To what degree do actors stick to just one genre?

29 April '19 11 Comments on To what degree do actors stick to just one genre?

When the public first hears of a new movie, they don’t have much information to judge it on.  This is before they can get a steer on the quality of the film (i.e. no reviews, no word of mouth) so they have only scant information with which to form an opinion on whether or not to see it.

The company behind it is rarely a factor (with the possible exception of Disney and their sub-brands Pixar and Marvel).  Not many directors have a strong commercial public brand and almost no producers or writers do.  So what is the public using to form their snap judgement?  It normally comes down to:

  • The genre(s)
  • The poster elements (i.e. name, visual style and logline)
  • The main actor(s)

This is part of the reason that top actors are paid so much: their brand is hugely important to convince people to see a movie.

A few years ago, I used facial recognition tools to measure actors’ brands by looking at the emotions they displayed on movie posters.  I discovered that the angriest star is Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock), Harrison Ford is the most contemptuous, Seth Rogan is the most surprised, Renée Zellweger the happiest and Ben Affleck the saddest (which nicely matches the online memes).

I want to return to the topic but use a different measure of ‘brand’.  This time, I’m going to look at how many of top actors’ roles are within a certain genre.

Imagine a movie called “Divorce Battle”.  If I tell you it stars Carey Mulligan then you will most likely think of it as a weepy drama.  If instead, I tell you that it stars Jason Statham, then you may change your guess to a punchy/ kicky thriller.  Finally, if I switch out the lead to Steve Martin then you may decide not to see it at all.  (Ok, that’s a cheap joke but not entirely false!)

One last example: imagine that “Divorce Battle” stars Matt Damon.  Is it a drama? An action film? A comedy?  It’s hard to know because he performs in a wide range of movies.  That may be more enjoyable for him as an artist but it weakens his brand as a quick signifier to the public.

I generated a list of 275 famous actors and actresses, who I will collectively refer to as ‘actors’. All had received high billing in at least ten movies over the past twenty years.  See the Note section at the end of this article for my methodology and reason for the gender-neutral noun.  I then looked at the genre of all the movies they have made throughout their career to date.

Which actors stick to the same genre(s)?

Of the 275 actors I studied, Adam Sandler came out as the most consistent. 51 of his 52 movies are comedies, with the one holdout being Reign Over Me.

Comedy dominates the ‘most skewed’ actors’ list, with fourteen of the twenty most genre-consistent actors earning their places due to their commitment to mainly doing comedy movies.  The only other genre present was Drama, with Carey Mulligan being at the forefront of the ‘I only do dramas’ movement.

Which actors are the least pigeon-holed into a genre?

At the other end of the spectrum are actors whose careers have the weakest skew towards one genre.   The genre Ron Perlman has worked in most frequently is drama, although that only covers a third of the movies he’s made.

Hugh Jackman (fifth on the list below) is another example for this cross-genre career, becoming the quintessential leading man in both musicals and action movies.

It’s interesting that Ron Perlman emerges as someone who works across the greatest range of genres because arguably he is often cast in a similar archetypal role.  His characters are typically gruff, imposing, menacing, po-faced threats.  This suggests that his personal brand is strong but not genre-defining.  I.e. “Divorce Battle” starring Ron Pearlman does not give away its genre, compared with “Divorce Battle” starring Adam Sandler.

I’m not going to go through every genre’s top list, but I did want to pull out a few interesting ones.


Horror is not a genre ruled by big star names and consequently, even the actors whose careers are most skewed towards horror are not known specifically for horror.  Chloë Grace Moretz comes out on top, with just over a quarter of her movie appearances being in horror movies.


The Romance genre is dominated by female actors, with only one man appearing on the list – Paul Rudd in tenth place.


Jason Statham tops the Thriller chart, and comes second within Action, meaning that there’s a 75% chance that any movie he’s in has got lots of running / driving/ explosions / men shouting that time is running out.


When I started on this topic, I didn’t envisage how complex it would be to build a list of ‘famous actors’.  I first looked at measures of fame (such as IMDb’s STARmeter) but as these are current to this week they tend to overvalue people with new movies and TV shows just out and undervalue those who are on a temporary career hiatus.  I next turned to social media (i.e. number of Twitter followers) but this proved even less useful as this measure is heavily affected by the actor’s outspokenness and non-movie related actions, not to mention that some major actors are not on social media.

