more just a pretty face, why models are turning to acting

With new roles for Cara Delevingne, Jamie Dornan and Agyness Deyn, find out why models-turned-actors need to be taken seriously

by Colin Crummy
15 December 2014, 10:00am

If you look at the roll call of models turned actors (MTAs), it's long but the work isn't that varied. For every Charlize Theron (at 16, a model in Europe; at 28 an Oscar winner) or Uma Thurman (a model at 15, she graced the cover of British Vogue, then kicked ass in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill) there's a bigger batch of MTAs whose work has been confined to rom coms or playing sexy.

It's a similar story for the guys, though there are less of them, probably because Hollywood hasn't cared in the past that its men are pretty as a picture. For every Mark Wahlberg (Calvin Klein model turned Oscar contender for his lead in The Gambler) there's an Ian Somerhalder or Kellen Lutz, forever confined to teen TV and muscle flicks. The most famous MTAs, Channing Tatum and Robert Pattinson, both served time in teen franchises. Both are currently trying to shake off the pretty face and make us forget they're outrageously good looking. Tough gig, guys.

But there's a shift going on right now on the big and small screen. BBC Two's crime thriller The Fall asks us to embrace the pretty face and take the guy whose wearing it very seriously. We're asked to accept that a serial killer, usually the preserve of 'character' actors, can also be seriously good looking. Model turned actor Jamie Dornan has to make believe his character Paul Spector is a nasty piece of work even with those Bambi eyes on the go.

It feels like he does very little - same face, same accent, and same body by Calvin Klein. But what he does is more than enough. He expresses as little as possible, but he gives us the tiniest peak into a dark soul. And it's not pretty. There's a scene near the climax of Series Two where - minor spoiler alert - the police interrogate Spector. He says nothing but his face - that face - tells you everything. I don't know how Dornan does it. He just does. It's a study in stillness and it's tremendously subtle.

It's a similar trick to that pulled off by former supermodel Agyness Deyn in the Brit flick Electricity, which hits cinema screens next week. Much has been made of Deyn's commitment to playing the part of Lily O'Connor, an epilepsy sufferer. The real craft is in the way she gives the character a sense of herself away from the high drama of epileptic fits. It is so quietly done, so nuanced.

It's a world away from the worst kind of acting, where you can see the wheels turning in the performer's head, where every move is studied, every facial tic an exaggeration, every word over enunciated. You don't get that with these two. No wonder they're in demand. Dornan's got Fifty Shades of Grey in February. Deyn's just completed Sunset Song with veteran director Terence Davies, also out next year. Has all those years standing in front of a camera and letting the clothes do the talking been the best preparation this side of drama school?

Next year is a big one for another, different kind of MTA. Dornan and Deyn seem thoughtful and subdued, which may help their cause in being taken seriously. Cara Delevingne is a different proposition even as a model: exuberant, animated, and a little bit wild. So it's interesting that the work doesn't just ticking similar boxes. She'll star in a thriller loosely based on the Amanda Knox trial The Face of an Angel, a 17th Century romance Tulip Fever, an adaptation of a Youth Adult novel Paper Towns and will shoot the DC Comics Suicide Squad, which is the biggest deal. It's also the most obvious as models look particularly fetching in superhero outfits.

So old rules still apply for MTAs. Slipping into a tight fit onesie for an action film has been a way into acting for models like Tao Okamoto, first in Wolverine, now Batman v. Superman. Deyn started out in Clash of the Titans. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley was in Transformers 4 and moves to the Mad Max reboot out in May. It would be naïve to think contemporary Hollywood is simply interested in these gals for their acting chops.

Whatever way models get into the business, it's one in the eye for the actors and actresses who paid their dues at drama school. But fair's fair: actors have spent the last decade taking over model territory. They've become the celebrity face of brands and the clothes horses in fashion stories. What all this competition is doing is turning out great performances. Pretty face syndrome can be its own driving force, whether you're model turned actor or actor turned model.

The Twilight years have turned Robert Pattinson into an actor with something to prove and he is great in David Cronenberg's Map to the Stars. Channing Tatum started out as stripper, a dancer and a model but he's headed to the Oscars for his role as an Olympic wrestler in Foxcatcher, out in January. Jennifer Lawrence was formerly an Abercrombie model but you'd never think about that. You're too busy concentrating on how good she is. The trick - however you come to the role - is to make us forget how you got there, or who you were before you stepped on screen. The current crop of MTAs are doing a pretty good job of that. 


Text Colin Crummy
Photography Alasdiar McLellan 
Fashion Director Edward Enninful 
[The Flesh And Blood Issue, no. 304 Winter 2009]

Agyness Deyn
Jamie Dornan