Actors Shouldn’t Promote Their Movies In Character

By  · Published on August 14th, 2014

Remember the movie Rubin and Ed? If not, maybe you at least remember when Crispin Glover appeared on Late Night with David Letterman in character as his role as Rubin. That was the time the actor nearly kicked the talk show host in the face. The problem there was partly that Letterman didn’t know what was going on. Also, neither Rubin and Ed nor Glover were familiar enough to warrant such a stunt or for that sort of promotion to work in their favor. Years later, Joaquin Phoenix drew comparisons to Glover when he appeared on Letterman’s Late Show acting strangely. It turned out he was also in character, albeit for a project then still in the works rather than as a promotional stunt. Well, actually it sort of worked as that, too, but either way it wasn’t helpful in wooing audiences to the movie involved, I’m Still Here. Both that and Rubin and Ed were box office failures.

As was The Love Guru, which stars Mike Myers as a goofy spiritual guide. He tried to boost interest in the comedy by appearing on American Idol as the character, Maurice Pitka. Such a gimmick is also harmful to the integrity of the show that allows it – particularly if it’s a show that’s not interview or otherwise publicity based – but it can be especially damaging to the movie being promoted. Usually it’s a case of the stunt falling flat rather than the conception of the stunt itself, and the Pitka character was just not funny enough for the tease to work. Will the same be true of Seth Rogen and James Franco’s characters from The Interview, which doesn’t open until Christmas? The actors will be doing some advance promoting on MTV this Sunday, with a special tied to the Video Music Awards where Franco will uncomfortably interview celebs as his fictional talk show host from the movie.

The special looks pretty dumb, not just extremely staged but hardly unique in the wake of likeminded shtick in Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns, SNL’s “The Chris Farley Show” and of course a number of characters performed by Sacha Baron Cohen. There are a couple things that work in Dave Skylark’s Very Special VMA Special’s favor, albeit in a headier sense than it deserves. One is that it’s on MTV and linked to the VMAs, which is all about music industry celebs making a public appearance in a sort of in-character fashion, as most music acts are just that, acts. Another is that Rogen and Franco’s last comedy together (also with director Evan Goldberg), This Is the End, featured the actors playing “Seth Rogen” and “James Franco,” fictionalized versions of themselves. So, when promoting that movie, it had to be sort of like they were doing so in character.

Cohen has done the in-character promotion stuff better than most, but his benefit tends to be that characters Ali G, Borat and Bruno are all integrated into the real world from the start. Still, going beyond to the promotional stage can upset the magic of their respective movies as much as, say, having the stars of the Three Stooges movie all appear on WWE Raw in character or Tom Cruise showing up as Tropic Thunder’s “Les Grossman” on the 2010 MTV Movie Awards. What does it do for the enclosed narrative and satire of Cohen’s movies? Especially Borat and Bruno are each a kind of social experiment on film, one that might be taken more significantly if the joke side of it all weren’t allowed to continue and thereby put the focus on the fictional rather than the real-life comedy. He comes off each time as more Pee-Wee Herman than John Howard Griffin.

There are few people who can do the in-character promo well, or at least successfully. Will Ferrell is one of them, and maybe the current champion. His Anchorman character, Ron Burgandy, is beloved enough that not even an overabundance of in-character appearances, including one at a local news desk in North Dakota and many as a spokesman in commercials for the Dodge Durango, could keep Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues from being a big hit. He’d already done such stunts to publicize the first movie back in 2004, notably appearing on MTV’s TRL, and he even first announced the sequel in character on Conan. Ferrell also did in-character stuff for The Campaign (as did Galifianakis), Semi-Pro and Talladega Nights. His buddies have followed suit, with Danny McBride doing Late Night with Conan O’Brien as his Foot-Fist Way character and Steve Carell dressing up as his animated Despicable Me character, Gru, on Ellen.

And obviously it works for a lot of fictional music acts, most famously Spinal Tap (Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer), who are close enough to being a real band at this point that they’ll probably be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame one day. There’s also the same actors’ A Mighty Wind trio The Folksmen, plus The Blues Brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, later James Belushi and/or John Goodman), Hannah Montana (Miley Cyrus), The Monkees, The Commitments and many more. Just recently, the actors from the new movie Frank (including Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Domhnall Gleeson and professional drummer Carla Azar) performed as the “Soronprfbs” on The Colbert Report – which is a good fit since that program centers around a fictional talk show host played by and named the same as Stephen Colbert.

One thing that should be noticeable at this point is that the in-character publicity thing isn’t done much by women. Probably for the best. There’s the time Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence were contestants on Password Plus, as characters Eunice and Mama from The Carol Burnett Show (their rivals were Hello Larry stars Joanna Gleeson and McClean Stevenson, also in character). There was also the women of Reno 911!: Miami, who along with the men did publicity for the movie spin-off in character. And Kristen Wiig got to tag along as her MacGruber character when Will Forte went into the ring as his SNL action hero parody persona for WWE Raw. Watch below and you’ll believe she could probably do it for her own starring vehicles if she wanted to – and had really distinct characters of the sort Ferrell does.

Has anyone else done the in-character appearance successfully – either in the moment or for the good of the movie? It seems that more often than not, it’s a really bad idea if you’re not Ferrell or maybe Cohen. And that includes post-release appearances for DVD commentaries (a la Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus for Tropic Thunder and Andy Serkis as Gollum for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) and anything where the actors are holding onto their most iconic roles to the point where maybe they’re showing up to conventions and signing autographs in costume. Speaking of conventions: Tom Hiddleston is likely the only person who should appear at Comic-Con in character, as Loki.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.