Michael Vartan: Why He Can’t Find Work Anymore

Michael Vartan: Why He Can’t Find Work Anymore

03/31/2021

For a distinct and lengthy period of time, from the late 1990s through to the late 2000s, Michael Vartan was seemingly everywhere, starring in multiple TV series and co-starring in big Hollywood films. After some memorable early appearances in Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and on Friends (as the son of Tom Selleck’s character), the French-born actor shot to fame as a foil for iconic female stars, playing Agent Michael Vaughn opposite short-lived girlfriend Jennifer Garner in ABC’s spy show, Alias, and romancing Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed and Jennifer Lopez in Monster-in-Law.

But by around 2010 or so, Vartan’s star had started to fade. After a string of overlooked movies and swiftly-cancelled TV shows, he popped up less and less, and in smaller and smaller parts. How was Michael Vartan once one of Hollywood’s most reliable co-stars and then just not anymore? Here’s a look into why the actor isn’t as visible as he once was.

He left his show to try to be a movie star

Leaving a TV series for a movie career is risky. Perhaps overconfident, the actor may assume that the show was successful primarily due to their involvement — and not due to, say, another star of the show, a unique premise, or a visionary showrunner. Unfortunately for Michael Vartan, who left Alias during its fifth season, the popularity of the series could be credited to Jennifer Garner, who portrayed international super-spy Sydney Bristow under the watchful eye of show creator J.J. Abrams — who’d go on to helm acclaimed reboots of the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.

The entertainment industry, and people who follow entertainment news, react with a collective metaphorical wince as they brace for impact of the fleeing actor’s career as it crash-lands — especially if it follows the example set forth by people like Shelley Long and David Caruso, who abandoned TV mega-hits Cheers and NYPD Blue, respectively, for A-list movie star runs that embarrassingly never materialized. But when Vartan left Alias (to go film the Australian horror movie, Rogue, according to CBR), it’s likely that he didn’t think there was any way he’d wind up like Long or Caruso. The actor must have thought he’d wind up like those performers who successfully moved from TV to films — people like ER bailer George Clooney. 

Vartan ultimately returned to Alias, but being lumped in with previous show-jumpers — and potentially being perceived as an arrogant flake like Long and Caruso — could only have hurt his career prospects.

Michael Vartan's big movies flopped

While it may occasionally and unabashedly make art, Hollywood is still a business, and money wears greatly on the minds of filmmakers, studios, and production companies. To the actors who have proved themselves bankable with one hit movie or heavily-watched TV series after another, they receive the multitude of offers and the good roles. To those who can’t seem to fill up movie theaters with people eager to watch their high-profile, big-budget action movie — well, they get more modest roles in smaller movies, or eventually, very few gigs at all. This could be the case with Michael Vartan. 

The actor, best known as a TV star for his work on Alias, has never starred in a bonafide blockbuster produced by a major studio that poured a lot of money into marketing. His 1999 comedy, Never Been Kissed, earned a decent $55 million at the North American box office, and six years later, Monster-in-Law took in $82 million. Not only are those not outright smashes, but they’re more associated with other actors — co-stars Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Lopez, respectively. 

Vartan was only given the chance to star in one more big movie, the 2011 action thriller, Colombiana. Also starring Zoe Saldana, the film earned just $36 million in North America — less than its budget. In the numbers game of Hollywood, Michael Vartan unfortunately just doesn’t seem to be a draw.

The actor's indie movies didn't earn much attention or praise

After establishing himself as a familiar and likable leading man in Never Been Kissed and on TV’s Alias, Michael Vartan embarked on a movie career. But he didn’t appear in all that many movies, and the vast majority of the projects he did choose ultimately failed to make much of a lasting impression with audiences or critics. 

The acclaimed, creepy indie thriller, One Hour Photo, brought in $31 million at the American box office, while the crocodile-based thriller, Rogue, made just over $10,000 in a limited U.S. release. Meanwhile, drama Jolene (2010), dark comedy Demoted (2011), and cop drama Small Town Crime (2018) never even reached theaters. And while large paying audiences didn’t enjoy much of Vartan’s latter big-screen — or they didn’t get the chance to — movie reviewers were often similarly apathetic or unimpressed. 

