Actors Migrating from Film to TV

By Amit Jagwani  | 

There was a time when movies occupied the highest echelon of entertainment, while television programming was seen as the younger sibling of that more elevated medium. But recent decades have witnessed a shift in this dynamic, sparked arguably by HBO’s 1999 premiere of the now-iconic serial TV show, The Sopranos. Silver-screen programming has since continued to evolve in narrative complexity and depth of character development, while simultaneously witnessing a boom in budgets and production value. Case in point: Game of Thrones’ final season cost a groundbreaking $15 million per episode to make. The golden age of television has truly arrived, bringing with it a bevy of A-list film stars now leaping to the small screen. Here’s why some celebs are changing the game of TV viewing.

Meatier Roles for Women
Despite advancements regarding gender equality in entertainment, there’s still work to be done. Prior to the pandemic, Hollywood’s six largest studios only planned to release a total of 15 films directed by women in 2020, the same low number as last year. It’s anyone’s guess what that number will actually be given the dramatic changes in release schedules wrought by the Coronavirus. The low number of films directed by women is one of the reasons some fierce females are making a move from film to TV. British actress Carey Mulligan, who starred opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby, recently opted for a role on the BBC show Collateral, explaining that television currently contains “all the well-written parts for actresses.” In 2016, Reese Witherspoon launched her own production company, Hello Sunshine, with the aim of generating more women-centric stories for TV and getting women working behind the camera. She optioned Big Little Lies one year later, drawn to the hit HBO miniseries precisely because it featured an all-star female cast including (among others) Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, both of whom had little previous television experience.

Narrative Ambition
It’s no coincidence that the advent of modern serial shows (think: Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, The Crown, Mad Men, to name only a few) aligned with a spike in TV popularity. Plots unfolding in this sequential fashion are inherently able to hook viewers via thoughtfully developed storylines plus peaking cliffhangers that leave fans craving more. Further, the longevity of an episodic series means actors have time to plumb the rich depths of character motivation and evolution. Two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali traded Hollywood for Arkansas to star in last year’s third season of True Detective, following in the footsteps of fellow motion-picture leading men Matthew McConaughey and Colin Farrell. Other TV projects attract A-listers because they’re based on literary bestsellers. Benedict Cumberbatch, of The Imitation Game fame, leads as Patrick Melrose in the eponymous Showtime miniseries from the novels by Edward St Aubyn. And Amy Adams starred in 2018’s Sharp Objects, adapted from the highly anticipated Gillian Flynn thriller.

Passion Projects
Television offers terrific opportunities to those well-established film celebrities looking to develop a passion project or try their hand at something new. Two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett worked to realize the arrival of Stateless for seven years, after first conceiving the idea in her kitchen in 2013. The Australian drama series launched on ABC in March, telling a timely immigration tale from four different yet converging points of view. Blanchett takes on a non-lead role for her first high-end TV appearance, which she felt was the ideal medium because the show’s impactful themes could directly “reach people in their homes.” In February, Al Pacino, meanwhile, made his episodic television debut in Amazon’s Hunters, playing the role of a wealthy Holocaust survivor in 1970s Brooklyn. In many ways, the part is a departure for the 79-year-old actor, who was lured by long-form TV’s longer arcs and the chance to dabble in a medium that wasn’t available years ago. Advancements in actors’ projects will be fun to follow, as the television landscape continues to evolve.

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Amit Jagwani
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