When Action Stars Are Allowed to Act

By  · Published on May 12th, 2015

Hollywood is rarely better at pigeon-holing than when it pigeon-holed action stars. Big muscled heroes get to run, shout and wield flamethrowers, but they rarely get chances to stretch their acting muscles. Getting to the chopper doesn’t count as character development, and usually it’s only established powerhouses who can branch out to make something that “legitimizes” them. The catch-22 there is obvious: in order to be seen as something other than an action star, you have to cement yourself firmly enough as an action star.

The other option is to wait it out. That’s arguably what Arnold Schwarzenegger has done with his return to cinema after taking a sabbatical to run a relatively large global economy. Christopher Campbell noted last year that his post-retirement movies have all maintained the flavor of his early glories, that they all resemble the Schwarzenegger that we used to know.

That’s not the case with Maggie— a slow-burn zombie movie where Schwarzenegger’s character faces the existential crisis of whether or not to kill his infected little girl or sink deeper into a delusion of saving something beyond his grasp. Critics have been mixed-to-negative on the film with a handful proclaiming it’s the best acting work Schwarzenegger has done. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but even simply watching the trailer you get a sense that this is definitely the most overtly act-y acting that he’s ever even attempted. He doesn’t even run once in that trailer, and it’s like they forgot the one-liners altogether.

It’s also not the first time an action star has acted. In fact, judging from the unenthusiastic cheering from both audiences and critics, it’s probably safe to say that Schwarzenegger’s best performance is still in Last Action Hero. Jack Slater is a phenomenal role because it places the biggest action hero of all time firmly in his wheelhouse and outside the usual comfort zone simultaneously. It’s a send-up that requires Schwarzenegger to mock his persona while reveling in the very things we love about that persona, and if you think that’s an easy acting task, try making fun of yourself right now. Good. Now trying making fun of yourself without making yourself look like an asshole.

It’s a role that required 100% self-awareness and self-acceptance to make the jokes possible. It also required Schwarzenegger to put a twist on his own talent, to play five degrees off from center, and he nails it in a way that proved his worth beyond mere personality. Imagine, for a second, Steven Seagal attempting something like this. Now try to shake it off.

Schwarzenegger brought humanity to a role meant to be a cartoon and let everyone know he was in on the gag. Another option would be Kindergarten Cop, where he’s asked again to empathize and grow a softer side even as he gets to run through a mall with his weapon brandished.

Of course, the funny thing here about judging the acting talent of action stars, particularly in this case, is the slanted metric that it comes with. The truth is that most of Schwarzenegger’s performance are great because he sells us on the character. That’s what matters most. Just because he isn’t weeping or staring off into impossible situations doesn’t mean he’s not acting the hell out of an explosion scene.

Still, the question of the best acting done by a group not known for emoting is really fascinating, especially because of how diverse the group gets.

Someone like Sylvester Stallone stands out as getting his start because of his acting (and writing) abilities. He rode the United Artists edge of the American New Wave with Rocky, showed himself to be a competent director, but tacked closer to the 80s action star lane. That might be because of what the Rocky franchise became, or because of us all misremembering how brooding First Blood really was.

It’s easy to imagine that he launched his career with his best role; Rocky Balboa is a nuanced, strident figure facing an intense amount of pressure who ultimately gains a lesson instead of a trophy (do they give trophies for boxing?) at the end of the narrative. It’s beautiful, and Stallone doesn’t have many roles that come close to its prestige. His turn as the sheriff in James Mangold’s Cop Land comes close, but the only other option is probably, fittingly, his latter-day return to Rocky as a grizzled figure separated by years from the schlock the franchise had morphed into.

There are also actors like Kurt Russell and Sigourney Weaver who appeared in a wide berth of roles and genres but who still easily earned the action star label even if it isn’t the first thing we notice about them. There’s a lot of them, in fact, and maybe that’s the cheat. Even during an era where someone could become famous solely for greasing up biceps and shooting infinity bullets at bad guys, there are still only a handful of genuine action stars who spring to mind specifically for filling that role and only that role.

In the modern era, that’s become the norm. It’s not like we think of Scarlett Johansson or Denzel Washington strictly as action stars even if they show up to kick ass with regularity. Stars like Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson have been able to branch out early enough and bring a sense of emotion to some of their action roles. Diesel even had a Stallone-esque start to his career when Steven Spielberg recognized his talent and cast him in Saving Private Ryan. Whatever the current persona, none of these figures are considered meatheads or solely built for action films. The Rock is arguably the biggest, action star’s action star – or the closest thing to the 1980s version of that today – and he’s done comic turns (Get Smart) and the beautifully bizarre inanity of range that was Pain and Gain.

Stallone and Schwarzenegger had a few branch-out gems in their careers early on as well, but they were also stuck with a singular label in a way that Johnson and Diesel don’t have to contend with – or at least they don’t have to contend with it to the degree of their ancestors.

Recently, Jackie Chan lamented that he wasn’t considered a serious actor, saying he wanted to be known as, “the Asian Robert de Niro.” It’s not too late. Schwarzenegger isn’t lighting up awards circuits or anything, but he and Chan are both proving that it’s easier to broaden your range once you’ve established yourself as an action icon and aged out enough distance between yourself and the version of yourself that didn’t need so much arthritis medication. Hopefully they’re just getting started.

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