4 Ways to Create a Character Actors Want to Play

by Jason Hellerman - updated on May 9, 2016

If you're trying to sell a film or television script in the near future you'll be asked one question that really matters: who's attached? Frequently this means who's producing, who's directing, but more often than not the powers that be want to know who'll be playing the lead roles.

Scripts live and die with casting. A great cast or a high-profile attachment can push any project forward and frequently is the difference between what gets made and what does not.

You absolutely NEED some great names to get your project going unless you have a concept that is so economical and a production team willing to work for scale so that you can shoot guerrilla style.

So how do you get bankable cast attachments? It's simple: write characters that top talent would want to play. When talent reads a script, they're looking for a few key things:

1. What does the character WANT?

If you think about your favorite movie or favorite TV show, I bet you can find that they often have something in common. Their protagonists want something, something very clear and tangible. Whether it's Mikey saving his town, Walter White getting money for his cancer, or Erin Brockovich's quest to take care of her family by settling a lawsuit for others, each one of these standouts has a DESIRE. They don't meander when it comes to it — sure, things change over the course of the story and over seasons in a series, but they start out with GOALS.

2. Why aren't they AVERAGE?

Whether they hear voices in the corn, have super-abilities, or share a name with a richer Lebowski, actors want to play characters that are unique, that they can put a personal touch on and that can set them apart. Even stock characters like cops and doctors need to be freed from the old cliches. Think about what Gyllenhaal did in Prisoners — that could have been a boring detective but he played it obsessive, new age, angry, but for an inner purpose.

3. Where do they GO?

Every character has a journey. They're not always after the ark. Sometimes they're after love, solace, acceptance, or revenge. But they MUST have an arc in order for us to find out. This ties in with their want but is not defined by it. In The Santa Claus, Tim Allen wants to be a better father but arcs and learns that he needs to let his ex-wife move on, and that that will lead to him having a better relationship with his son. Give them something to dig into, something that makes them want to portray this life.

4. What do they SAY?

Dialogue often leads actors to great roles. Think about the people who embrace Sorkin and Mamet's words. The fast-paced dialogue of Tarantino or the soft-spoken Sling Blade. What sets these people apart? What part of an actor can they embed in this role and make it their own? Dialogue should not be overdone but should convey the part clearly — sassy, angry, short-tempered, overbearing, eager, desperate, lonely — it all comes from words and actions.

Who are some of your favorite characters in movies? How do they pop off the screen? What are some of your favorite performances?

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