Before Kim Kardashian gives her own take on Rosemary’s Baby in American Horror Story: Delicate later this year, it’s important to remember the great acting lineage she follows in. We’re talking Addison Rae’s turn in He’s All That, Nicki Minaj as “Lydia” in The Other Woman, Lizzo in The Mandalorian, and Gus Kenworthy and Kaia Gerber in past seasons of AHS. Kardashian, frankly, has awfully big shoes to fill.
Casting musicians and non-acting celebrities in film and TV roles isn’t new. But it hasn’t always looked like this. When Cher won an Oscar for 1987’s Moonstruck, it was a strategic step in one of her many comebacks. When David Bowie starred in The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976, it was because he was the only possible choice for the role of a slight, ethereal alien. When Funny Girl was adapted for the 1968 film it simply had to be Barbra Streisand – no one could do Fanny Brice justice like her. Care and deliberation were clearly once put into making musical stars’ transition to acting justified, fool-proof and a moment to shine. The same cannot be said in 2023.
The seams in celebrity branding are now so exposed that, when one decides to try their hand at acting, it’s hard not to see it as anything other than an expansion of their personal IP. Stunt casting has rarely ever seemed truly organic, but there is something so mesmerically artificial about how it manifests today. There isn’t a whiff of mystique to celebrity anymore: Addison Rae’s acting foray was transparently a TikTok-Netflix merger and Kim Kardashian’s American Horror Story role is probably the result of a particularly fruitful cocktail night at Ryan Murphy’s house.
Still, you can see the logic behind it. Non-actors becoming actors on an endemic level just makes sense in the current cultural landscape. Stunt casting was a “stunt” precisely because it didn’t happen very often. It used to be predominantly confined to certain less-demanding roles in the theatre – think Chicago, Waitress and Cabaret. And there’s always been “event” appearances in TV and film: Geri Halliwell as Samantha’s random British mate in Sex and the City, or Prince turning up in New Girl.
But now everyone’s doing it. So it’s just, well, casting. Still, the practice has recently gained more widespread legitimacy thanks to a few bona fide successes. Lady Gaga is the new standard bearer, while Alana Haim (in Licorice Pizza) proved that if you’re going to act just once, make it a good once. Yet in the era of duelling streamers, we’re drowning in a sea of IP so vast that it’s become very easy to hand a celebrity a lead role in a random project without anyone noticing. All the big classic movies have been remade – lest we forget the all-female Ghostbuters – so now we’ve moved onto properties such as She’s All That or White Men Can’t Jump, minor ‘90s movies that can be remade with minimal fuss. Nobody is claiming their childhood has been desecrated because Addison Rae and Jack Harlow decided to give acting a whirl.
Stunt casting has also changed with how we view actors and their roles. It feels unnecessary to rehash the well-documented trend of audiences developing parasocial relationships with actors and characters, but in many cases, there’s now an active hope that audiences will outright ignore the veil of fiction. We’re at the point where Amazon is dancing around the fact Billie Eilish is playing a character in Swarm, ignoring the whole acting part of her job for SEO purposes. Eilish, whose fey, sleepy-eyed charisma is well-utilised here, doesn’t even play someone resembling herself; she plays the leader of a cult inspired by NXIVM. But that didn’t stop Prime Video’s YouTube from saying that “Billie is giving therapy vibes, and we’re so here for it.” Like, sure, OK.
How Eilish’s role is treated in the marketing only emphasises that it’s a brand collaboration as opposed to a Legitimate Creative Endeavour. Celebrity actors no longer need to immerse themselves in their characters, they’re actually expected to bring the winks and nods that their fans expect from their brand. It leads to moments like Kyle Richards recreating famous memes from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in the middle of Halloween Ends, or Megan Thee Stallion being parachuted into She-Hulk to twerk. It’s only time before Kim Kardashian’s American Horror Story character is told that there’s people that are dying.
There is a perverse pleasure to be taken from this surplus of celebrity acting debuts, though. The Don’t Worry Darling drama fed us all for weeks in large part because it was Harry Styles’ first lead role. The precarity of pairing one of the world’s biggest pop stars – if not the biggest – against Florence Pugh in an emotion-heavy period piece was like a drug. Screeds have been written about Styles’ viability as an actor and they wouldn’t have been written if he had kept to more minor parts like Dunkirk. Styles’ decision to aim so high didn’t exactly go to plan. But it gave us something to obsess over.
In London, 2:22 A Ghost Story, the Mrs Brown’s Boys of the West End, continues to delight tour buses of drunk aunties because of its baked-in stunt casting, giving rotating leads Lily Allen, Laura Whitmore and Cheryl a relatively safe sandbox in which to try acting. Again, the anticipation as to whether they’re able to sell the material becomes an extension of the play itself. There’s something about it that reduces acting as an artform, whereby audiences have to bear witness to an actor’s audition tape in real time. That hesitancy in the acting becomes part of the fun. Will they remember all their lines? Do they have stage presence? Are we watching a character or just their celebrity persona?
Two years on, I still talk to friends about Addison Rae in He’s All That like an addled war veteran unable to move on. Where teen stars of generations past were fed through the Disney/Nickelodeon machine and moulded over years, Rae went from an undergrad with a TikTok account to the lead of a Netflix original film in 11 months. She was fine – good, even – and there is something by definition so audacious about careers like hers, rocket-propelled by social media and networking rather than RADA and dues-paying bit parts.
But this is just how acting works now. Celebrity roles in films are now simply savvy brand collabs that cross-pollinate fanbases. There’s no end to this. So if films are now produced by mixing and matching your favourite apps – TikTok, Spotify, Netflix – let’s keep pushing the envelope and asking for more. Give us Emma Chamberlain in a new Cruel Intentions, or Joe Rogan in an updated Mrs Doubtfire. I, for one, simply won’t rest until I get my Ice Spice Pretty Woman remake.