Lindy West of The Stranger called Jolene (a 48 percent scorer on Rotten Tomatoes) “a mediocre movie.” Demoted, according to David Nusair of Reel Film Reviews, was “a hopelessly unfunny and thoroughly tedious comedy.” As for the mostly well-reviewed Small Town Crime, Tom Santilli of AXS found it “forgettable.” Unable to carry a big-budget studio movie or get a small film noticed, Vartan may have run out of chances to prove his movie star mettle.

Big Shots was a big shot that missed the mark for Michael Vartan

In 2007, ABC added Big Shots to its fall lineup. According to the network’s official synopsis (via TV Guide), Big Shots was “the story of four friends at the top of their game…until the women in their lives enter the room.” That vaguely sexist copy only sort of describes the series, which was about four high-achieving CEOs who are also all very close and get together at an exclusive men’s club to complain about their lives. The slightly comic soap boasted a strong cast full of familiar and likable TV stars, including Dylan McDermott of The Practice, Joshua Malina of The West Wing, and Michael Vartan — who was returning to ABC and series television for the first time since the demise of Alias in 2006.

But even Vartan didn’t think it was all that “bold,” telling TV Guide, “The truth of the matter is, they’re not talking about women the way men really talk about women, and that’s mostly because it’s ABC … [and not] cable television.”

According to TV Series Finale, the show was impacted by the 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, with production interrupted and a 13-episode order cut to just 11. That was unlucky enough for Vartan, but Big Shots didn’t exactly score with viewers or critics either: It finished in 53rd place in the annual TV ratings and amassed a woeful 6 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In May 2008, ABC cancelled Big Shots, which could have been a nice comeback vehicle for Vartan.

HawthoRNe failed to reignite Michael Vartan's TV stardom

After the disappointing receptions of his movies both major and minor, and the quick cancellation of the ABC series, Big Shots, Michael Vartan moved to the then-burgeoning world of basic cable dramatic television in 2009, serving as the second lead on the TNT medical series, HawthoRNe. On this show, notable for its quirky title stylization that emphasized the “RN” to let viewers quickly know that this was series about a nurse, Jada Pinkett Smith played Christina Hawthorne, head of the nursing staff at a Virginia hospital. Vartan portrayed Dr. Tom Wakefield, the chief of surgery and Hawthorne’s commitment-pushing boyfriend and later husband.

It didn’t quite provide Vartan with the comeback he may have been after. Critics found HawthoRNe to be thoroughly okay, responsible for giving the first season a middling 45 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The first episode attracted nearly 4 million viewers — which was a lot for a cable drama at the time — but the numbers had dropped to just around 2.4 million by HawthoRNe‘s third season — which would also be its last.

At the time, Vartan was hopeful going into pilot season. Admitting he’d “been out of the loop” due to contractual obligations to HawthoRNe, he told MovieWeb, “It’s an exciting time for an actor. It’s a little scary being out of work, because you don’t know what is going to happen from paycheck to paycheck. On a creative level, for the next month or two, the world is my oyster.”

Michael Vartan's arrangement with The Arrangement didn't pan out

A Michael Vartan-led show called The Arrangement seemed like an ideal fit for the E! network. The channel spends a lot of its broadcast day rerunning movies from the ’90s and 2000s, when Vartan was the male Hollywood ideal, so it was just good synergy to cast the actor in a brand new sexy, soapy drama series in 2017. Christine Evangelista played Megan Morrison, a young actor selected to sign a lucrative contract and serve as the public fiancée of Kyle West (Josh Henderson), a major movie star and the most famous adherent of a cult-like organization. For his part, Vartan portrayed Terence Anderson, Kyle’s producing partner and also the head of the “Institute of the Higher Mind.”

A provocative and envelope-pushing series, The Arrangement gave Vartan a chance to show audiences that he was more than just that guy from Alias or rom-coms past. Speaking with Collider, Vartan said that playing a “dark” and “sinister” character was “so much fun,” adding, “Especially based on my track record, in my career, where I’ve played mostly the nice guy or the boyfriend.”

