Big screen stars taking over the small screen

/ 02:12 AM August 24, 2014

Kevin Spacey, Matthew McConaughey. AP FILE PHOTOS

LOS ANGELES—Who’s afraid of big stars on the small screen?

Television is increasingly opening its doors to Hollywood stars, as Monday’s Emmy Awards will attest, but TV royalty still struggle to make the transition to the silver screen.


Seasoned actors Matthew McConaughey, Kevin Spacey, Jon Voight, Jeff Daniels and Woody Harrelson are all nominated in this year’s Emmys after having built much of their careers in film.

McConaughey, a favorite to win a lead actor Emmy for his role in the HBO crime drama “True Detective,” is riding high after winning an Academy Award for last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club.”


“House of Cards” hero/villain Spacey already has two Oscar statuettes. Voight, nominated for Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” won a best actor Oscar a generation ago, while Harrelson (“True Detective”) is a two-time Oscar nominee.

For them, having a go in a successful broadcast or cable series adds gritty prestige to their glittering careers.

But cross-pollination in the other direction has proven more difficult.

Think George Clooney

Heartthrob George Clooney, who shot from the show “ER” into the Hollywood megastar firmament, “was the last one who really did it,” said Glenn Williamson, a professor at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television.

In contrast, though Jennifer Aniston parlayed her “girl-next-door” appeal from hit show “Friends” into several big-screen roles, the 1990s comedy’s other stars have had stunted success in the transition.

The same holds true for stars of more recent TV mega hits like “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost.”


Some stars have thrived on television without ever becoming bankable in Hollywood: Julianna Margulies, David Duchovny and Robin Wright are among those who earned numerous film roles but never won the accolades there that came with TV.

Kerry Washington, praised as much for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s movie “Django Unchained” as for TV’s “Scandal,” is in that small clique of actors comfortably navigating between the two worlds.

Another is Claire Danes, who hit it big as teen Angela Chase in 1990s series “My So-Called Life.” She followed up with a number of roles in Hollywood films like “Romeo + Juliet” and “Shopgirl” before returning to television with a bang as the troubled star of the Showtime thriller “Homeland.”

Linked to TV

With blockbuster series “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” coming to an end, it remains to be seen whether their respective stars Jon Hamm (nominated this year for best lead actor) and Bryan Cranston (also nominated, and who has already won three times) can successfully make the jump.

“No matter how well known, a feature film role only lasts a little more than two hours,” said Ellen Seiter, a professor of television at the University of Southern California.

“By comparison, successful television series roles last for dozens of hours,” sometimes over years, meaning “actors become inextricably linked to those roles in the eyes of the audience,” she added.

Tom Nunan, founder of Bull’s Eye Entertainment and a UCLA film professor, said comedians often make a better switch to film, like Tina Fey from “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock,” who is good value in Hollywood.

Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, Mila Kunis and Chris Pratt also came from comedy TV to see their movie careers take off.


Nunan also observed that there are “women and men in their 30s, 40s and 50s who are able to find really great work on great TV shows,” which is not always the case in Hollywood, where youth is so often the lodestone.

US studios typically revolve around movie franchises, which traditionally are action, comedy or superhero-focused.

“Studios aren’t making dramas anymore,” he said. Those are mainly reserved for independent or foreign filmmakers.

That leaves small-screen producers—for web series, cable, video on demand and broadcast TV—to pick up the slack.

The result, many argue, is high-quality television. “It’s no surprise that you see movie stars of the caliber of Kevin Spacey or Matthew McConaughey,” he added.

 Originally posted: August 23, 2014 | 2:27 pm


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