What you need to make a one-actor movie work

From I Am Legend and 127 Hours, to Cast Away and Buried, what is it that makes one-actor movies work so well?

Casts keep getting bigger and action sequences keep getting louder, from blowing apart whole cities to watching at least twenty superheroes in a punch-up. Keeping such a movie from turning into a jumble of noise and undeveloped characters is a huge task for a director, but that doesn’t mean that the small films, the ones with very few characters, are easier to make. And one of the great challenges must be to make a film with only one character for most, or all, of the running time.

So how do you keep an audience interested in one person’s struggle for ninety minutes or longer in an age when we’re all about more bangs for more bucks? The following components can make for riveting viewing without the need for more than one face throughout:

Charisma

Obviously, if there’s only going to be one person on your screen, the audience is going to have to want to spend time in his/her company. That’s not to say that such roles are only for huge stars with likeable personas; casting a big star with a well-established persona can sometimes detrimentally affect how an audience relates to the story.

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An interesting example of how different actors can change a film is in the three movie versions of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend. Playing the last man on Earth has been a challenge taken up by Will Smith, Charlton Heston and Vincent Price – all three of them bringing something of their individuality to the role.

Will Smith brought a warmth and vulnerability to his performance in I Am Legend (2007) that made it easy for an audience to relate to him emotionally, but difficult to accept him as anything but a hero for the purposes of the ending of the film. Charlton Heston was well established as a legend of large screen roles, having played Moses and Ben Hur by the time he took the lead in The Omega Man (1971), and his character is imbued with power that makes it hard to believe he could killed by anyone, even vampires. But Vincent Price, playing against type for 1964’s The Last Man On Earth, brings a quiet dignity and truthfulness in his version of the character, and the film is improved for that.

As ever, though, the box office spoke for itself in the film versions of I Am Legend; when asked if they wanted to see Vincent Price play against type the immediate answer was no. The film has only been remembered through a quiet appreciation of it that has grown over the years. Will Smith had sold the film version he starred in to an audience before it even reached cinemas, and its potential as a spectacle for a big name was firmly in the mind of those making it. Other actors considered for the role included Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Would they have been able to keep us interested throughout with their charisma? Very probably, but I’m not sure they could have managed to find the moral complexities that lay at the heart of Matheson’s novel, and that Vincent Price managed to hint at.

Perhaps my favourite performance by a huge star in this sort of role is Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000), who spends most the film looking confused, hungry and horrified about what has happened to him without depressing the viewer. He’s the perfect choice for the role of Chuck Noland, a Fed-Ex employee marooned for years alone on a desert island, because he can make you buy moments of comedy as well as sadness. It’s hard to think of another actor making you care so much for a bloody handprint on a volleyball, but Hanks manages it. Nothing in the film takes you outside the comfortable zone we all inhabit when we watch Hanks in action, but that’s not to denigrate how good he is at what he does.

A mission

Ninety minutes is a long time to spend with anyone alone, particularly if they don’t have anything much to do or say. Perhaps that’s why a lot of one-actor films are about what appears to be an impossible situation, in which the odds of survival are ridiculously low. There are two ways to approach such a film: either you tell us in advance whether the protagonist survives, or you don’t.

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127 Hours (2010) gave us James Franco trapped in a canyon, pinned by a boulder that left him with an unimaginable choice, but nobody went into that film without knowing what choice he made. Wondering how on earth he got to that stage drives the narrative and provides all the tension we need. By also intercutting Franco’s performance with flashbacks, what could have been a necessarily static film became quite dynamic – director Danny Boyle described it as “an action movie with a guy who can’t move”. The film wriggles around its own predicament, even as Franco wriggles under his rock.

On the other side of the coin and in the same year, there’s Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds finds himself trapped underground in a coffin in Iraq, with only a mobile phone to try and arrange payment of a ransom to those responsible. Boyle’s description could easily apply to this film too; director Rodrigo Cort├ęs does a brilliant job of keeping adrenaline levels high even though no movement is possible. All the tension comes from the situation, and from a great performance by Reynolds, and the voice actors involved on the other end of the mobile phone.

