In the third season of Party Down, one-time actor-turned-high-school-teacher-slash-cater-waiter Henry Pollard (Adam Scott) has a breakdown in front of a client, after the client reveals he can’t pay the beleaguered catering company for their services. “Jesus Christ! I’m 46 years old!” Henry wails, before listing all the ways his life is pathetic, crumpling into such deep despair that the client ends up finding a way to pay after all.
As soon as he gets the check and the client leaves, Henry reveals that it was all an act, impressing the high school student who had just been telling him that she thought acting was “just pretend.” As he exits the room to applause, Henry’s final zinger is this: “I’m 42, by the way.”
It’s a great scene, but the first thing I did after the episode ended was look up how old Adam Scott actually is in real life (50 years old this April). This is because this spring, I have increasingly lost my grip on knowing how old anyone is on screen anymore, entirely thanks to the gaslighting of so many shows.
Part of the magic of acting is that a great actor, with nothing but sheer talent, can transform themselves into literally anyone — with nothing more than a change in posture and facial expression, a legend of the stage and screen like Sir Laurence Olivier becomes an adolescent Romeo or an infirm King Lear right before our eyes.
Even with actors of slightly lesser talent than Olivier, audiences have been conditioned for years to accept that the age of the character we see on screen may not reflect what’s on the actor’s birth certificate. The teenagers of Beverly Hills 90210 were more than a few years past high school in real life. Jennifer Lawrence played 16-year-old freedom fighter Katniss Everdeen in 2012’s The Hunger Games and 30-something mop inventor Joy Mangano in 2015’s Joy. Brad Pitt played a li’l ancient baby man in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Acting! It’s magic!
But acting does have its limits, as we’ve been seeing in 2023. Casting directors have become more attuned to the idea of seeking out people from marginalized backgrounds to play characters from said marginalized backgrounds (Olivier is a legend, but his take on Othello is no longer a welcome one). Age, though, is a far more nebulous concept, especially in an industry where defying one’s age, in either direction, is of extreme interest.