Should bio-pics cast stars or lookalikes?

Movie boss says Grant Bowler was perfect as Richard Burton, but Lindsay Lohan was a double-edged sword as Liz Taylor.

Casting bio-pics is tricky business.

Just ask Tanya Lopez, Executive Vice President of Lifetime Movie Network, which is about to launch a channel in Australia through Foxtel.

“I think it depends on the movie,” she tells TV Tonight. “What I’ve discovered is, if we’re telling a story where a talent has come to us, and is passionate about doing well, then they are what we’re hanging the movie on. We’re telling the story, but we’re also marketing them as the lead.

“If it’s a Whitney Houston (bio), then we like to find an actress who most emulates the real Whitney. If we’re telling a true crime story, our audience will often be more entertained by casting that looks like the real people.

“In fact, they’ll go online and compare them.

“When we did Harry and Megan: A Royal Romance (pictured below), people went online to see how much they looked like them. But if we’re doing a movie about The Bling Ring (2011) or something that has to do with the Night Stalker (2016) they don’t need a star. The concept is strong enough, so it tells them what the movie is.”

Another Lifetime bio-pic was 2012’s Liz & Dick starring Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor and Aussie Grant Bowler as Richard Burton (pictured top).

“I think having Lindsay as Elizabeth Taylor was a double-edged sword”

“I thought Grant did an unbelievable job playing Richard Burton. Lindsay had come to us and said, ‘Look, I really want to play this.’ But I think having Lindsay as Elizabeth Taylor was a double-edged sword, to be honest. Grant Bowler was perfect casting. I think Lindsay Lohan, even though she did the makeup and the work and the studying, she was always Lindsay Lohan. And I think sometimes it’s distracting.

“But it certainly got people to the table, let me tell you.”

Bio-pics are just one of the genres on the female-skewing movie channel, which launches on Tuesday September 1. Running for 22 years in the US, the A+E Networks-owned channel features both fictional and real-life inspired films.

“It’s really not until they’re in the moment do they decide what mood they’re in”

“What you will see is variety, which I think is critical to Lifetime’s success. I think that women like different things at different times and it’s really not until they’re in the moment do they decide what mood they’re in. We offer true crime, inspiration, thrillers, Christmas, and bio-pics. Even within a thriller … there are so many different levels that you can go within these genres,” Lopez continues.

“So you’re going to get stars and a variety of storytelling.”

Stars featuring during September include Catherine Zeta-Jones (Cocaine Godmother: The Griselda Blanco Story pictured above), Whoopi Goldberg (A Day Late and a Dollar Short), Hervey Keitel (Fatal Honeymoon), Vivica A. Fox (The Wrong Roommate), John Corbett (The Hunt For Killer 1-5), Lindsay Lohan (Liz & Dick), Shannon Doherty & Mira Sorvino (No One Would Tell) and Denise Richards (Secret Lives of Cheerleaders).

“In the past, ‘guilty pleasures’ had a negative connotation”

Lopez insists there’s also nothing wrong with guilty pleasure entertainment.

“In the past, ‘guilty pleasures’ had a negative connotation.

“I think the term guilty pleasure had come out at a time I consider kind of old-fashioned, to be honest. I don’t know why I have to have guilt. But what I do know is I have to have pleasure watching a movie, I have to be entertained and I have to escape. I have to feel like I have a moment of rest and relief, an experience and an emotion of some kind.”

Amongst her 2020 content highlights are a true crime movie Stolen By My Mother: The Kamiyah Mobley Story (pictured above), and a series of movies based on the sagas of author V.C. Casteel.

“We did a five book series on her books, and we’re doing a second one, we’re going to do a third one. The audience loves these sagas and I use the word ‘saga’ because I think that gives you the weight of them.

“These are always about families that are outliers.

“There’ll be the opportunity to have branded weeks”

“You’re going to have an opportunity to see hundreds of movies that we’ve produced over the years. I think what’s really fun is there’ll be the opportunity to have branded weeks, or a branded month, where you get immersed in a certain genre.

“The opportunity is endless for the scheduling department on how they want to roll out these movies.”

Lifetime Movie Network launches Tuesday September 1 on Foxtel Ch. 411.

5 Responses

  1. If the actor has done a lot of well-known work, they will find it harder to carry off playing a real person. It is a sign of absolute quality if a star is able to make the audience forget they have ever played anything else (eg aforementioned Renee Zellweger, or the ultimate Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain).

    Otherwise, it is better to have a (relatively) unknown face. I would rather have a less talented actor than be distracted by a known actor who seems to be channelling all their old roles. Or in Lindsey Lohan’s case, all her damaging headlines.

  2. This isn’t just a problem with bio pics. Most established actors seem to be the same no matter what character they are playing. Worst example John Wayne. Did he ever play anyone except John Wayne.
    The opposite is of course, do you get one starring role and then you’re on the scrapheap? I enjoy a movie with no star actors but where do you find an unlimited supply of no names?

  3. This is an interesting subject. There’s a really great podcast series hosted by David Tenant where he interviews various people. I recently listened to the ep he did with Michael Sheen (who famously has portrayed Tony Blair and others multiple times). His take is basically that the actor needs to make the audience feel comfortable that they ‘are the character’ within the first few minutes of their screen time, whether that be physically looking like them or just inhabiting their character. It’s worth a listen.

  4. It does seem if it’s Royals they have to be lookalikes…it depends on how familiar the subject is. Like, if they did a Spice Girls movie they would be lookalikes, if they did a Billy Idol (for example) movie, they could use a star, as people aren’t as familiar with what he looks like and makeup can be applied. Renee Zellweger isn’t the first person that comes to mind as Judy Garland, but she was fabulous.

  5. Interesting story David. I can offer a recent series where casting a star – in my opinion – was a distraction. It was Season 3 of The Crown and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret. Instead of focusing on Princess Margaret I kept seeing Helena. When I revisit Season 1 of The Crown the casting of Claire Foy was brilliant because I knew nothing of the actress which allowed me to focus on the story. I understand why production companies do this…stunt casting. I do wish sometimes the producers have confidence in the story and unknown actors when it comes to bio-pics.

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