You can be in Hollywood, professional sports, or middle management. Talent will usually win out, but sometimes you are trapped in a bad situation and find it hard to break through to something better. After all, our time on this earth is limited, and the window for success is even more limited. Enter 35 year old actor Toby Kebbell.
If you share my opinion of that particular movie, you might be thinking, who is he? The movie’s primary appeal was the brilliantly rendered lifelike computer-generated Apes. The humans were the worst part, suffering from being too one dimensional and bland by comparison. While Andy Serkis is the alpha from a production standpoint, both in the Caesar character he plays and in terms of the performances in the film, Kebbell Scottie Pippen’s his way to a great performance as the friend-turned-foe Koba. Like Serkis, Kebbell dons the motion capture spandex light suit. He also plays the only other ape in the film that can speak. His role is significant, complex, dynamic, and it led to people leaving the theater wondering who was playing that role. I remember personally thinking some stunt person really stepped up, not realizing it was a professional actor, with several small parts in big productions to his name.
If you are a football fan, think of Kebbell’s performance in Apes like a back-up Quarterback in the NFL stepping up for one big game. See Matt Flynn against the Detriot Lions in 2011, for a specific comparison. What happened to Flynn after that single point of reference successful game? He signed a big deal and became the automatic starting QB for the Seattle Seahawks before receiving a single practice snap. Flynn was swept down a path paved by Carsen Palmer and Aaron Rogers: young QBs riding the bench, learning, and then being ready to start.
For Kebbell, he was swept into a similar, though uniquely Hollywood path. Everyone loved him as Koba. Not since Serkis had an animated motion capture performance received this much attention. Serkis was slightly older when he concluded the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sought to stay closer to his friend Peter Jackson, donning the mo-cap suit again for King Kong, and learning from the Master to one day be a director behind the camera**. For Kebbell, 32 years old at the time of the release of Apes, the opportunities were wide open.
Flynn faltered on the Seahawks. Kebbell did Fantastic Four.
Fantastic Four for Kebbell represented the marriage of two of Hollywood’s favorite philosophies in the 2010’s: “That, do THAT again”, and “Make a movie universe, preferably one with superheros”. The movie went through well documented behind-the-scenes struggles, problems with a young director, re-shoots, studio mingling, and a gross underestimation of the public’s interest in the subject matter. For Kebbell, this was the Do That Again mentality. As Dr. Doom, Kebbell once again played the friend of our heroes with extreme views who eventually becomes the enemy. There is even the consistency of failed science experiments on him as the test subject and a resentment for humanity, because if it ain’t broke in Hollywood, don’t fix it. Per Boxofficemojo.com, Fantastic Four opened to $25.6 million, and rounded out its domestic run at $56 million(that TOTAL number would be considered a modest-poor OPENING for a superhero movie in the last 10 years). The sequel was cancelled, the iteration removed from the shared X-men/Deadpool FOX Universe, Director Josh Trank lost his chance to make a Star Wars spin-off movie, and everyone involved tried their best to shake-off the poor performance.
How did Kebbell respond? His 2016 would lead you to believe that he was too deep into contracts to reconsider the direction of his career. His motion-capture skills were put to use in Warcraft (bad guy who spends part of the movie good? check. Cover his face with a mask or CG? check. Adaptation of seemingly popular subject matter that is nowhere near as popular to the movie-going public as the studio thinks? CHECK). The film faltered domestically, only barely making up its money worldwide. The next step in 2016, finally showing his face in Ben-Hur, but that is about where the trend bucks. Ben-Hur(2016) was an adaptation no-one asked for, in which Kebbell plays a character that is at first friendly with our protagonist, but then becomes the main villain of the film. Sound familiar?
So what do we learn from Toby Kebbell? Is it just another case of type-casting? Is he somehow oddly best used as the friend-turned-villain? What qualities does an actor possess to put him in that specific type of role? Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon make sense to us as the heroes in their stories. Their look and personality are familiar to us from the 100+ year history of movie heroes. Mads Mikkelson(possibly with the influence of foreign stereotypes) cuts the figure for evil very well. Why is Kebbell unique to the two-sides-of-the-coin archetype?
Kebbell technically finished 2016 with 4 total releases(I could do a separate piece on the unusual number of spill over movies this winter; movies whose official release date was in 2016, but did not go wide until 2017). He plays 8th fiddle to Matthew McConaughey in Gold, and an estranged father in A Monster Calls. The former was panned by critics, and flopped at the box office(on pace to make less than $10 million total). The latter, a critical success, but a flop at the box office ($41 million worldwide on a $43 million budget pre-marketing). Kebbell has the opposite of the Midas touch right now. His 2017 outlook is highlighted by Kong: Skull Island, but given the crowded cast of big names in the film, it looks like he may just be canon fodder on whom the monsters can showcase their terror.
In the current Hollywood landscape, I posit that the best situation for Kebbell is to get on a TV series and sink his teeth into a role that can develop over the course of several episodes. People will watch. Golden Globes/Emmys will take notice. His talents will not be buried in a sea of bad movie ideas if he goes down this path. We have entered the golden age of the mini-series (People vs OJ, The Night Manager). I cannot think of a more perfect place for him to showcase his talent. In these roles he will need to show that he can play a compelling human being. Typecasting has always and will continue to occur in Hollywood. Look up actors Michael Ironside and Glenn Morshower, and how often they have played military personnel. Sean Bean famously plays characters that die in movies, whether they are good guys or bad. While those can be chalked up to aesthetic consistency and coincidence respectively, Kebbel’s is more baffling. Young talent should not go down one narrow path, but rather broaden to new possibilities and challenges.