According to Deadline, audiences were into The Arrangement, at least at first. It initially averaged 1.3 million viewers (pretty good for a basic cable drama in 2017), but by the end of Season 2, ratings had dropped precipitously — leading E! to cancel The Arrangement, and putting Vartan out of work once more.

Michael Vartan is too old to be a rom-com guy anymore

Across television and film, Michael Vartan established a niche for himself in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a conventionally attractive leading man type — a good-looking guy and object of affection for the female star in projects centered on a woman looking for love and romance. Vartan portrayed a generically agreeable character quite often before and after the turn of the new millennium, such as a high school teacher with a crush on a reporter masquerading as a teenager in Never Been Kissed, a new husband to Jennifer Lopez in Monster-in-Law, super-spy Michael Vaughn opposite Jennifer Garner in Alias, and a brief turn as a love interest for Courteney Cox’s character on Friends.

Vartan was perfectly fine in those roles — as a leading man and romantic lead, he got the job done and ensured his female cohorts’ characters got a happily-ever-after ending. The problem with these roles? Vartan played them so often that it probably became hard for filmmakers or audiences to see him portraying other kinds of characters. “I’d like to think that I’m not really typecast,” Vartan told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, but admitted that even 10 years after the series wrapped, “I think Alias is definitely the thing I’m most known for in TV.”

Still, Vartan doesn’t even get cast in these kinds of parts anymore. In his early fifties, at the time of this writing, he’s aged out of a place where he could viably and convincingly play a dashing young suitor.

Critics don't always like Michael Vartan's acting work

As of the 2020s, Michael Vartan doesn’t appear in many movies of TV shows, but then that’s nothing new — in a career that dates back to 1989, Vartan has just more than 40 acting credits to his name, a relatively brief resume for someone of his stature and age. And while he hasn’t proven to be much of a viable box office draw or TV ratings lure, the problem with his lack of casting may be more fundamental. Casting agents wouldn’t care to hire or advocate for an actor whom critics repeatedly call out for poor performances in high-profile films. 

Take Vartan’s work in his biggest box office hit, the thoroughly drubbed Monster-in-Law. Claudia Puig of USA Today said that Vartan and co-star Jennifer Lopez “don’t exhibit one iota of chemistry.” David Cornelius of eFilmCritic likened his “charisma levels” in the film to that of “a baked potato.” A lot of movie and TV writers out there just don’t seem to think that Vartan is much of a thespian, or at the very least, singular. 

The Washington Post critic Amy Argetsinger even wrote a whole piece in 2005 attempting to differentiate Vartan from similar actors who often play rom-com boyfriends, like John Corbett and Dermot Mulroney, whom she dubbed “The Guy.” Noting that not every actor is going to become their generation’s Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise, casting director Randi Hiller told the outlet, “The rest of these guys, no matter how talented they are, end up with the next level of roles.”

Did Michael Vartan retire from acting?

All of these points about the slow and quiet fading out of Michael Vartan’s years as a leading man of the big and small screens may actually be entirely moot. He’s acted in so few screen projects over the last five years — even low-profile things — that it would suggest the fifty-something actor has walked away from show business. After releasing Small Town Crime in 2017 and the cancellation of The Arrangement in 2018 after two seasons, Vartan professionally acted just one more time: He guest-starred on a first season episode of the CBS spiritual drama, God Friended Me. But after 2018, there’s nothing on Vartan’s IMDb resume — not even anything in production or awaiting release for the coming years.

That said, there’s also a chance he’s just taking a break, to regroup and figure out what kind of movies and TV shows he really wants to make — or at least what comes next. “For the first part of my career, I’ve really been an insecure actor. I’ve really struggled to find ways to be good,” he told ET in 2017. “As I get older, it’s not that I care less, but I really do. I care less about what people think about me. I care less about what I look like.” Vartan added, “I feel like I haven’t delivered my best performance yet.”

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