Please Stop Making Hot Actors Play Normal People

Actors are now so consistently fit that films are continually having to “ugly up” demi-gods. It's not fooling anybody.
Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach's White Noise
Adam Driver in Noah Baumbach's White Noise. Photo: PR

“Too Darn Hot” is a song written by Cole Porter for the musical Kiss Me Kate in 1948, but it could also function as a descriptor of the current film scene, a living nightmare in which all actors look good all the time, every merest supporting actor is Insta-ready and dripping with sex appeal, and Anya Taylor-Joy, whose alabaster complexion and exquisite bone structure seem barely of this world, can be employed to play a plain Jane. We walk around in this beautiful hellscape with our eyes numbed to delight, listlessly drinking in this daily diet of physical hotness – for it is also online, this ubiquitous fitness, and at the gym; we even have sexy presidents now. How we hunger to see a huge nose on the silver screen! How we yearn for some wide-open pores! 


The recently released Funny Pages, a fine directorial debut from Owen Kline, set in the world of comic books, is remarkable in many ways – for its sharp and funny script, and its lovely throwback indie aesthetic, all grainy and welcoming. But what is most striking about it, in the film landscape of 2022 – to these eyes at least – is the beautiful un-hotness of its cast. These characters are either ordinary people going about their lives, or social misfits, and Kline’s film, taking its cue from the slacker aesthetics of such artists as Robert Crumb, celebrates these people’s unruly demeanour and ungainly mannerisms, in their bulging eyes, frizzy hair, greasy hair, thinning hair, lolling tits bad skin and wet lips. 

Funny Pages’ central character, a teenage comic book nerd, is reasonably attractive, but no hotter than a six in your immediate friendship circle; and his parents just look like a normal mum and dad. Compare and contrast with the Spider-Man movies, in which the absurdly buff, handsome and confident Tom Holland plays the “nerdy” Peter Parker, and the role of old Aunt May has been handily reimagined as one of the hottest people alive.

Of course, one of these films is a micro-budget indie and the other is an all-conquering blockbuster franchise – but even within the latter world, the evolution of Peter Parker from Tobey Maguire to Tom Holland via Andrew Garfield tells its own story; and that of Aunt May from Rosemary Harris to Marisa Tomei encapsulates our journey from somewhat normal faces to ubiquitous, gratuitous hotness onscreen.


The list goes on. Actors are now so consistently hot that films are continually having to “ugly up” demi-gods in order for them to play Everymen. In the forthcoming White Noise, famously sexy actor Adam Driver will be playing the central role of a professor of Hitler Studies and father of two, following on from his roles in House of Gucci, playing standard-looking Maurizio Gucci, and, most hilariously, in the musical Annette, where Driver’s character is envisioned as some sort of self-loathing monster, a modern-day outcast from Beauty and the Beast. “All the girls I see,” sings Driver, “What do they see in me?” I don’t know, could it be your face chiselled by Michelangelo and pecs like Watership Down?

The director of Annette, Leos Carax, has traditionally worked with Denis Lavant, one of the more unusual and magnetic faces in cinema, with a wiry body and a seeming interest in the monstrous: Lavant, swapped out here for Driver, could far more readily be imagined in this role of a self-hating misogynist, driven to distraction by his jealousy and love for a beautiful princess.

Colin Farrell poses next to a photo of himself in Penguin makeup in "The Batman".

Colin Farrell poses next to a photo of himself in Penguin makeup in "The Batman". Photo: Anthony Behar/Sipa USA

But on we go, to 2022’s The Batman, in which the part of the Penguin was played by handsome ladies’ man Colin Farrell, who got his break in cinema by being appallingly attractive. For the role of the outcast Oswald Cobblepot, Farrell submitted to hours of prosthetics and make-up, rendering him unrecognisable. Good for him, of course – and Farrell gives by far the most fun performance in the ten-hour-long emo nightmare – but was nobody else available? 


Of course, the role of Cobblepot/the Penguin was more famously played, and played better, by Danny De Vito in Batman Returns. De Vito, at four foot ten, has a pleasant enough face but would probably not sell a great many calendars; they kitted him out with a big nose and a big splash of trademark Tim Burton white slap for the role, but otherwise, he works in the part because he embodies that outcast character in his physical properties. Perhaps – whisper it – Danny De Vito was able to draw on some personal experience of turning himself into an outsize character in order to compensate for people’s perception of him?

