3Rollers: A Special Class of Actor

3Rollers: A Special Class of Actor

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A 3Roller™ is a very special class of actor – the best in the business, and one of the truly great things in life. Here you’ll find who they are and how to spot them (prepare to be blown away – and be sure to tell me if you know of one that I don’t!).

Actors of a certain ability become their characters so completely you almost forget who’s playing the part (once or twice, I actually have – think Theron). The characters are altogether distinct both from each other and from from the actor him- or herself.

Lalin (Carlito's Way) + Aragorn (Lord of the Rings) + Master Chief Urgayle (G.I. Jane) - Viggo Mortensen himself = 3Roller

Contrast this to actors who bring a consistent portrayal, usually very similar to themselves, from film to film; because of this limitation, the body of work customarily cannot reach the breadth and richness of a 3Roller (exceptions prove the rule, however – these are the 1Role Wonders™).

I’ve been watching for 3Rollers since 1997, and it just keeps getting better and better with time. These entries update regularly, so be sure to keep an eye on your favorites – and if you spot any I’ve missed, please let me know without delay!

What is a 3Roller™ anyway?

Meg Ryan is a 3RollerI once heard it said third hand that an individual capable of delivering at least three unique performances can be called a true actor. This bold, even controversial, assertion was of course absolute catnip to the Libra/investigator in me. I began watching to see if it played out, and in discussing my findings with others, naturally started calling the actors 3Rollers™.

Jodie Foster expressed the concept once saying, “There are personalities, and there are actors.” Edward Norton put it another way: “Some actors are more iconic, and others are shape-shifters.” (Using Mr. Norton as a case in point, some shapes shift with far more facility than others! I’m fully persuaded he’ll be the first 10+ Titan™ (note it: Aug 2003; update Oct 2010: yep!).

The folks at the William Fichtner Official Fan Site said, “Some of us have discovered that it’s taken two or three movies before we suddenly realize we’ve been admiring the same actor in different roles. Now, that’s a talent to appreciate. And appreciate it we do.” That’s the talent of a 3Roller™ (Mr. Fichtner himself graces this list).

To 3 Roles and Beyond!

I’ve been observing 3Rollers™ with purpose since about 1997, I’d say. At first, when someone made the three-role cut I reverently dubbed them a 3Roller™ and then simply took admiring notice of additional qualifying roles. I considered additional roles rather as icing on the cake, more proof of a single point.

That was fine when there were only three, or perhaps four, qualifying roles … but what of certain people who just. keep. counting? Not variations on a theme, mind you, but unique, qualifying, roles? What happens when it’s hard to choose which three to mention, since four or five deserve it? A whole new game started to emerge…

3Roller Gary OldmanTherefore, thanks to Gary Oldman I’m no longer stopping at the formal mention of three. I’m curious now to see just how high they’ll take us.

How Does a Performance Qualify?

Hugo Weaving, Cliff Curtis, and Jenette GoldsteinSince The Matrix Weaving’s been a gimme ~ but how about the other two? It’s terrific fun to watch for, discover, follow, and be dazzled by the 3Rollers™. Sometimes they can really take you by surprise (I’ve been floored three times to date – once in which I had a nagging sense I’d seen the person before, and two who didn’t even register. Inconceivable!)

Often, an actor will portray several characters that resemble each other according to variations on a theme; these would all qualify as a single role (perhaps if Joanna Kramer moved to Madison County, she wouldn’t be so depressed). Additionally, portrayals involving prosthetic makeup, cross-dressing, etc., do not ipso facto qualify a role. The performance must stand on its own during a reading as easily as it does during filming. The same goes for accents – if taken away, the performance must remain unique.

The Three-Prong Two Prong Test

1) Is the characterization fundamentally the actor’s own personal demeanor?


2) If you take the character out of the film and put him/her into another, would it essentially work?


3) Was the character part of a made-for-tv production (vs. a theatrical release)? *

“No” on both counts = Qualifying Role.

Meryl Streep is a 3Roller

For example, one could put Han Solo into Raiders of the Lost Ark, Firewall, and Patriot Games without missing a beat; Harrison Ford is a 1Role Wonder™ and this is his [beloved] role across the board.

Similarly, putting Philadelphia‘s Andrew Beckett into Road to Perdition would be startling but recognizable ~ Tom Hanks is a 3Roller™; but Philadelphia and Road to Perdition “draw from the same source,” and thus represent variations on a theme – e.g., one Qualifying Role.

However, put Nell into The Silence of the Lambs and it simply doesn’t compute; Jodie Foster is a 3Roller™, and Nell and The Silence of the Lambs represent two Qualifying Roles.

Tom Hanks is a 3Roller

When a person achieves two Qualifying Roles, they become a Contender, and we start counting. When they hit three Qualifying Roles, they become a 3Roller: Bona Fide!

Rules of the Game

So to recap:

  • The character cannot resemble the actor personally
  • The character cannot resemble another character
  • The character cannot be part of a made-for-tv production
  • One Qualifying Role puts the actor on the Roller Watch
  • Two Qualifying Roles puts the actor in Contention
  • Three Qualifying Roles bestows official 3Roller™ status ~ Bona Fide!
  • From there, we just stand back in awe and see how high they’ll go!

* Update 2014:  Some of the cable companies, such as HBO and Showtime, are now presenting productions that rival theatrical releases; they deal with substantive and challenging content, and are granted the budget to attract top talent in cast and crew (ex: HBO’s Behind the Candelabra). Thus, as long as the film is readily available via Netflix or Amazon Prime (not the perfect standard, but the simplest), the theatrical release requirement is lifted.

Awaiting The 10+ Titan™

People often ask me who I think the first 10+ Titan™ will be. Were I a betting woman, my money would be on Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman (nooo!!!), or Johnny Depp (in that order). There are other guys as well, but these three just seem to be smokin’ along – Norton hit an astonishing 6 Roles in 11 years (mindblowing), so with the right script selection he could nail this in a hurry. Depp’s right on his heels, though, with more opportunity given the fantastical characters he tends toward. (Update Feb 2014: Of course this is now a real heartbreaker; the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dear and painful one to all of us.) (Update Dec 2015: Put Tom Hardy on this list, holy cow. I need to go polish this entire section, and can’t wait to see his roles together!)

Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, and Meg Ryan (yep!) are equally qualified, but given the dearth of substantive material for women in film, it’ll probably take them longer as a matter of practicality. (Dear Ms. MacDonald, Wagner, Bigelow, et al: please prove me wrong!)

If you believe a 10+ Titan™ exists prior to my generation (and granted, I haven’t finished the entireties of Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier), by all means let me know.

(Same goes for anyone you think qualifies and I’ve missed along the way.)

October 2010: Edward Norton becomes the first 10+ Titan as Gerald “Stone” Creeson, Stone. A stellar achievement, Mr. Norton, bravo! Bravo!

2017: Twenty Years Into This Now (Wow!)

The 21st century is being very good to Meryl Streep, and she’s experienced a run of Qualifying Roles, finally matching Edward Norton and Jodie Foster. But sadly, Meg Ryan is now out of the running (utterly appalling). On a happier note, I think Mr. Norton is about to take a page from Mr. Oldman’s book and show us a whole new game. (Variations on a Role, if you can believe such a thing; but with him, yes.) Sweet…

Let’s go take a look at them, shall we? »

Note: I have several entries to update and a few new ones add, which I’ll do asap – including Ezra Miller, Domnhall Gleeson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and honorary Princess of 3Rollerdom Tatiana Maslany (holy cow!).