The Mid-Level Movie Star’s Guide to Staying That Way

Good afternoon, gentlemen, and thank you for coming to the symposium.

You’re a diverse group, but you’re all here for the same reason: You’ve clawed your way to the middle of the movie star totem pole and you’d like to stay there.

Sure, you all took different routes to get here. Maybe you’re like Josh Hartnett when he first parlayed teen fare into major roles in Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. Maybe you’re like Mark Wahlberg when the arthouse Boogie Nights left him poised for more prominent roles. Maybe you’re like Paul Walker and one of your movies fell ass backwards into tremendous success, like The Fast and The Furious.


Now, turn off your cell phone and think quietly, carefully, for a few minutes, about your next role. The next role could be what separates the Jake Gyllenhaals of the world from the Wes Bentleys. Remember Wes Bentley? Exactly.

Now that your careers have flashed before your eyes, let’s get down to brass tacks. Gentlemen, I present The Mid-Level Movie Star’s Guide to Staying That Way or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nicolas Cage.

Lesson One: You’re Not That Bankable, and You Probably Never Will Be
You have enough fingers to count all of Hollywood’s truly bankable blockbuster actors: Cruise, Hanks, Gibson, Carrey, Will Smith, and even Adam Sandler. There aren’t many of them, and they don’t come around often. Go ahead and assume you won’t be one of them. It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll turn out to be as superhumanly lucky, well-managed and appealing as these select few. You’re better off admitting you’re reliant on careful decision-making and just using your brain. I know, Paul Walker, I’m scared too.

Lesson Two: You’re a Movie Star, Not an Actor
There are two famous people named Ewan McGregor. One is a fine actor, one is a mid-level movie star. Aside from a brief fling on the set of Moulin Rouge, they’ve never met. Johnny Depp and Sean Penn can go years without a hit and still find success somewhere down the line. They’re marvelous actors and will always be able to find work, even if their star power ebbs and flows somewhat. That was never their point of emphasis, anyway. You, on the other hand, are probably not nearly as talented. More importantly, you’re not tenured, and if your star power ebbs, it might never flow back. If you want to be a serious actor, and you’ve got the talent for it, go for it. Go to the room across the hall with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett, and enjoy my highest regard. But this lecture isn’t for you. So with that in mind…

Lesson Three: Prestige Won’t Pay Your Electric Bill
Every actor wants legitimacy and, even ideally, an Oscar. Many want to work in real drama, or with the Robert Altmans and Paul Thomas Andersens of the world. Some may even hit the indie circuit. That’s great, and it’s nice to mix things up. Jim Carrey and Will Smith could afford unsuccessful forays into drama because they knew subsequent movies like Men in Black II and Bruce Almighty could bring them right back to the top. And hey, Tom Cruise sure seemed to enjoy Magnolia. But unless you’re at the Tom Cruise level, hits make stars, not the other way around.

If you don’t seek out the hits and nourish your movie stardom, you’ll quickly go from slumming in low-budget fare to it being the only kind of work you can get. Richard Gere can afford to make movies that no one will see, like Bee Season, because he always keeps a steady diet of more dependable fare. For every Dr. T and the Women, he makes a Runaway Bride. Remember that big movies allow him to do small movies. And don’t forget, indie films and character dramas suck just as often as action films. Take Bee Season, for instance.

Lesson Four: Ride The Coattails, Share the Blame
This is where Richard Gere’s career proves most instructive. Is Gere a box office draw? Not especially, but he knows how to hitch his wagon to one. Notice how he scores big hits and paydays with Julia Roberts, but does lackluster business when paired with Wynona Ryder or Jennifer Lopez. Gere is great at appearing to be an elite star as long as he isn’t actually the one responsible for deciding a movie’s fate.

It’s a lesson Matt Damon has continually taken to heart, as well. Damon has a surprising ratio of flops to hits, and while it’s the Bourne movies that keep him a star, it’s his willingness to work alongside someone like George Clooney that allows him other hits. Mark Wahlberg, too, blossomed in Clooney’s shadow, then after some solo stumbling, regained his footing by getting Ed Norton, Mos Def, et al, to share the responsibility for The Italian Job. Contrast these guys with James Franco, who tried to move from Spider-Man role player to leading man with Tristan + Isolde and Annapolis, with no other viable stars in tow. The result was two flops in one month. January may have torpedoed whatever chance Franco had at bigger stardom. He would have been smarter not to rough it on his own. Unfortunately, this advice has come a bit too late for him.

Lesson Five: Jerry Bruckheimer is Your Friend
Don’t cringe. I gave you the opportunity to go across the hall to the serious actor room earlier. If you want to get famous, stay famous, and make money, Bruckheimer is your man. You may not like what he does, but he’s damn good at it. Think it was Good Will Hunting that made Ben Affleck a big star? Nope. That got him in the door, but that was just a screenplay and a supporting role. Affleck has headlined four movies to cross $100 million domestically, and the first two were Armageddon and Pearl Harbor. Josh Hartnett broke to wider audiences with Pearl Harbor as well, and scored his one real hit with Black Hawk Down. Josh Lucas just did the same with Glory Road, another Bruckheimer production.

Think Nicolas Cage is still a star because of his Oscar recognition or his sterling track record? Nope. It’s because he’s smart enough to answer the phone when Bruckheimer calls. In the past decade, only five Cage movies have crossed $100 million domestically; four of them were produced by Bruckheimer. You may not find it dignified, but you checked your dignity at the door. You all will make cruddy action movies at some point. You might as well do it with the most bankable producer out there.

Lesson Six: Know Thine Own Mediocrity
Some people can do comedy. You might not be one of those people — Josh Hartnett, I’m looking at you. After all, we saw you fail at it twice. Granted, comedy worked out well for Vin Diesel in The Pacifier. But that was family comedy, where all you have to do is pander a little and follow the Kindergarten Cop motif. Paul Walker similarly scored with Eight Below, where all he had to do was sit back and good-naturedly let the huskies do all the acting. But Hartnett tried to make grownup comedies, when 1) He doesn’t have any comedic talent, and 2) Grownups don’t know who he is.

Many mistakes that wreck middling stars can be avoided with a little common sense. When Vin Diesel was offered sequels to xXx, The Fast and the Furious, or Pitch Black, he might have considered following up the ones that crossed $100 million and performed strongly overseas, instead of the one that barely crossed $50 million worldwide. But Diesel’s ability to bounce back with the safe Pacifier is instructive. Gigli gets too much credit for ruining Affleck’s career. Sure, it drew first blood, but he should have further staked his celebrity on safe action movies, not on misguided loyalty to Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl), or the belief that he could play a Philip K. Dick genius (Paycheck) or, here we go again, handle humor (Surviving Christmas). Just as Matthew McConaughey knows when to return to romantic comedies, you too must know your abilities, know your track record, and avoid these mistakes.

Lesson Seven: If Mark Wahlberg Can Do It, So Can You
The beauty of the middle is that any idiot can make it work. Wahlberg’s had an amazing run for someone whose supporting cast used to be The Funky Bunch. There’s no reason you can’t determine whether you’ll be Wahlberg or back to oblivion. From William Holden to Matthew McConaughey, Hollywood history is littered with second-raters who carved out nice careers for themselves. Heed these lessons and you can, too. Even you, Paul Walker.