Rewind: Fictional Actors Just Might Do More Research Than Real Ones

In '10 Items or Less,' Morgan Freeman plays an actor working in a grocery store to research a role.

Do real actors spend as much time researching roles as fictional ones do?

In “10 Items or Less,” Morgan Freeman plays an actor who gets a job in a grocery store in order to research a film role. We can’t prove it, but we’d bet that this kind of intense prep work occurs much more often in fiction than in reality, as there have been quite a few movies that incorporate the premise of the prepping thespian.

In 1991′s “The Hard Way,” Michael J. Fox plays Nick Lang, a narcissistic former child actor looking to escape his kiddie image and break into serious work. In order to get the lead part in a crime drama called “Blood on the Asphalt,” Lang gets himself temporarily installed as a detective in the NYPD. He’s paired up with grizzled homicide dick John Moss (the perfectly terse James Woods), who’s none too happy about the situation, primarily because it’s distracting him from catching a serial killer known as “the Party Crasher.” You don’t need a film degree to guess what happens in this typical buddy flick, but the chemistry between Fox and Woods isn’t bad and director John Badham (“Point of No Return”) knows his way around an action scene.

Kevin Bacon has a small, uncredited part in David Atkins’ 2001 film “Novocaine.” The plot — Steve Martin plays a dentist who gets caught up in a web of sex, deception and murder — is more than a tad convoluted, but that’s beside the point. Bacon plays Lance Phelps, an actor researching the role of (again) a detective by tagging along with the cop who ends up investigating the case. Phelps is allowed to interrogate Martin’s character, and Bacon’s over-the-top performance adds a further element of surrealism to the pitch-black comedy.

“Camouflage” (2001) is one of the, shall we say, lesser-known Leslie Nielsen comedies, and for good reason. Nielsen plays an Oregon P.I. named Jack Potter who hosts a young actor (Lochlyn Munro … who?) researching a part (hence the inclusion in our little survey). We’d tell you that wackiness ensues, but honestly, until we started researching this column, we’d never even heard of this film, so we have no idea what happens. But we’d wager that wackiness ensues.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005) stars Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart, a small-time thief who, while fleeing the cops, accidentally crashes an audition for a crime movie and does well enough to be flown to Los Angeles for a screen test. The now-aspiring actor tails a P.I. nicknamed Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) in order to learn about life on the other side of the law and perhaps start a new life for himself. The fourth-wall-breaking neo-noir is part homage to classic crime fiction (both printed and filmed) and part blistering satire on the self-absorption of Hollywood.

But it’s not just cops that actors trail in films. In 1992′s “Into the Sun,” Anthony Michael Hall is Tom Slade, the studious movie star who travels to an American Air Force base in Italy to learn about fighter jets for his next role. Michael Paré plays Captain Paul Watkins, the pilot who’s not very pleased about having to suffer the arrogant Slade. When a turn of events strands the two behind enemy lines in an unnamed Arab country (the film takes place during the first Gulf War), this awkward satire tries to become a kind of “Dr. Strangelove,” but it never quite hits its target.

In the late Robert Altman’s 2001 comedy/mystery “Gosford Park,” Ryan Philippe plays Henry Denton, the gentleman’s gentleman to Hollywood bigwig Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), one of the guests for the shooting party at a British country estate in 1932. The movie is about the difference between the serving class and those being served, and it doesn’t take long for the actual servants to realize that Denton isn’t really a butler. In fact, he’s an American actor researching a role as a Scottish servant. But heck, almost everybody’s got a secret in this big-budget “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

First-time director Georgia Lee’s “Red Doors” (2005) delves into the multifaceted dysfunction of a family of Chinese-Americans in the suburbs of New York. In the applicable subplot, Julie (Elaine Kao) is the quiet middle sister, a fourth-year med student forced to deal with her sexuality when an actress takes residency in her hospital to, well, you know. Mia Riverton seems less like she’s acting and more like she’s doing an impression of a movie star as Mia Scarlett, and her burgeoning roller-coaster relationship with Julie is dealt with in the same feathery sitcom manner as the rest of the film’s drama.

Perhaps no film delves into the pathology of method acting more than “Scream 3″ (2000), the final installment in the horror franchise. “Stab 3″ is a film within the film, a dramatization of the events of the first two “Scream” movies (follow that?). The actors playing the actors don’t exactly go out of their way to get inside the heads of the victims they’re playing, but then again, they don’t have to; Ghostface starts killing them one by one, an act that would certainly help them understand their characters’ motivations, if it weren’t for the irony of, you know, them being dead.

We’ll wrap up with a slight variation on the theme. “Hero at Large” (1980) tells the tall tale of Steve Nichols (John Ritter), a struggling actor whose latest role takes over his life. Nichols is one of dozens of actors hired to promote a Captain Avenger movie by playing the superhero at numerous movie theaters. But when Nichols encounters a thief at a bodega on his way home, he lives the part and stops the crime (in costume). Suddenly New York has a real superhero, thrilling everyone from little kids to politicians. As his acclaim grows, Nichols gets deeper and deeper into the part, but the real world is (perhaps sadly) no comic book, and he soon learns that no good deed goes unpunished. Anne Archer also shines as the pulchritudinous girl next door in this underrated little gem.

So, should we be impressed by the notion of an actor undergoing a temporary change in lifestyle to get inside the head of a character, or does it just represent more narcissistic self-indulgence? Maybe we could get a better idea if we were to spend a few weeks living the life of the major movie star. George? Brad? Leo? Get in touch with us and we’ll hang. We don’t eat much. Honest.

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