Photo: Deswillie, Roughcut TV and Sky

Defining roles – a double-edged sword?

It can be notoriously difficult for actors to break free from the mould of particularly popular roles they have played. A pertinent example of this phenomena is James Van Der Beek, best known for his portrayal of Dawson Leery on the hugely successful teen drama Dawson’s Creek. In recent interviews, the actor has found himself awkwardly fielding questions about a role on a series that hasn’t aired for almost 15 years, despite being on a press tour for his current comedy project, Carters Get Rich. Despite a reasonably successful post-Creek television career, it seems that the actor has been unable to shake off his affiliation with Dawson.

But is a defining role really the worst thing that could happen to a television actor?

For actors who have found themselves trying to move on from defining roles, their opportunities for diverse artistic pursuits have often been limited. Actress Jennifer Aniston made her mark on television history with her ten-year stint as Rachel Green on the hit comedy Friends, for which she won a Golden Globe and an Emmy.

It can be notoriously difficult for actors to break free from the mould of particularly popular roles they have played.

Undeniably, the role of Rachel provided Aniston with a platform to establish herself as a talented comedic actress – a platform from which she has been able to attract multiple opportunities for comedic film roles, such as Bruce Almighty and We’re the Millers.

Jennifer Aniston Credit: Brett Cove, flickr


And yet, Aniston has admitted that she has often felt as though she is ‘battling a persona’ when it comes to being cast in roles due to the lasting resonance of her Friends character, suggesting that she has felt somewhat chained to the comedy genre because of this association. More recently, Aniston was finally cast in her first dramatic leading role in the critically acclaimed 2014 film Cake, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that the actress will always be best recognised as ‘Rachel from Friends’.

On a more positive note, television actors who have found themselves attached to iconic roles that come to define them are also in a uniquely privileged position. Aniston, along with her Friends co-stars, will ultimately be an unforgettable figure in the landscape of television. Sarah Michelle Gellar, most notable for her role as Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has left behind a legacy in television culture regardless of her future accomplishments. It is these defining roles that have garnered their actors a large and loyal following, and that have established them as household names.

Defining roles appear to be somewhat of a double-edged sword for television actors. On one hand, they pave the way for future success and catapult actors permanently into the scenery of television and culture, and on the other, these roles can often inhibit the diversity of opportunities available to actors beyond the scope of the respective show.

‘Deal with it, that role put you where you are today’ seems a little harsh, but there are certainly worse things to be haunted by than a beloved television role.

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