De Vito came up in the late seventies in the TV show Taxi, alongside such other noteworthy faces as Judd Hirsch (kindly schlub) and Andy Kaufman (grinning maniac). The seventies had already seen the rise of the New Hollywood, in which lead actors like Dustin Hoffman, Michael Caine and Gene Hackman took over from the scrubbed-up golden movie stars of Hollywood. Bud Cort in Harold and Maude, Stacy Keach in Fat City, Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, were some of the more eccentric lead actors in well-received films; in secondary roles, actors like De Vito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif (in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), or John Cazale (Dog Day Afternoon) added texture to proceedings, and perhaps a different kind of film persona. On the women’s side – with the caveat that films made by men tend to cast and objectify more conventionally beautiful women – actors such as Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Jill Clayburgh worked against the received formula, bringing freckles and big eyes, gawky physiques, changeable looks, to the table. 


In the 90s and early 2000s a new wave of independent cinema brought actors to the fore, in secondary and lead roles, who again ran counter to the beauty of the box office stars of the time, the Julia Robertses and Tom Cruises. Steve Buscemi, Paul Giamatti, Illeana Douglas, Don Cheadle, Christina Ricci, Jane Adams, Shirley Henderson, even Vincent Gallo, could provide supporting work or in some cases carry a film. These are people who, however hot you might personally find them, can be character actors, can add flavour and relief to a film. Look how well Philip Seymour Hoffman supports the golden, glowing central cast of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law in The Talented Mr Ripley, opposing to their style and smooth ways in the world something brutish and forceful, a dose of acid to leaven the mix. Where is the Philip Seymour Hoffman of 2022?

A critic must be judicious in his choice of words when describing the looks of professional actors – nobody is calling anybody ugly here! – but it’s worth saying that some faces and physiques in the modern film world are still unconventional. We aren’t yet completely overrun by hunkery. Some actors still bring a hint of normality – most prominently, Jesse Plemons and Olivia Colman. In The Favourite, Colman’s willingness to sully herself, to use her physicality in her performance, seemed to take everybody almost by surprise; playing the spoilt and jealous queen alongside Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone, Colman gets to the heart of her character’s humanity, giving us something wretched and ugly in the way her character comports herself. 


Plemons similarly works against the grain, in such films as I’m Thinking of Ending Things, where his character switches from a kind of exasperated everyman to a forbidding, unknowable man of regal stature. The difference in Plemons’ bearing, the way he is able to seemingly shift registers within himself – these depend on that face being interesting and compelling, giving us reserves of something other, something twisted and painful.

Dakota Johnson in Persuasion

Dakota Johnson as the "spinsterish" Anne in "Persuasion". Photo: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

 The seemingly ubiquitous perfection of other actors in roles unsuited to their faces and what they tell us of the world, is shown up by these performers. What on earth is Dakota Johnson doing playing the spinsterish, occasionally forlorn Anne Elliot in Persuasion? Ncuti Gatwa an outcast nerd in Sex Education? Lily James a mousy maid in Rebecca? Every single actor in The Crown is hotter than their real life counterpart by a factor of 50. All this does is create a functionally glossy world of smiling faces; there can be something pleasant in that, but it doesn’t train the audience’s eye, doesn’t command you. 

The Insta-ready hunkery of many modern actors – the cast of Top Gun: Maverick have 500 abs between them – is often notably jarring when playing characters from all but very recent history, but, added to social media platforms simply heaving with conformingly plastic individuals, it can lead to a disquieting sense of monotony, a creeping, formless familiarity, in which one more gorgeous somebody is functionally equivalent to another, like interchangeable brown-haired thots in a Ryan Murphy show. Perhaps a revolution is on the way, and we will see a new rise of schmoes, of sadsack faces, of people who could plausibly play a banker; perhaps in turn we will cast aside our chemical peels. Maybe the actors about to kickstart it are still in school, where their beautiful, immaculately-presented peers call them names like “No-Likes McGee”, or “Ariana Venti”. We await them with bated breath.