The business of phone calls gets used so well in another one-actor film where the stakes might appear to be much lower. No lives are at risk in Locke (2013) but I found the internal struggle of the character, played so well by Tom Hardy, to be as gripping as any battle for survival. Ivan Locke, a construction foreman, drives to be with a woman who is giving birth to his child, and along the way must explain to his wife, boss and co-workers via mobile phone why he’s leaving. The moving lights of the road, reflected in the glass of the windscreen, keep the shots alive, and Hardy’s quiet moments of doubt and determination are compelling.

If you’d like to see how moving a film with just one actor and a phone can be in dealing with small affairs of the heart, then try Ingrid Bergman’s performance in the 1966 television movie The Human Voice. Based on a 1930 play by Jean Cocteau, Bergman talks on the phone to her ex-lover, rehashing the details of their relationship, blaming and flirting and pleading in turn. We don’t get to hear the other side of the conversation; Bergman does all the hard work, and makes us believe every moment. She is a woman on a mission – to find some way to escape her own despair. It’s just as tense as watching someone trying to escape death.

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Sound and silence

Very few films choose to have only one actor and then also give them very little dialogue as well, even if its closer to the truth that people on their own don’t usually spend much time talking to themselves. All Is Lost (2013) is brave enough to go down this route, and uses the silence incredibly well, helped by the fact that Robert Redford has one of the great changing faces of cinema – from handsome to craggy, we see him as he was and is when he appears on screen, which brings its own running commentary about time and the changes it brings. His character fights the elements when his boat is damaged at sea with little more than occasional expletive when things get really bad. There’s no facility to give us a past, or a future; we live in the moment with the character. It’s a brave and brilliant film.

Just like the sea, the utter vast silence of space makes a great backdrop for the personal one-actor story. Gravity (2013) gave Sandra Bullock a chance to be alone with her thoughts (with the occasional interruption from George Clooney) and to come to terms with her desire to go on living even when terrible events have happened to her. The film attracted praise as much for its technical achievements, but the truth is the advances in technology only allow her character’s story to be presented with clarity and truth – her performance, and our engagement with it, is only enhanced by the excellence of the special effects.

Moon (2009) came at the same issue from an entirely different direction. Sam Rockwell’s character is approaching the end of his three year stint working on the moon, but after an accident he discovers that he’s not entirely who he thought he was. Questions about personality and uniqueness run through the film; the moon, appealing to director Duncan Jones because of its “desolation and emptiness”, provides a reminder that we need to fill our own emotional landscapes with light and colour to be truly human.

A film that was a great influence on Moon is Silent Running (1972), in which Bruce Dern plays Lowell, a gardener tending the last plants and animals from Earth, now onboard a giant spaceship. An interesting component of Silent Running is its use of music; it features singing by Joan Baez to accompany images of the flora and fauna being cared for, and the music is very effective at making us appreciate the beauty and importance of nature.

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Still in space – well, on Mars, Matt Damon’s performance as Mark Watney in The Martian (2015) was a generally upbeat, positive affair. The film utilised music, disco tracks in particular, to provide drive. And back on Earth, Wild (2014) uses music to do the opposite and provide gravitas to the story, this time picking the Simon and Garfunkel song El Condor Pasa (If I Could) as a recurring sound, cropping up in key moments of Cheryl Strayed’s (played by Reese Witherspoon) hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in order to come to terms with problems in her life.

But both of those films take a plot that could well have centred entirely on one character and add in many others along the way. I do wonder how different they might have been if they had spent more time focusing on the main character alone – well, I can’t complain, loving both of those films as they are. It does demonstrate, though, that making a one-actor film is always a stylistic choice rather than a necessity of the script. And many directors choose not to attempt it.

Perhaps there’s one more thing that’s needed to make a one-actor movie work, and that’s the belief that it’s the best way to tell that story. Finding a crew and an actor who have the guts to commit to such a film, knowing what a risky and intense process it will be – maybe that’s the hardest part of all.