In the age of Ultron, elaborately interconnected franchises, and secret semi-sequels that are marketed on the faintest whiff of brand recognition, everyone seems to have accepted the idea that actors are merely stewards for the roles that they inhabit. We have come to grips with the understanding that Disney will be making Star Wars movies until long after any of us are still alive to watch them, and that Han Solo will survive Ford, Ehrenreich, and the rest of us, too. For 30 years, Harrison Ford had been the Han Solo, but by the time “The Force Awakens” came out last year, moviegoers had already been conditioned to accept the idea that he was just a version of the character. We now readily accept his reincarnation. It’s almost Buddhist. Perhaps Han’s death didn’t register with the same impact that it might have because we knew that this was not the end. What is dead may never die.
Ehrenreich’s casting speaks to a broader development: With the exception of Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Cruise, there’s no such thing as a movie star anymore. There are only brands. Disney is trying to recast one of the most iconic roles in movie history; one of the most iconic names in all of modern fiction. The part goes to a 26-year-old actor who few people have ever heard of, and whose name even fewer people can spell correctly. He is somehow the most obvious choice for the role.
Once upon a time, this would have been unthinkable. Once upon a time, the role may only have existed because someone very famous was interested in playing it in the first place. But Alden Ehrenreich’s overnight ascension to the A-list is the latest and most convincing proof of something that has been increasingly evident for a number of years, now: Hollywood doesn’t hire movie stars, anymore — it forges them.
On the surface, that dynamic might appear to harken back to the golden age of the studio system, when actors were carefully groomed for celebrity. Ehrenreich actually knows a little something about that. In the Coen brothers’ recent “Hail, Caesar!,” he played a B-movie yokel who gets yanked off of his latest oater in the middle of lunch so that he can be repositioned as the new Montgomery Clift — he starts his day in one strata of showbiz and ends it in another.
Anybody who’s seen “Hail, Caesar!” can tell you that Ehrenreich will make a phenomenal Han Solo. Hobie Doyle was the best thing in a movie that was comprised of nothing but best things. He went toe-to-toe with Tilda Swinton, Josh Brolin, Ralph Fiennes, George Clooney, and Tilda Swinton again, and he more than held his own against everyone of them. He’s got the charm, he’s got the smirk, he’s quick with a lasso. Swap it out for a gun and a Wookie and there’s your Han.
Even as recently as the turn of the Willennium, actors still came first (who cares what the movie is — it’s Big Willie Weekend!). But oh, how times have changed. These days, the ascension is similarly abrupt, but those same means are used to very different ends. One day Chris Pratt is a supporting character on an NBC sitcom, the next he’s Star Lord. Henry Cavill can still sit in the middle of Times Square without being recognized, but he’s the hero of Metropolis. But the difference there is that Hobie Doyle’s box office power wasn’t lassoed to the roles that he chose, it was the other way around. Felicity Jones’ character in “Rogue One” has a much better chance of becoming a household name than she ever does We still don’t know which actress is going to play Captain Marvel, but there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of her, and there’s an even better chance that you won’t see whatever it is that she chooses to do after that.
Audiences will buy tickets because it’s Han Solo — there will be plenty of time for them to fall in love with Ehrenreich once they’re already settled in their seats. And hey, if Disney is feeling skittish about it, they can always reintroduce the character by dropping him into December’s “Rogue One,” using that film as a Trojan horse for reinforcements in much the same way that Marvel is currently relying on “Civil War” to lubricate viewers for Tom Holland’s forthcoming Spider-Man movie.
The fact that the world’s biggest franchises poach from the shallow end of the pool says a couple of different things. On the one hand, it says that there really aren’t that many big names to choose from. On the other, there’s no advantage to choosing them. Miles Teller was perhaps the most recognizable of the young actors shortlisted for the role, but the fact of the matter is that Miles Teller had no advantage over Alden Ehrenreich, who hasn’t starred in a Sundance-winning, Best Picture-nominated movie; Alden Ehrenreich, whose one stab at a YA franchise (“Beautiful Creatures”) flopped and flopped hard (it’s actually pretty wild and worth your time). When choosing between two actors, why hire the one who will command a higher salary, negotiate stricter contracts, and come into the franchise with some percentage of pre-existing public distaste? The tie goes to the person who’s best for the role.
To some extent, this would seem to empower the actors. Nobody saw “The Force Awakens” because Daisy Ridley was in it, but millions would scoff at the prospect of seeing “Episode VIII” if she weren’t coming back. In truth, however, it enters them into a fiercely co-dependent relationship with their franchises. Now, when someone is cast as a famous, pre-existing character, they’re really just stewards for the brand, entering into a symbiotic relationship intended to carry both parties a little further into the future. They are at once both immensely important and largely interchangeable.
But that relationship, however symbiotic, isn’t equal. The brand is helped by the actors, but the actors are bound to the brand. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chris Hemsworth is a flying demi-god from an alien world. Outside of the MCU, Chris Hemsworth is just another actor who can’t open a movie to save his life. In fact, he represents a dangerous trap for studios who are misled into believing otherwise, only to find themselves deep in the red on “In The Heart of the Sea,” “Blackhat,” and whatever the hell the new Snow White-less Snow White movie was called. John Boyega is now the star of the highest-grossing movie in American box office history, but “Imperial Dreams,” the excellent indie he was in at Sundance a few years ago, still can’t find distribution. Even Robert Downey, Jr., who was made famous for the second time when he became Tony Stark, isn’t a bonafide box office draw without the Iron Man suit painted over him in post. ” On Earth, Kal-El is Superman. On Krypton, he’s just another guy who’s afraid of Michael Shannon.
We used to create movie stars, but now we only create movie stardom. Alden Ehrenreich is going to be a phenomenal Han Solo, but the Star Wars have been fought, and the stars lost.