Kevin Spacey is an iconic actor. The moment I saw him in The Usual Suspects, my first thought was “oh look, there’s Kevin Spacey,” immediately followed by, “I wonder if he’s the villain of this movie.” There’s something about an unyielding monotone that conveys sinister intentions. Moreover, certain actors —such as Spacey— have been typecast as villainous characters.
Anyone who’s seen the movie Seven will have trouble seeing Kevin Spacey as anything other than a villain, especially considering the similarities in delivery between his character in Seven and Verbal Kent in The Usual Suspects, it’s hard not to immediately peg him as the villain.
The is one of the risks and gains of casting high profile actors in leading roles. Admittedly, Usual Suspects was released in the same year as Seven and even slightly before, but an actor’s work quickly becomes cumulative rather than chronological. There is no set linear order in which consumers see and discuss and actor’s work.
As game review Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw points out in his review of Advanced Warfare, Spacey has become instantly identifiable as the villain archetype. Many actors carry similarly inescapable molds with them: Tom Cruise, the peerless action hero; Jim Carrey, the wacky physical comedian; Morgan Freeman, the wise and worldly authority figure.
Just as each of these actors have their archetypes, Kevin Spacey has become typecast into the role of the unwavering, flawless, and unshakeable calm antagonist. There’s many strengths to having actor archetypes in films. For one, it’s a wildly successful marketing technique: branding a film into a certain narrative mold based on its high profile actors. It’s also undeniable that Spacey and each of the aforementioned actors are masters of their respective archetypes. Even if their range of roles is lesser, their ability with particular molds is unparalleled.
However, this mold based casting and characterization also has severe limitations. In the example of The Usual Suspects the best twist in the film was already spoiled for me, merely by Spacey’s casting. This approach to filmmaking also compresses the diversity of characters seen in high profile, big budget films. That being said, it is fortunate that Hollywood has just as many dynamic performers as it does archetypal actors.