The director Woody Allen has his favourites. Photo: Getty
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Why do some directors repeatedly use the same actors in their films?

Looking behind the preferred casts of directors throughout the history of cinema who always use the same actors.

A painting discovered in a basement at Yale University a few years back caught the attention of curator John Marciari, who suspected it might be an unattributed work of Diego Velázquez and not, as was previously thought, one of his studio or of his Spanish contemporaries.

After a long process of authentication, Marciari affirmed that The Education of the Virgin (a variation on a theme also treated by Georges de la Tour and Delacroix, among many others) was indeed painted by Velázquez and the picture is currently touring the world.

Among the references used to verify its authenticity was the appearance of an elderly bearded gentleman, who had already appeared in several other Velázquez tableaux. Like many painters throughout the ages, the Sevillian master made regular use of the same models – perhaps most famously in Man with a Wine Glass and Democritus, where Pablo de Valladolid, a famous jester (and actor) at Philip IV’s court and subject of a third famous Velázquez painting, morphs from bon vivant in the former, earlier painting to a more pious embodiment of civic spirit in the latter.

His expression is largely the same in each, yet, in what amounts to a sort of forerunner of the Kuleshov Effect, the paintings tell us very different things. As well as the obvious mastery of his craft, Velázquez had an inimitable control of his subjects. The shared model of the two paintings make it easy for either to be identified as a Velázquez but so does the way in which they are each different

One might imagine a scenario several hundred years in the future, however improbable, where cinema, long fallen out of fashion and the various formats for viewing it obsolete, is a distant footnote of art history. Say most of the DVDs, mp4s, Betamaxes, VHS and film reels that existed have withered away to nothing in basements or landfill, unnoticed by all but a tiny handful of humanity.

Imagine Scorsese, Bergman, Kurosawa or Hitchcock being known only to a select few, who cherish the half-a-dozen or so extant films by each of those cineastes and who pine for the lost classics they know only by name, in much the same way as cinephiles today regret the lost films of Mizoguchi and Ozu.

And imagine one day a few minutes of film reel are discovered, shorn of opening credits or other contextual information, but which looks familiar to the trained eye.

From today’s vantage point, detecting the style of most of the great filmmakers of the 20th century might appear to be a simple matter for someone in the know, but the passing of time may have greatly complicated that facility for our descendants.

Maybe a Martin Scorsese film will be identifiable not by a long steadicam shot, a scattershot voiceover or the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack but by the presence of some vaguely recognisable face – Robert de Niro, Leonardo di Caprio, or maybe even Joe Pesci or Frank Vincent.

Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in Raging Bull (1980)

The repetition of actors in films by certain directors is often noticeable but can also go unremarked even by more attentive viewers. They also, with every repeat appearance, add another layer of texture, of meaning, of biographical nuance to the film.

An actor throughout their career is a constantly updated palimpsest of his or herself; when reappearing in the films of the same director, they become part of the fabric, weft in the film’s tapestry, an echo of earlier work that binds the world of the film together. 

One needn’t wonder why directors use the same actors again and again – the comfort of working with people you know is evident. Most great directors have had their acteurs fétiches – Toshiro Mifune for Kurosawa, Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara for Ozu, Klaus Kinski for Herzog, Monica Vitti for Antonioni, De Niro and now DiCaprio for Scorsese.

Other directors have doggedly stood by one actor and filmed their evolution over time – Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 and Lee Kang-Sheng in practically all of Tsai Ming-Liang’s films. A rarer privilege for filmmakers is getting to use a group of their favourite actors repeatedly, though some have managed it.

In the Hollywood studio era, actors did the bidding of the studio so troupes of this sort were rare enough – John Ford was one of the few to have a regular gaggle of actors to hand: John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen were almost ever-present in Ford films for a decade or more and formed a reactionary clique around the backlots (Bond once famously goaded a young Orson Welles in a restaurant and cut off his tie).

Elsewhere, troupes of actors associated with directors emerged from theatrical troupes, as with Ingmar Bergman, who established himself as a stage director in Sweden before gaining international renown. Numerous actors made ten or more films with him: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand.

The tightness of the group gave an extra heft and tension to Bergman’s family dramas but there were also films that directly replicated the travelling troupe, such as The Virgin SpringThe Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel. It was as if Bergman was mining the offstage dynamics of his circle for fictional ends.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Other directors whose work has straddled stage and screen have operated in a similar vein with their groups of actors. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and work blurred almost imperceptibly into one another, to such an extent that he directed an astounding 42 films (and numerous stage productions) in the 14 years before his death at the age of 37.

Fassbinder and his actors were often inseparable, plaguing international film festivals with their bad behaviour and making films on the fly, like the 1971 Western Whity, filmed in Spain in a week and financed using the producer’s credit card.

Fassbinder cast his Moroccan lover El Hedi ben Salem in several of his films, particularly Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Many of his associates went on to international fame, such as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and actors Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa, but they have always appeared exiled in other people’s films, so indelibly linked to Fassbinder were they.

In Fox and his Friends (1975), the titular Fox, played by the director himself, is exploited and ultimately ruined by his circle of friends after he wins the lottery. The knowledge that those friends were played by people who were not only regulars in his films but people he hung out with in real life only sharpens the discomfort you feel watching the film.

Fox and his Friends (1975)

Mike Leigh has made regular use of the same group of actors, such as Timothy Spall, Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, the late Katrin Cartlidge, Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent and Sally Hawkins, not to mention a few lesser known names.

As a director who is famous for his intense and thorough workshopped rehearsals, it is not surprising he calls upon the same people time and time again. Like Bergman and Fassbinder, Leigh’s films are often ensemble dramas that call for a finely calibrated pitch and tone.

The actor’s familiarity with one another facilitates this in much the same way as a central midfielder might instinctively place a pass onto the right wing knowing his full-back will be there to charge forward with the ball.

Leigh has seldom covered theatre in his films, the notable exception being Topsy Turvy (1999), his biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan. The scenes in the film in which the cast members of The Mikado rehearse for the show’s opening night are a reflection of the long rehearsals Leigh puts his actors through, raising the intriguing question of how one rehearses actors to perform a rehearsal.

Topsy Turvy (1999)

For directors that use their preferred actors whenever they can (sometimes they are stymied by availability) the actors are as indelibly part of the directorial "brand" or look as they themselves are. A John Cassavetes film without any of Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara or Seymour Cassel would look incomplete. Arnaud Desplechin hardly ever makes a film without Mathieu Amalric or the Dardenne brothers without Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione; almost every film by Jia Zhangke features his wife Zhao Tao.

There sometimes come breaks between actors and director: Alison Steadman disappeared from Mike Leigh’s films and Mia Farrow from Woody Allen’s after their respective relationships ended. Martin Scorsese has not used Robert de Niro for two decades, presumably because the cultural weight of their earlier collaborations would risk unbalancing a film. Werner Herzog’s films are very different since Klaus Kinski’s death (indeed he has almost entirely devoted himself to documentary since then).

One of the most moving instances of a collaboration cut short was the sudden death of Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää in 1995. Pellonpää had appeared in most of Aki Kaurismäki’s films until then (as well as those by Kaurismäki’s brother Mika). For his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, Kaurismäki ensured his old friend would be present, in the shape of a smiling childhood portrait, sitting on the dresser in the apartment belonging to unemployed couple Illona and Lauri. There is no reference to a child in the film but it is implied the couple, played by Kati Outinen and Kari Vänäänen (themselves regular Kaurismäki players) once had a son. It’s a subtle but fond farewell for a man whose absence from Kaurismäki’s films has been palpable.

Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen in Drifting Clouds (1996)

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage