Meta Casting

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

Actors are prone to having their own personality... surprise! They may be gifted in being able to portray someone else, but often that baggage of their own distinct personality can cross over into the minds of the general public. There is also past roles they they will be eternally known for.

The use of Meta Casting is taking an actor and crafting a role that utilizes their known history to create a resonance between the performance and the audience that makes the whole thing far more dynamic than it could have been in any other way. As an example, take an actor who is famous for having altercations with obnoxious tabloid reporters. Take that same actor and cast them in a role of a famous businessman who kills a reporter for harassing him constantly. In some cases the actual role is almost an Expy of themselves, as in they're playing an actor with a suspiciously similar history.

This can come in multiple ways:

  • Adam Westing- Using an actors famous role in a form of self-parody. Contractual Purity often results in formerly child-friendly actors behaving in very much "family unfriendly" behavior.
  • Casting Gag- Using their history with another actor or an older franchise incarnation. Possibly in a Remake Cameo they use The Hero of the original to be a mentor or give their blessing to the new crew.
  • Actor Shared Background- The role is written with the actual (non-acting) history of the actor in place. A few former criminals with jail time have gained a history of playing hardened criminals.
  • The Cast Showoff- The skills and talents of the actor is integrated into the character, helping the actor feel more comfortable and give the character more depth. An episode might be writing to show a previously non-singing character to have the same vocal abilities as their actor.
  • Cast the Expert- Rather than hiring an actor to portray a professional in some field, they hire someone who actually is in that field, which gives the performance an additional air of credibility with Shown Their Work. Martial artists are among the first people chosen to headline action movies, see Bruce Lee.

In many cases this can be And the Fandom Rejoiced; the fans latch on to that resonance and appreciate it.

Compare Casting Gag (where the actor has a past history with the franchise or other actors), Actor Allusion (a nod to other roles they played), Ink Suit Actor, Celebrity Paradox, Reality Subtext and Enforced Method Acting.

Examples of Meta Casting include:


  • Robert Downey, Jr.. was cast as Iron Man not only because he is a good actor, but has had problems in the past with drug abuse. That added extra weight to a man who is struggling to redeem himself for past mistakes; a man who is also known for having problems with alcohol.
    • Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark for most practical purposes.
    • Samuel L. Jackson was cast as Nick Fury because Ultimate Nick Fury's character design was based on him anyway, and as part of using his likeness he got the role in a live action film using the character.
    • Downey did it again in Sherlock Holmes, playing the titular ace detective with drug and adjustment problems.
  • Bruce Willis in Unbreakable as a man who is struggling with the idea that he might be Made of Iron and no one else is. Thinking about John McClane while watching the movie makes it that much more thoughtful.
  • John Wayne in The Shootist playing an aging gunfighter dying of cancer in a world where he realises he's an anachronism. What's more is that most everyone expected this to be his last film, and it was.
  • Keanu Reeves as a drug addicted cop in A Scanner Darkly. He's just Dull Surprise'd enough to seem plausible as a guy whose mind is slowly deteriorating from substance D.
    • Everyone in A Scanner Darkly. Not only does it have the aforementioned Reeves and Robert Downey, Jr., but also Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, Rory Cochrane. What a cast to play a bunch of stoners!
  • Hilary Duff in War, Inc where she plays a pop star who is overly saturated as a sex symbol, which while not exactly descriptive of Duff's life and career it does come fairly close to use this trope.
  • Christopher Reeve in the Rear Window remake.
  • Audie Murphy. Enlisted in the US Army at 16 by falsifying his birth records, and proceeded to win more medals than he had places to put them in WWII. This included every single medal awarded by the US at the time, several more than once, along with medals from the French and Belgian governments. He then came home and starred in several war movies as a young recruit who performed heroic deeds on the battlefield, including The Red Badge of Courage and a movie based on his own war experiences.
  • School of Rock cast several child musicians, rather than child actors to play the young musician characters. Jack Black himself is part of Tenacious D.
    • Bonus points for the fact that the kid who played Larry (the pianist) had to go through the same classical-to-rock transition that the character did.
  • Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star had the main character go for a role in a Rob Reiner film and he was considered perfect for the role in every regard except that he never had a normal childhood. So he goes off to quickly get a normal childhood. Essentially he is working to invoke this trope In-Universe to get a role.
  • Ben Stein as a high school economics teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
  • The Wrestler casts Mickey Rourke, a down-on-his-luck actor looking for a comeback, as a down-on-his-luck wrestler looking for a comeback.
  • Jesse Ventura in The Running Man. Retired hunter turns play by play commentator.
    • And that's to say nothing of Richard Dawson playing an established game show host who was loved by the fans but was a real jerk when it came to backstage politics.
  • In-universe use: In Mr. Saturday Night there was a part in a film based on Buddy Young Jr. (the protagonist), but he didn't get the role because the writer/director thought he was dead so he cast Walter Matthau(?) instead. Buddy auditions for another part, but stops and says "this isn't me."
  • Rocky Balboa cast a real life boxer to play Mason Dixon because according to Stallone it is easier to teach a boxer how to act than teach an actor how to box.
    • Same also applies to the casting of Tommy Morrison as Tommy "Machine" Gunn in Rocky V. That one didn't really work out so well though.
    • Not to mention Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in Rocky III.
      • Yeah and we got Scandinavian double black belt Dolph Lundgren as Drago in IV. Rocky LOVES this trope.
  • R. Lee Ermey started as a consultant for Full Metal Jacket and was eventually cast in the role of Drill Sergeant Nasty. He was a former Marine, after all.
  • Tropic Thunder works almost entirely because it plays with the actual personalities of the actors portraying fictional actors. Robert Downey Jr plays an obsessive method actor who goes to extremes to play a role, to the detriment of his peers. Jack Black plays a comic who only plays obnoxious buffoons in Toilet Humor movies. In fact, some people expressed disappointment that Ben Stiller wasn't an Expy of himself (A sympathetic everyman who is a Cosmic Plaything) instead of the Stallone-like action hero he was in the movie. Jay Baruchel plays the little-known actor who isn't even mentioned on the poster, which is often what he is in real life.
  • Donald Sutherland's right hand man in Outbreak, Dale Dye, was a captain in the Marine Corps. He has made a secondary career out of playing military officers.
    • His tertiary career is teaching actors how to play military officers.
    • In his spare time, he also acts as a military advisor for first-person shooters. Medal of Honor names its Harder Than Hard modes after him.
  • Paris Hilton in Repo! The Genetic Opera appears to be this ? she plays a bitchy, slutty, egotistical heiress, which matches at least her public image perfectly ? but she was initially not even allowed to audition and had to fight to win the part. Still a case of What the Hell, Casting Agency?.
  • The holographic operator of the Decepticon vehicles in Transformers, "Moustache Man", is an actual pilot for the US military who was qualified to fly the various vehicles he appeared in. He even delayed his wedding to play Barricade's Moustache Man at the request of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg.
  • Peter Sellers took this trope into his own hands and put a twist on it. He often commented in interviews that he had no real personality and was nothing beyond the many colorful characters he played. After he read Being There, he contacted author Jerzy Kosinski about getting a film adaptation made because he saw in it the role he was meant to play all along. That would be Chance the Gardener, a mentally-challenged man whose personality is so underdeveloped that he can only reflect other people's assumptions and desires, which makes each one of them see him as everything he or she ever wanted—a passionate-yet-discreet lover, a brilliant thinker, etc. The resultant performance is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of his career, even though it is worlds removed from most of his other work tonally.
  • Robert Rodriguez-favorite Danny Trejo, a Mexican ex-con who got into acting after leaving his past behind. As a result of his past, he almost always plays The Brute-type characters, like in Desperado, Predators, From Dusk till Dawn, and most recently, Machete.
  • After her infamous Saks Fifth Avenue shoplifting debacle, Winona Ryder played in a movie called The Ten, which was an Anthology Film that riffed on the Ten Commandments. The subject of Ryder's segment? "Thou Shalt Not Steal."
  • Memento required a Smug Snake type character for the antagonist, so they hired Joe Pantoliano, whose career is virtually nothing but. Except, of course, that his character is innocent of the crime he's killed for in the film's opening. The role relies heavily on his typecasting to make the audience assume he's the bad guy, when he's the closest thing the protagonist has to a real friend. Virtually anyone but a typecast actor would have given the audience room to doubt.
  • In the Remake of The Karate Kid a lot of people initially scoffed at casting Jackie Chan as the Mr. Miyagi counterpart, Mr. Han, largely because it sounded like a fanboy's wish list. But when the movie itself came out people noted that because of Chan's reputation as a martial arts master, it gave a great deal more validity to him as a teacher and to the idea of 'Dre becoming so good in such a short period of time. Instant Expert? He was trained by Jackie Chan!
  • T.I. took this route in his movie ATL, in which he plays a struggling artist in Atlanta. He himself grew up in a poorer part of Atlanta.
  • George Clooney's character in Up in the Air is a charming bachelor with no plans of marriage. The part was specifically written for him.
  • Miley Cyrus played the lead in the 2012 American remake of a French Black Comedy called "LOL". She plays the role of a Bratty Teenage Daughter who is seen by her mother as perfect and goody-two-shoes, but leads in private an active sex life, smokes, drinks, does drugs and has a raunchy mouth. The tables are turned as her mother reads her Facebook page and learns of her sordid sexual posts. Though the role was not written expressly for her, it has interesting subtext as Miley in Real Life had at that point just begun her evolution beyond her Hannah Montana days.
  • In Sunset Boulevard, the character of Norma Desmond, a forgotten silent film star was played by Gloria Swanson, a forgotten silent film star. His butler, Max von Mayerling who used to be a leading silent film director is played by Eric von Stroheim, who used to be a leading silent film director.
  • In Dreamgirls, Beyonce Knowles plays Deena, one of the members of a '60s Girl Group who ends up getting promoted more than the other band members (partially because of her relationship with the manager) and even leads to one member being fired from the band. In real life, Beyonce was the Face of the Band for Destiny's Child and is the one who has had the most successful solo career afterwards. Some people feel that the only reason that's true is because Beyonce's father was the manager. What takes this to another level of meta is that Beyonce actually got top billing over Jennifer Hudson, even though Hudson's character is the main character of the story.
  • In Flashback, Dennis Hopper, who had played radical characters, most famously in Easy Rider, plays a former 60's radical under arrest for crimes committed back then.

Live Action TV

  • Christopher Reeve in his role in Smallville as Virgil Swann. The past Superman is telling the current Superman where he came from and who he is. Often considered the Crowning Moment of Awesome for the show.
  • In the third season of Slings and Arrows, William Hutt's character is enticed out of retirement to play at the New Burbage theater festival while dying of cancer. Hutt himself had several "retirements" from the Stratford Festival (on which New Burbage is based) and died of leukemia shortly after Slings And Arrows was filmed.
  • Undeclared inverted this trope where the characters' personalities, and even their home city/country, were based on the actors they hired. The DVD Commentary would frequently point out that a recurring actor really did have that kind of slightly-off personality.
  • Everyone's favorite goth girl, NCIS lab tech Abby Sciuto, has a lot in common with her actress, Pauley Perrette. Not just the tattoos, but the story Abby tells Kate in the first episode, about poking around in an old junkyard being the start of her forensics path, is actually straight out of Perette's life.
    • In another example from the same show, Michael Weatherly plays Tony DiNozzo, who comes from a rich family but has been cut off. This is actually true of Weatherly's own family, as his own father cut him off when he dropped out of college and became an actor. Various other bits of his real life history have been used as gags (including how his family made their money and that he was once engaged to Jessica Alba) and Tony's movie references became a character element after a few too many of his ad-libs were movie-based.
    • Sean Murry is also almost as much of a geek as McGee.
  • Dennis Farina usually plays cops and mobsters, which maybe isn't surprising considering he was a Chicago police officer for almost 20 years before taking up acting. His Law and Order character is even mentioned as previously being a Chicago cop.
  • Michael J. Fox on Scrubs was cast to play Dr. Kevin Casey, a double certified (medical/surgical) visiting doctor with extreme OCD. While he proceeded to show-up everyone in the cast with his skills despite his genius and generally positive outlook, his OCD is a very powerful demon that he can never truly ignore. Fox's bodily tics from Parkinsons added weight to the performance and the message.
  • Charlie Sheen's first episode on Spin City showed that his character Charlie Crawford has had many social issues in the past, including wild womanizing and drugs. At the end of the episode he very publically apologized to a past fling explaining that he has entire weeks he doesn't remember, one where he ended up in a tour bus with a bunch of groupies "And I wasn't even in a band!"
    • Sheen's more recent issues makes this a very cyclical ordeal.

Video Games

  • Toby Gard - the mastermind behind Tomb Raider who also designed anti-heroine Lara Croft - originally claimed Croft was a caricature of his sister, Francis. He changed his mind about this two decades later (after a lot of fans started to view Croft in ways he had never intended) instead claiming Croft was inspired by Tank Girl and singer Neneh Cherry. However, he kind of contradicted this statement by saying how sore he was about the industry "prostituting" his own sister. Clearly, this sounded better to him than admitting he had been portraying his own sister as an over-sexualized Ms. Fanservice for 20 years.

Western Animation