In the end, I decided to look at all actors who were among the top ten billed names on at least ten movies which were first released in domestic cinemas between 1st January 1999 and 31st December 2018, and which were ranked in the top 5,000 on the IMDb MOVIEmeter. This produced 275 names, which split into 200 male actors and 75 female actors (why this wasn’t an even gender split is a topic for another day!)  With my list of 275 names, I then went back and looked at all the movies they have made in their career, ignoring TV, shorts, music videos and other non-movie output.

I opted for the gender-neutral usage of the word ‘actors’ as I don’t feel that gender has a role to play in the topic at hand.  We are looking at the diversity of productions a performer has worked on, and their gender is not a factor.  I.e. if either a male or a female actor works on 100% horror movies, they will be equally seen as a ‘horror’ actor.  That’s not to say that gender is not a factor for the film industry, as the uneven numbers within the 275 top actors show.

Movie data came from IMDb, Wikipedia and The Numbers. Genre classifications were from IMDb, which meant an average of 2.8 genres per movie.


This research has brought to my attention that there is something missing in the world.  I did not know I wanted this thing until the numbers told me I had been living my life without it.

Meryl Streep has never starred in an action movie.

Without bragging, I can say that my blog has a large readership within the film industry and among some top decision makers.  Therefore, I am asking – nay, begging – some of you to commit to this.  A few hundred million dollars is nothing to you and God knows you’ve often spent similar sums without adequate thought (*cough* Robin Hood *cough*).

Just as an opening suggestion, I am thinking that she plays a woman who lost her life savings in the financial crisis and resolves to take revenge on the banksters who caused it.

We’ll call it either “Meryl Lynch” or “Wall Streep”.

Who’s in?



  1. I too had a similar thought. I want to see Julia Roberts do an Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow style role. Some of these big drama actors need to unwind and have some fun.

  2. I couldn’t resist making my own statistic, based on the above lists. Just how many of these people have I actually heard of?

    Most skewed, I’ve heard of 8 out of the 21 listed.
    Least skewed, 6 out of 20.
    Horror, 1 out of 10 (Moritz)
    Romance, half of them, so 5 out of 10.
    Thriller, same again, 5 out of 10.

    I conclude from this, that either the role an actor plays in selling the film is over-rated and one can afford to hire unknown people for scale – or that I just don’t get out much! Or a bit of both!

    I was happy to see that Ron Pearlman gets a decent stab at comedy, as his impersonation of Donald Trump had me in stitches!

    But I do agree that we need more movies that take people that do not seem at first sight to fit the genre that we are making and an older woman as an action hero would certainly grab my attention and possibly have me standing in line at the local movie-plex.

    1. Ha. They key is – which genres are you a fan of? Because if, for example, you never watch Rom-Coms then your lack of knowledge of famous Rom-Com actors is irrelevant. These actors only work as signifiers if you’re open to being convinced to see the movie in the first place*.

      *(Except for Meryl Streep, obviously).

  3. Stephen, I usually don’t leave a comment. However, the statement that Meryl Streep never starred in an action movie is wrong. Or maybe I didn’t do a good job back in the days. See, I started my career at a company called CIC Video and one of the titles I worked on, quite successfully judging by the sales on VHS at the time, was a movie called “The River Wild.” Starring none else than Meryl Streep who takes on a pair of armed killers. The tagline was “The vacation is over,” and the movie was billed as Meryl’s first foray into the action genre. Go, give it a try on a rainy weekend.

    1. I shall certainly add it to my Netflix list.


      Look I don’t like to be pedantic, ok who am I kidding, that’s what this whole blog is dedicated to, but from what I can see there is a case that “The River Wild” is not an action film. It’s an adventure movie.

      The difference is subtle, and maybe more about tone than a quantifiable measure of contents (such as with Animation or Western), but IMDb and Wikipedia, concur that it is an adventure, not action. It’s PG-13 MPAA rating would also lend weight to its lighter tone.

      That said, this is far from an objective classification and there is certainly disagreement with other sources, such as All Movie, Film Affinity, Box Office Mojo, The Movie DB and The Numbers who all squarely come down on the ‘It is an action movie’ side. Rotten Tomatoes cowardly puts it in the mixed ‘Action & Adventure’ category, thereby avoiding having to pick a side.

