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From Guest Star to Blinding Light

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October 30, 2013 by heligena


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We all know the movie industry is a little bit incestuous. Not ‘Cersei-Jamie throw a kid off a soaring tower’ incestuous but a little insular, a little closed-ranks if you will. In fact some writer/directors have forged an entire career out of it, Joss Whedon being a fine example of someone who discovers a kindred spirit in a small role on one project then puts them front and centre in the next. Consider for example how Eliza Dushku’s Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer became Dollhouse’s main amnesiac star Echo. How Nathan Fillion’s preacher Caleb in the final series of Buffy became Captain Malcolm Reynolds, leader of the browncoats in Firefly. And his latest film Much Ado About Nothing… well Jesus it’s a basically a smorgasbord of his previous tv talent including Alexis Denisov (Buffy/Angel), Amy Acker (Angel/Dollhouse), Fran Kranz (Dollhouse/Cabin in the Woods), Nathan Fillion (Buffy/Firefly), Gregg Clark (Avengers Assemble/Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD), Sean Maher (Firefly) and Tom Lenk (Buffy) to name but a few. You get the idea I’m sure… and don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. I couldn’t really sit here in all honesty and say I wouldn’t do exactly the same given the chance to work with people you know are talented and that you’re equally sure will provide some great laughs behind the scenes.

What you might not know though is exactly how the role of Guest Star has led to a few of the most influential characters on the silver screen getting their big break.
So here to enlighten you are a few of the most intriguing origin stories of 2013’s seminal characters…

1.) Walter White/Heisenberg (Breaking Bad) aka Bryan Cranston- come on, it just has to be doesn’t it?! Bryan Cranston’s antihero is officially the man of the moment and about as iconic standing there on the DVD cover in his washed out pants in the middle of the New Mexican desert as you can get. What you may have missed though is how he had come to the attention of Vince Gilligan, show creator. As a long running director on the X-Files, back in the day Gilligan was working hard on a script like any other- Season 6. episode 2 (entitled ‘Drive’), merrily creating his sinister, foreboding atmosphere when Bryan Cranston rocked up to play the small role of Patrick Crump in the ep. It wasn’t a leading part but as legend has it, Gilligan was so taken with the actor’s performance on set that years later he still remembered his work and immediately asked him to audition for the role of Walter White. And so we say…Score one for the tv guest star!

2.) Loki (Thor/Thor: The Dark World) aka Tom Hiddleston- also known as the great mischief maker from Norse legend! It’s well known that eyebrows were raised when Kenneth Branagh announced he was taking on the Marvel comic-book tale since there would be nary a doublet or cuff anywhere in the arrogant god’s story arc. But in terms of the casting of the antagonist, Branagh was the first to look to his tv past for inspiration. At the time he was starring in the West End in a version of Ivanov with Hiddleston but he had originally crossed paths with him a year or so earlier on the BBC4 remake of Wallander. Now it’d be a safe assumption to make that the upcoming project would have come up in conversation whilst treading the boards with your co-stars but the British director has spoken quite openly about the fact that it was Hiddleston’s layered natural talent on display in the sombre procedural drama that led directly to him being cast as the Machiavellian role of Loki in this barn-storming comic-book movie. Which clearly makes it two for two on the guest star lottery…

3.) Agent Maria Hill (Avengers Assemble) aka Cobie Smulders- or the tight outfitted, power-free (but kick-ass none-the-less) Shield Agent . Whilst not being overtly famous at the time of casting for Avengers Assemble Smulders was at least relatively well known for displaying some comic chops on the sitcom How I Met our Mother (2005). The interesting thing about her coveted role in the superhero mash-up however is that Joss Whedon didn’t follow the trend in exactly the same way as his peers, namely by working with her on tv and thinking she could be the perfect actress for his movie. He relied on his friends. And when Alyson Hannigan (nerd sidekick/witchy mentalist extrordinaire from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) suggested that Whedon audition her for the role (since she co-starred with Smulders on HIMYM and obviously recognised her talents), he took her advice, auditioned her and the rest they say is history! Proof if nothing else, that tv/movie incestuousness definitely has it’s perks.

4.) Dowager Countess of Grantham/Violet Crawley (Downton Abbey) aka Maggie Smith- or the acerbic old-fashioned matriarch of the Crawley family- centre of the ITV British costume drama that’s taken the world by storm with each of its £1 million uber-budget episodes. Given her place in the grand canon of stardom (she has an OBE and a DBE), it’s not much of a stretch to believe that the role was specifically written for the actress by Julian Fellowes’s especially since they collaborated on his adaptation of From Time to Time back in 2009 and a full eight years before that, Fellowes’s personally asked for Smith to play Lady Trentham in his Robert Altman collaboration Gosford Park. What’s most intriguing about their obvious affinity for each other’s work though is that despite her long standing tradition of treading the boards and starring in cinema released films, Fellowes’s is rumoured to have first noticed the actress playing Betsey Trotwood in the tv version of David Copperfield (1999) and based upon that one particular memorable performance began tailor-making roles for the grand dame of British acting.

5.) Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock) aka Benedict Cumberbatch- And finally…Before he was caught up voicing the evil Smaug in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and being followed around by a pack of rabid fans called Cumberbitches, this British export was a jobbing actor popping up in stock fare like Fields of Gold and Silent Witness. But then came his shot at the leading role in the BBC’s new flagship drama Sherlock. And what was it about Benedict that caught the show runner’s eyes, you may ask? Well, both Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss have admitted in interviews that after watching his performance as the deceptively suave Paul Marshall in Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007) they thought that he looked like ‘a perfect Sherlock Holmes,’ instinctively setting about contacting him for the part. And as a result…we now see him as the figurehead for the socially awkward genius- blessed with a lean intelligence and excellent collection of overcoats.

And that my friends is the equivalent of a three hundred yard touchdown for our argument wouldn’t you agree?!…

These are just a few random examples obviously. In fact I have no doubt there are a million more out there to discover on the trivia boards of IMDB and other movie sites. But if nothing else this list shows that just a small amount of exposure and talent can catch the right eye and lead to something absolutely awesome.
And come on, admit it, we all love a bit of hope don’t we?…

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