The Good, the Bad and the Unknown: Why Top Actors are Not Always the Best Choice


Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), with internationally acclaimed actor David Wenham (The Lord of the Rings, 300, The Proposition) in the lead role. With a mostly stellar cast, and an intriguing and deceptively intricate set design, I was unsurprised by the few seats that remained empty throughout the show. Adhering to tradition, the play was performed in the time of 1692-93, with relevant costuming and language. However, when the performance ended after 3 hours of running time, I departed with more questions than when I entered. Wenham’s performance, one which usually knocks me out, was distressingly underwhelming. What happened? Such a big name star, especially for Australian audiences, was sure to attract innumerable patrons, and indeed he had – but did every one of those consumers leave utterly satisfied? I struggle to believe that they did, which is unfortunate, because it is obvious that Wenham has the talent and dedication to perfect such a role as John Proctor. To his credit, he achieved some excellent moments, points of light and shade within Proctor, often moments that were pivotal to the narrative, but overall, he gave too little and was given too much.

On some occasions, this is the outcome of having a globally famous actor attached to a smaller-scale project. To young jobbing performers and drama school students in Victoria, the Melbourne Theatre Company is a big deal. To David Wenham, probably a little less. In no way does that mean that he sacrificed any of his capabilities or committed anything less than his whole self, but it does almost certainly mean that audiences expect greater and more stirring things. Even if you take into account that he may be a film and television actor, an artist of that level of versatility should be able to deliver a moving and thought-provoking performance. Sorry Dave, don’t take it personally. Of course, this extends far beyond Mr. Wenham. No matter the amount of fame or level of adaptability, some actors may not just fit right for a particular part. Talent and appropriateness are not synonymous with each other. Some roles are meant to be played by certain performers (see Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man) whereas some characters should be passed on to more caring (and better suited) owners. Additionally, there are always extra reasons as to why a famous actor in a lesser-scale piece may not always be agreeable. They might be taking it on for the wrong reasons, such as for more fame or money (when they’re not in need of it). Their stage presence, or in fact, their ego, may dwarf the other performers and leave them stranded to watch their part in a show slip by. In these cases, the allure of a big-name performer in a locally consumed live project may not be so alluring after all.

Like (almost) always, there are two sides to this argument. Fortunately, I have borne witness to some excellent portrayals by famous actors in live performance pieces. James McAvoy in Macbeth. David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing. Robyn Nevin in every production in Australia this year. Mostly, these actors have been trained in both film and live theatre, so perhaps this is why they excel. Plus, Shakespeare’s titles often attract the masses, due to the never-ending yet still fascinating interpretations that are developed across the globe. The actor’s name works to lure in huge audiences, and their talent and presence ensures a terrific performance. Although The Crucible has been titled ‘a masterpiece of 20th century theatre’, Wenham’s extensive credentials and reputation within the Australian and New Zealand theatre industry surely aided ticket sales. I overheard a man in the foyer ask his wife whether this play “had any magic spells” in it. Another pronounced it “The Croosh-able”. It became evident that not every person in that audience knew the background of the show, let alone had read the original playtext (I envy them). Wenham’s presence was clearly invaluable. I don’t doubt that some patrons came to see the show purely for him, and while that means that the remaining ensemble of actors and core text may have been overlooked, that still means another ticket sold, another seat filled and another thoughtful review. Theatre is as much its audience as it is the individuals involved, and sometimes a dash of star quality is necessary to ensure a sizeable audience and thus a financially successful show.

Usually, famous actors are hired for theatrical performances because they are GOOD, that much is obvious. They have achieved this level of recognition through at least one astounding work and more often than not, this guarantees some level of excellence in future projects. I had desperately hoped this for Wenham. And perhaps he did deliver… just maybe not in the way that I had expected. Despite this, his face across MTC’s advertising clearly attracted several excited audience members to a live production that may have been foreign to them before. They might have even loved it. This, in itself, is delightful. The consumption of theatre, whether one’s presence can be attributed to Kristin Chenoweth’s beautiful visage stamped across billboards, or their simple love of the arts, is to be celebrated and encouraged. While employing famous actors in lesser-scale productions may lead to a few problematic encounters, they also have the power to put people in theatre stalls and evoke enough excitement in them to tell their friends. If globally recognised performers can share something utterly unknown or, even better, completely familiar with an audience, and they still leave with a smile, I’ll drink to that. I might even invite David around for a few.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. S.Holland

    One must remember the casting directors. Acting is a job like any other, and if payed well, you take it. The casting directors must make the right choices.

    • Claire Macallister

      Of course! However, I reckon some cases, with the better-known actors (and often, higher paid), they do have the option to say no. I fully understand the reasons to say yes, though.

  2. I am sure that you agree with me on this. Some of the greatest theatre performances are the ones that that we know least about. And with “we”, I am referring to the mainstream audience.

