For every leading A-grade actor, every tabloid luminary there are countless, equally talented character actors stealing the show from their more mainstream costars. These actors often have heavily padded resumes and work with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. While moviegoers usually recognize these actors many will often have trouble matching a name to a face. This “what’s that actor’s name?” commonality is probably amusing to the actors (Being John Malkovich shed light on this with satirical brilliance) and quite possibly embraced in the acting community, however, it is important to credit and praise these talents.
It could be said that “character acting” is kind of a redundant term since the essence of acting has always been taking on the form of different characters and personas and making it your own. Still since the dawn of celluloid this title has been reserved for a certain sect of actors and actresses who devour every role they’re handed. Classic legends such as Peter Lorre (Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon), Ernest Borgnine (The Dirty Dozen, Marty) to more contemporary greats like Steve Buscemi (quite possibly a modern day Lorre), the impeccable Gary Oldman (seriously this versatile and terribly underrated actor has played it all and brings shear brilliance to each role), Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joey Pantoliano, Harry Dean Stanton and Paul Giamatti to name a few, are versatile actors who slip from role to role with care and ease, always putting out a stellar performance even in the bleakest of films.
Many of these character actors have hit it big landing more leading roles and garnering award attention, however, the truly great ones continue to pick their roles wisely and despite their new found fame are persistent with their scene stealing ways. Widely known examples such as Kevin Spacey and Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, John C. Reilly in P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight and Magnolia, Frances McDormand in Fargo, Chris Cooper in American Beauty, Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Danny Aiello in Do The Right Thing, Julianne Moore in Short Cuts, to name a few, may now sound cliché but are still prime examples of highly skilled actors stealing the show with small character roles.
I was reminded of the allure of great character actors this past week after I saw three great new releases, all of which featured stand out performances from a number of new and veteran character actors.
Michael Clayton, the new legal drama and George Clooney vehicle shows that yes, Clooney can act and is more than just a pretty Hollywood face, however, while his acting chops were top notch it was two of his supporting thespians that truly caught my attention. Tom Wilkinson has been making films (usually out of the spotlight) since the 70s but only recently garnered the attention and diverse roles he deserved. He’s played the devastated, vengeance filled father (In the Bedroom), the light-hearted comedic role (The Full Monty), the quirky human psyche specialist (Eternal Sunshine on a Spotless Mind) and even stole the show with a small but memorable role in Shakespeare in Love. With Clayton he masters his role as a crazed legal genius going through a bizarre mid-life crisis who comes to a startling realization and questions his morals. His performance, along with co-star Tilda Swinton, who plays a conniving corporate lackey, is so strongly executed that event he finest of details (body language, eye contact) are brought to life strengthening two fairly minor but important roles.
The newest addition to this wonderfully welcomed new-wave Western revival, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, featured a great performance by Brad Pitt (a star who is best in projects that he’s no doubt passionate about) and an even better one by Casey Affleck (a longtime superior actor to his older brother), however, it was some of the minor roles that truly caught my eye, specifically by one Garret Dillahunt. In James Dillahunt’s character is minor and merely serves to aid the plot, however, his few scenes with Pitt’s Jesse James are spellbinding to watch due to the actor’s patience with his character and brilliant attention to the finer nuances of his slow-witted character (see the movie to understand this). This actor has a short film list to credit but is quickly becoming the go to man for Western and early American History period pieces thanks to his outstanding performances (he actually plays two different roles during two different seasons) on HBOs brilliant short-lived Western drama, “Deadwood.” With an upcoming role in the highly anticipated modern Western No Country For Old Men and two more films in the works Dillahunt seems to be on the right track towards a promising acting future ahead of him, one where he will no doubt wear many different faces.
Finally I was awe struck by veteran character actor Hal Holbrook’s (All the President’s Men), moving performance in Sean Penn’s must see film, Into the Wild. Here’s a movie that features a number of fine bit roles from a number of great actors including Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden and even a toned down Vince Vaughn (if you ever saw Return to Paradise you’ll know Vaughn is more versatile then people think), who all shine with small but juicy supporting roles. Still it’s Holbrook’s turn as a complicated, deeply saddened nobody whose eyes of the world are reopened by a young vagabond that truly stands out.
I could probably throw out an even longer list of great character actors working today–for those curious here are some others: Javier Bardem (his creepy role in the upcoming No Country for Old Men has people talking already), Danny Huston (Angelica’s gifted brother; see The Proposition), Danny Trejo (go-to-man for crazy Mexican desert biker roles), Alfred Molina (from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Frida, he’s done it all), Dylan Baker (go to man for square everyman, oh, and creepy pedophile), Ted Levine (chilled audiences with his flawless portrayal of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and still pops up in film and on TV), and Billy Bob Thornton (ok so he’s a bit mainstream but some of his early roles, specifically the indie sleeper A Simple Plan, are simply jaw dropping). People joke about the universal “What’s that actor’s name?” discussions when talking about character actors but what’s interesting about this is that these are the faces that we continue to remember from past movies. More often than not we favor the smaller roles over the obvious star performances.