of Friends. She took a role in The Good Girl, and I remember what a big deal that was. And she was amazing in that and it was a complete change from this bubbly character we knew her as on Friends. I’d always hoped that she would go down that path more.

MZS: She was legitimately excellent in that, although I think part of the revelation of it was that you thought of her as the character on Friends. So when you saw what a completely sociopathic character she was, it hit harder. It’s almost like when Sergio Leone cast Henry Fonda as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West, and he said a big part of him wanting Henry Fonda for that part was because the first time Henry Fonda did something evil the audience would go, “Holy shit, that was Henry Fonda!”

JC: I think that’s true of Kyle Chandler, too. I feel like that worked on Bloodline to some extent because you expect him to do the right thing and be a good guy. You don’t expect him to do the wrong thing, and I think that worked to his advantage in Bloodline. You mention Friends, and I think David Schwimmer is still contending with that even though he’s done a lot of other things since he played Ross Geller. People still think of him as Ross Geller in a way that he probably feels is limiting sometimes. And so when he played Robert Kardashian on People v. OJ, sometimes people were like, “Ross is playing Robert Kardashian.”

MZS: I got to stick up for David Schwimmer though, not that anybody’s talking bad about him as an actor here. But for me personally, I don’t think of him primarily as his character on Friends because I’ve seen him in some other parts where I went, “There’s a depth to this guy that people don’t really appreciate.” He was in an HBO film with Chris Cooper called Breast Men, and it was about the true story of these plastic surgeons from Texas who were competing in the breast-augmentation business. He was playing a sleazy, cocaine addict, hustler-type character, and he was very, very good.

GE: I think on People v. OJ, his character was kind of dopey in this way that felt reminiscent of Ross. And then it was the whole thing with him saying “Juice” all the time. And there was a clip from Friends of him talking about orange juice and there was a mash-up of that, and then it just becomes this phenomenon.

JC: I agree, he does have depth that he doesn’t get credit for, but I think the population at large, with him in particular, more than anybody else on that show, has a hard time forgetting him as Ross, and I don’t think it’s fair to him, to be honest.

MZS: I think Matt LeBlanc has the same problem.

GE: Well, he also he keeps playing similar types of roles, I think.

MZS: Well, yeah, and then the question becomes is that because that’s all that’s offered to him? Are they seeking him out because they know it plays to his strengths and people feel affection for him from Friends? That’s the key question off screen for a lot of these actors and actresses: How do they feel about that? If they are identified very strongly with one character who is an important and/or even beloved character, are they okay with that? Does it bother them? Do they feel like it’s a slight against them as an actor? Or do they embrace it?

GE: Not that I could know, but I imagine one would have mixed feelings about it, because to have been on a show that was so big that you can’t escape it, you still have to realize that that was a blessing in your life. And on the other hand, it’s a curse in this way that casting, you become pigeonholed in this way. So you wouldn’t have your career without it, but you also have to contend with it.

JC: I think it’s hardest for actors who get cast in a role that defines them in this way when they’re very young. Especially if the shows goes on for a long time, it’s even harder to break out of that and try to become something else. I remember years ago, weirdly enough, I was interviewing Ron Palillo who played Horshack on Welcome Back, Kotter. Naturally I was asking him a lot of Welcome Back, Kotter questions, and at one point he just blew a gasket and was really getting pissed off that I kept asking about it. And I could tell it was because he wanted, probably, something else that he never got to try as an actor, and I felt kind of bad for him in that way. But at the same time, as you said, Gazelle, “I’m a fucking Horshack, man!” It’s pretty cool. I imagine, you think about a show like My So-Called Life or even Freaks & Geeks, we wanted those to last more than one season, but if they had, would Claire Danes or all the people that were on Freaks & Geeks have been able to transition and do other things or would they have been thought of as those characters?

GE: Well, one person who comes to mind who did this very effectively is Keri Russell. I think because there was so much time between Felicity and The Americans there’s now a split in my mind between Keri Russell as a young woman and Keri Russell as an adult. They’re both very strong associations and neither one overwhelms the other. I feel like when enough time passes, you’re able to completely reinvent yourself in another role.

MZS: Years and years ago, I interviewed Janet Leigh about her entire career and I asked her, “Does it ever bother you that the first thing people think of when they think of you is Psycho?” and she said, “No, not at all. Think of it this way. When you’re starting out as an actor, your dream, for at least a lot of the time, is to be in a classic film, to be in just one classic film. And not only was I in a classic film, I was in one of the all-time great classic films and I was in the scene that everyone thinks of first when they think of that film, and beyond that, the image that people think of when they think of that film is me holding up my hand against the knife. Basically, I am the emblem of that film,” she said. “How could I possibly have a problem with that?”

TV Actors Who Have Reinvented Themselves in New Roles