  3. Having had the privilege of seeing the Royal Shakespeare version a few years ago in London I feared the worst for MTCs and decided to hold off until it was reviewed. Looks like a good call.

    • Darin Isreal

      Almost every review that I have read has given it 1 star, but maybe you should watch it and judge yourself?

      Anyway, this is a very good article and as much an important discussion.

      • Claire Macallister

        Thank you! Adam, I reckon it’s worth seeing it for the set design (which I thought was spectacular) and definitely some of the ensemble members do a great job. Don’t let me put you off, it is really all up to your interpretation and expectations.

  4. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    Lots of important points raised in this article. Of course, credit where credit is due, but it’s certainly true that big name starts generate a lot of pre-expectations and the pressure to deliver and match these must be quite intense. One wonders if the disappointment, should it arise. largely stems from the acting itself, or from (subconscious?) unfulfilled pre-expectations? It is perhaps too difficult to tell.

  5. As long as the actor is cast based on talent, I’m usually happy. Sadly, you are right when you say that a big name can attract more people.

    I’ve seen a couple adaptations of Hamlet, some being on the stage and others in film, and so far the best that I’ve seen was Dan Donohue, a million times better than some of the big name stars that have taken on that role.

  6. This is a really good article! I think many people expect well known actors/actresses to be the star of the show, but as you have said it is not always the case. I am definitely one of those people who have high expectations of well-known actors, but perhaps now I will lower them.

  7. Catherine Sweeney

    Especially movies like valentines day or movie 43, i had huge expectations but these films were just awful however i do think that a lot of big named actors that are cast for their actong abilities generallymake the films better

  8. Great article! Casting big-name actors is, nowadays, a purely marketing-based decision. Yes they may be great actors, but the executives are relying on their star power and magnetism to draw people to anything they do. Nowadays, character actors are getting recognition for embodying a role without relying on studio issues and giant pay checks to do so.

  9. Sierra Throop

    I agree with your points in this article. I was talking about something similar with my friend the other day. Some actors that are typecasted have strong associations with a certain kind of personality and when they depart from their “usual” roles, it is sometimes difficult to stop thinking about the actor and to simply enjoy the film. Sometimes it is better and less distracting have an anonymous face.

  10. Jessica Eve Kennedy

    I saw the David Tennant/Catherine Tate MAAN and it was so brilliant, and I think one of the most appealing aspects about it was how passionate about it they seemed to be – made most clearly as they took their applause, but evident in their performances. I can imagine that actors who are big names and very used to the situation might sometimes be less excited about the experience, though, and think that would be a less enjoyable audience experience. You can usually sense the vibe of the performer.

    A lot of the plays I’ve seen, I’ve gone to because of a certain name and I’m yet to be disappointed by any of them actually. Generally, I’ve felt like the actors have been cast in roles that are well-suited to them as well as it being a good marketing thing.

  11. There’s a real marketing pull casting the “famous name” in a stage production. David Tennant for me was stellar in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard 11 at Stratford upon Avon. A real stage talent who was probably made even better by artistic director Greg Doran. In sharp contrast the RSC commitment to new actors from the States for Anthony and Cleopatra was a real disappointment. in principle I support these collaborations but for a great night out at the theatre, the big name out shone the newbies…..

  12. Erica Beimesche

    You are spot on! I haven’t seen Wenham’s “Crucible,” but I did have the pleasure of seeing the show in London with Richard Armitage starring. It was fantastic on all accounts, and Armitage (a big movie actor) did a great job on stage. Martin Freeman in “Richard III” was wonderful as well. Luckily these were instances in which casting famous actors not only brought in huge crowds and exposed new people to theatre, but were actually acted well. Great article!

  13. Great article, however it is worth noting that hearing a “big name” actor in a play can often heighten audiences expectations to nearly impossible standards. I’ve never been one to watch plays with big names in them because I like to go in with no pre-conceived ideas of what to expect from the actors. It makes the play more enjoyable imho.

  14. I decided to leave a note after considering the news in New York theatre over the last few days, with Bradley Cooper opening in “The Elephant Man” and Sting jumping in to try to save his musical, ‘The Last Ship.” Big name actors are definitely a double-edged sword. Here in NY we’re seeing that celebrities do not always set a box office on fire. Twenty years ago they were nearly guaranteed to do so (with, unfortunately, Sting being the exception that proves the rule with his Threepenny Opera). Today, with the glut of stars on Broadway, it takes something VERY big — a Bradley Cooper or a Hugh Jackman — to get audiences interested. And we shouldn’t forget that having celebrities in a cast raises the weekly operating costs of the show as well — not only through celebrity salaries, but through housing, security, etc. — so star casting is far from a foregone moneymaker.

  15. A strong thought-provoking article. I agree with many of the points you’ve raised.

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