This month, Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner (the HBO saga’s luckless Sansa Stark) turns up in movie theaters in a big way, playing young Jean Grey in X-Men: Apocalypse. Next month, Emilia Clarke, who’s reigned for six seasons as GoT’s powerful mother of dragons Daenerys Targaryen, stars alongside Doctor Who favorite Jenna Coleman in the screen tearjerker Me Before You. Time will tell if Turner, Clarke or Coleman will put butts in multiplex seats. But if the spotty track record of hot TV series regulars attempting to cross over to movies holds true, the odds are iffy.
For every Jennifer Lawrence (The Bill Engvall Show) and Jennifer Aniston (Friends, duh) who successfully made the perilous leap from home screens to cinema screens, there are a dozen worthies who have not, like Katherine Heigl, January Jones, Mila Kunis, Courtney Cox, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Jennifer Love Hewett. Likewise, for every Will Smith (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Johnny Depp (21 Jump Street), Leonardo DiCaprio (Growing Pains), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From the Sun), Ryan Gosling (Breaker High) and Denzel Washington (St. Elsewhere), there are countless other TV stars—some brilliant, some not—who haven’t done nearly as well in cinemas: think Jon Hamm, Aaron Paul, John Krasinski, Matthew Fox, Zach Braff, Ashton Kutcher, Matthew Perry, Richard Grieco, Topher Grace and David Caruso.
So how does, say, Bryan Cranston manage to follow a five-season, five-Emmy-winning Breaking Bad triumph with an Oscar nomination for Trumbo and multiple starring roles in upcoming feature films? I would argue that it’s the man’s mad versatility, the consummate skill he shows in new film projects that underscore his strengths as actor but also lets him unleash new colors, new talents. (Let’s all agree to overlook Godzilla, OK?) Aside from Cranston, think of what a revelation Jennifer Lawrence turned out to be as a kick-ass action heroine in The Hunger Games and a funny girl in Silver Linings Playbook. Consider how Chris Pratt expanded way beyond his dumb-as-a-post Parks and Recreation persona and reemerged as funny, buff, heroic and leading man-ish in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World.
But versatility alone does not a crossover star make. Says an A-level Hollywood agent, “Talent on the level of Bryan Cranston’s is one thing, but I’ll bet that Cranston, like any other good actor, might admit that luck is a whole other factor—and that luck is a fluky, uncontrollable thing. To make the switch from TV to movies, it’s always about finding film roles in good projects that offer potential breakout opportunity.
“But really, how many Walter White or Don Draper-level roles are out there? How many roles as good as Chandler on Friends? An actor’s lucky if he gets one of those in an entire career. If he gets more than one, that’s jackpot stuff.”
And of course, there are worse things than being a committed TV actor. “Look,” the agent continues, “many of these TV actors who are so-called ‘failures’ as movie stars work constantly and are in demand time and again. Good actors get to work and if they’re very lucky, they also get to work in scene-stealing character roles, which is the best kind of acting career almost anyone can have.
"In Hollywood, that’s the best way to play the long game.”