Last week, I mentioned director Alfred Hitchcock’s rule of maximizing a setting. He was also brilliant with his casting. He had to be. In a thriller, there’s little time for backstory or deep character development. I believe Hitchcock knew that if he cast certain kinds of actors who already carried a certain persona with them that would help flesh out their characters without a word of dialogue. If he needed a relatable, easy-going all-American male, he cast James Stewart. If he wanted a debonair leading man, he cast Cary Grant. But Hitchcock also knew the value of casting against type.
Strangers on a Train
In this movie from 1951, two strangers meet on a train. One is a well-known tennis player, Guy Haines . The other is a rich man’s grown son, Bruno Anthony. Haines’s troubled marriage is well publicized, and Anthony suggests they swap murders — he’ll do in Haines’s wife if Haines will kill his father. Haines’s gets away from the weirdo but humoring him and saying he agrees with the idea. Anthony takes him seriously and kills his wife. Now he expects Haines to uphold his end of the deal.
What made Bruno Anthony one of classic movie’s great villains was that he was played by an actor known for his cute, boy-next-door roles. To cast such an actor as a spoiled brat psycho was unusual at the time, but actor Robert Walker was up to the task. His Bruno glides into a room and charms everyone he meets. But when someone thwarts his plans, he’s like a child having a temper tantrum. Only this child has no problem committing murder.
Hitchcock pulled the same trick in Pyscho, casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. Up until that role, the actor had specialized in sensitive types, sometimes battling against stronger characters or his own emotions or neuroses. Norman Bates can be seen as an extreme example of these roles. Anthony Perkins was cast so well that many people in Hollywood couldn’t see him in any part but a psycho after that.
Know Your Genre
One way to create characters that are cast against type is to have a thorough knowledge of the genre in which you write. In YA novels, the bratty rich kid and the decent poor kid are types I find over and over again. Often, the poor kid has won a scholarship to a private school and must deal with mistreatment at the hands of the rich kids until she is accepted or fights back or is changed by some dramatic events. Why not have the poor kid as the villain? One of the rich students could be the main character and comes under the sway of the new, poor kid, who uses others to get ahead.
What character types are you tired of? How would you cast them against type?