      I suspect this is a topic ripe for a future blog article…

      1. Even though there may be some crossover or commonalities between an action movie and an adventure, it is an important distinction. Action movies often hinge on a justice theme, whether it is an underdog story about righting injustice, like was common for Van Damme or Stallone pictures, or the grandiose unbeatable hero, like Schwarzenegger or Johnson, or a revenge story like the Charles Bronson films or Keanu Reeves’ John Wick flics. All movies sell fantasies for us to be transported by. Action movies often offer the fantasy of having power, of not having to follow the rules–being free to act as you wish, of winning, or about a simpler world with clear good guys who beat clear bad guys. With the fantasies we get to have accompanying emotions–it is a feeling medium primarily, not a thinking one. feelings of righteousness, of righteous indignity, that feral feeling of really wanting to get the villain; the joy and release of victory, the catharsis of vicarious violence

        Adventure movies are usually located in different fantasy zones than action. there is fantasy of exploring, unencumbered by the mundane or banal worlds we live in–potent escape fantasies. Adventure movies are usually about being in transition, in motion and having purpose and clear concrete goals (reach the end of the river, recover the golden statue, find the lost tribe, rescue the princess), the journey is rich and exotic, maybe awe inspiring. It is highly rousing, romantic, it is the opposite of our small routine lives–it is big, exhilarating, wondrous. It’s expansive and maybe conducive to reflection–there may be an inner journey that mirrors the outer journey.

        So, while there is sometimes common areas in the fantasy–getting to be a hero, being free, being important, being larger than life, the emotional drugs we get to experience are much further apart. There are movies that legitimately offer both–like Raiders Of The Ark, Robin Hood, Lawrence of Arabia, Guardians of the Galaxy–and combining the two can be really intoxicating to the audience and leave a lasting impression

  4. funny and fascinating ‘to-what-degree-do-actors-stick-to-one-genre’ today post is !

    as I’m screenplay writer developer let me confirm: it would be absolutely fantastic
    to watch madam streep going out for revenge, using various accents (as in ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’…
    with wit and intelligence – without fights ! ( I can write that !!! 🙂

    I’d like to suggest that there must be a correlation between actor ‘sticking’ or ‘skewing’ to a genre
    and the financial expectations of the surprise actor actress in another swiming pool.
    casting x actor x producer ?
    who would thought that ian mckellen would enrich gandalf ? vigo in green book ?
    although I can see a connecting stream in actors choices of screenplays to perform,
    it is a bit misterious how magical casting decisions are made.
    is there a way to get a method survey on casting directors that would relate
    casting x flop… casting x box office…

    cheers from Rio !

  5. Just a couple of thoughts. All the geeky genres produce robust fanbases, but horror is sometimes interesting for just how invested fans are. Horror movies are often populated with smaller name actors, that might suggest they bring little branding to the table. But to horror fans, they are not unknown at all. Horror fans will treat C- and D-movie actors like A-List royalty. They’ll swamp them with letters and requests for pictures, autographs and hugs. They collect their movies obsessively, buying each new release of each film. So, when a horror fan is looking at a new movie, wondering if it is going to be a new classic or a trainwreck, and he/she sees any familiar names from their own canon of film royalty, that becomes a seal of approval for him/her.

    The other thought was even when an actor isn’t that strongly associated with the genre–strong enough for their name to give away the genre, the name brand can combine with the genre(if genre is known) and have a multiplier effect. If I see an action movie coming out starring Keanu Reeves, I may feel confident that it will be great. I may immediately associate my sense and feeling about previous Reeves action movies with this new as yet unseen film. Nicholas Cage is having growing multiplier effect with horror films. I see film fans start to raise expectations not just that a horror film with Cage will be entertaining, but that it will be crazy or weird. Patrick Wilson is in 12 or 13 horror films, including two of the biggest contemporary franchises. Horror can be a precarious genre to gamble on–lots and lots of bad movies. Having Patrick Wilson in your horror movie, can offer it pedigree, that it will be quality, and follow some traditions of good old fashioned scary movies; so his presence may not give away genre, but it will likely help sell a horror movie.

    Your branding research might find stronger relationships between actor and genre if you looked further down the ladder, for example, a B-movie action star will be in virtually nothing but action and it is definitely his brand that selling it rests on.

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