How to write the perfect cameo

Sorry, there should be a question mark on that title because the truth is I don’t know. Haven’t the Scoobiest.

What I do know is the later a cameo is chucked into the script (generally) the worse it will be.

If a client said at the outline stage “Let’s write a really meaty cameo in the hope of attracting a decent actor.” then it’s pretty easy to work it into the fabric of the story, primarily because there isn’t a story yet.

At every stage after that it becomes harder and harder until you get the worst kind of cameo, the one which is inserted after principle photography has wrapped.

“I’ve just bumped into *insert name of someone who may or may not have a cult following or moderate box office success* and we HAVE to get them into the film.”

Really? We have to? Absolutely have to?

Because we’re currently struggling to piece the film together after you fired half the cast mid-shoot, cast people you fancied as opposed to people who could act and decided to shoot all the close, personal, intimate bedroom scenes in the middle of a rock gig.

Chucking in a random scene which has no connection to the plot just so you can put this woman’s name on the DVD cover isn’t going to make the film any better.

But the problem is, it will help sell the DVD … initially. For an incredibly short period of time.

Because the absolute worst thing about late-in-the-process-cameos is distributors tend to slap their name on the cover as if they’re the star of the film. Their fans buy the DVD in dribbles and get pissed off because their favourite star isn’t actually in the film at all.

Okay, there’s a single scene in there which features the actor but since it was filmed on a different day in a different location with none of the original cast … it’s hardly IN the film, is it?

And that’s another problem with cameos – we can rarely shoot them in the same location/set as the bulk of the story. At best we get to include one of the principle cast.

So are the best cameos the ones where you didn’t know the actor was going to appear? Is it more fun to suddenly go “Hey! It’s whats-her-face! I didn’t know she was in this!” or to spend the whole film waiting to see her, only to find out she has a three-minute comedy turn in a newsagent selling a pack of Toffos to a minor character who, for no reason whatsoever, has paused in the middle of a car chase, mysteriously changing his hair do and his trousers+ in order to purchase some teeth-gumming sweeties?

I think the former is better.

Every single distributor in the whole world would disagree.

In the absolute worst case scenario, they’ll rebrand the whole movie as a different genre (the one the cameo star is famous for) and sell the DVD as something it’s not to people who would never have bought it in the first place. Those people will (rightly) hate the movie for it not being what they were told it was and slag it off to anyone who’ll listen and plenty who won’t.


Self-defeating, I think. But then I don’t have access to the sales figures nor the brain to interpret them properly, so I clearly don’t know what I’m talking about.

I do know I’ve just been asked to include a cameo for someone in a feature script which is currently casting. Getting that actor involved would be absolutely fucking amazingly awesome, literally the high-watermark of my career.

But I don’t want it to derail the story. I don’t want the story to screech to a complete standstill, shift to a different location for a pointless scene and then struggle to pick up momentum afterwards.

Luckily, neither does the client.

Luckily he’s easily one of my favourite clients when it comes to lavishing care and attention on the script. He really, really cares about making it the best it can possibly be and is absolutely adamant that whereas getting this actor involved would be amazing, it must not interfere with what we already have.

How nice is that?

Even more luckily, there does seem to be a way to do exactly that. The cameo feels like it’s meant to be there. It feels relevant. It feels as if it was always there and is one of the key scenes which helps explain the actions of one of the main characters.

It even manages to solve the knotty problem of why someone who’s clearly American would coincidentally be in England three times over a ten year period at exactly the times we’re telling the story without actually living here.

It’s also funny and moving and tragic all at the same time.

Unusually I’m rather proud of it. This is a new emotion for me since I mostly feel I could probably do better.

Pride, an emotional cameo in my life.

Hopefully it won’t come before a fall.


I hate using the word actor as a non-gender word. I understand the logic behind it, as was explained to me by the great Piers Beckley “You don’t call a female pilot a pilotess or doctor a doctress, so why use it for actors you big old sexist?”. Yeah, that makes sense … except (rightly or wrongly. Mostly wrongly) the default mental image for an actor, pilot or doctor is a man.^ Test this for yourself, tell a story about a trip to the doctor and end with an unanswered question. I bet you almost everyone will ask you “Well, what did HE say?” – even other female doctors.

Mind you, that might be because some people still peddle the myth that ‘he’ should always be used when the gender is unknown. That is of course proper bollocks.

Maybe there should be female words for all professions to reinforce the idea that women also do those roles? Maybe the term ‘actress’ is LESS sexist because it gives women their own name as opposed to having to adopt the male name for it?

Or maybe not.

It does make casting a teensy bit more awkward when you have to explain you’re looking for a female actor as opposed to just using one word ‘actress’.

I like to alternate pronouns in my blogs he/she hers/his, etc … when I just use the word ‘actor’ over and over again I worry people think I’m only talking about men.

I probably worry too much.

+ The trousers change because this scene has been shot three months later and the original trousers have been eaten by ninjas. Nobody knows why ninjas eat trousers, but they do. It’s a fact.

^As evidenced in the pilot-psych question:

“What would you do if you were on a night-stop and the Captain came down to the bar in a dress?”

The correct answer of course being “Offer to buy her a drink.” Or more likely, get her to buy you a drink because Captains are fucking minted.

Categories: Industry Musings, My Way | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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  1. Pingback: 2015 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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