This is a question that gets a run every so often. It usually takes the form of a survey of movie choices made by a handful of super-stars over the previous couple of years. What-kind-of-scripts-did-they-choose, and let's-take-a-guess-at-why.
It's as good a method as any, even if fashions come and go. The screenplays chosen for William Powell and Morna Loy were not the same as those chosen for Rock Hudson and Doris Day, or Meg Ryan and any of her long list of leading men.
Eighteen months ago, Carson Reeves had a crack at the exercise in a post called How To Write For An A-List Actor in his blog Script Shadow. He discusses the movies Seven Pounds (Will Smith), The Book of Eli (Denzel Washington), Knight and Day (Tom Cruise), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), Salt (Angelina Jolie), Alice in Wonderland (Johnny Depp), Inception (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Blind Side (Sandra Bullock), Dinner for Schmucks (Steve Carell), Green Zone (Matt Damon), and Greenberg (Ben Stiller).
I won't bother you with all the bits and pieces (you can read that on his blog if you want to), but here are his conclusions.
- You have to ask yourself when writing a script: Is this a role an actor would want to play? I’m not sure we can make any universal conclusions here, but I did pick up on some trends that might help us answer this question.
- The role has to be challenging in some capacity. True, many of these actors are slapping down product in the middle of the summer where mediocrity reigns supreme, but that doesn’t mean they want neutered down roles. These thespians have gotten to the top of the heap by playing dozens, if not hundreds, of characters. They’re looking for something new and different. Brad Pitt plays a character not only at many different ages in his life, but plays those ages on a reverse timeframe. That’s challenging stuff. Denzel Washington plays a character who rarely speaks, who emotes only with his eyes and his actions. That’s a challenge. DiCaprio operates in a dreamworld where he has imprisoned his wife. Every time he goes into that dreamworld, he’s faced with a sea of conflicting emotions.
- I think your character needs to be heroic. A lot of these characters are saving other people. I hate to state the obvious, but actors are very egotistical. They want to play God and save others. There’s nothing more heroic than that. Just remember, heroism doesn’t always mean stopping an asteroid from hitting earth. It can mean delivering the last bible across a post-apocalyptic U.S. It can mean committing suicide to have your organs save seven other people. Whether you’re saving a nation or saving others, look for ways to make your characters heroic.
- Characters should have something going on inside of them, as well as outside. Running around shooting people is fun, but it’s not stretching any acting muscles. You gotta give ’em some toys to play with upstairs. Benjamin Button has an ongoing physical transformation, as well as having to deal with the realities of being different from everyone else. Denzel Washington gets to shred people into sushi, yet must learn to open himself up to others. Tom Cruise gets to fly around on cars, but still must learn to be selfless before he can find happiness. Note how in two of these cases (Cruise and Washington’s) the internal stuff is tied to the character arc, and in Benjamin’s case it’s more of a general internal battle that never arcs. That’s fine. Whether you’re arcing your character, or not, at the very least give them some kind of issue they’re struggling with internally.
- Look at some of your own favorite actors, the ones you envision playing heroes in your scripts, and break down their last ten roles, like I did here. See if you can find any patterns in their choices. That could be the key to making them say 'yes' to you.