While William and I have made some gorgeous faux pas on The B-Movies Podcast in the past, it took us 30 episodes to commit one that was outwardly embarrassing. In the latest episode we reviewed Tate Taylor’s awards-baiting film The Help, and we said, repeatedly throughout the episode, that we were especially fond of the energetic and personable performance by the sassy Octavia Jackson. What we didn’t bother to correct ourselves on is that the actress in question is really named Octavia Spencer, and that her character was named Jackson. Oops. Ms. Spencer, we apologize.
But Ms. Spencer (and not Jackson), being so strong in her role, and bringing the otherwise sanitary The Help much of its personality, reminded us of that old saw our drama teachers used to repeat to us about small parts (which do not exist) and small actors (which you will only be if you allow yourself to be). The amount of time you spend on screen has little to do with how memorable you are. A good supporting role can easily upstage even a brave lead.
Hollywood in particular has a strange tendency to make their heroes kind of bland. Watch any average romantic comedy or teen drama, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The lead character is usually a handsome or gorgeous young thing who is going through a central and life-consuming romantic crisis, while their best friend/sibling/confidant is a less attractive (at least in theory, and not necessarily in practice), but infinitely more together (and energetic and interesting) person than their leading-man counterpart. I understand the leading actor is the one we’re supposed to identify with, and, hence they have to be something of a cipher, but I would love to see a film where the lead character is just as quirky and fun as their best friends; too often have I been introduced to a fun sidekick, only to be dismayed when they vanish off screen. Sigh.
Luckily, we have hundreds of hard-working actors in Hollywood who are talented, dynamic, versatile and fascinating, and yet who are rarely cast in leading roles. This relegation to the sidelines allows said actors to stretch, to play a wider variety or characters, and to charm us on a deeper level than the dull ciphers who are always up front. It would be nice to get more mainstream recognition, of course, but as an actor, I’d much rather be the “Hey it’s that guy!” actor, than the “Snort. Not Tom Cruise again” actor.
Here are some supporting actors, then, that I am passionate about seeing, no matter how much screen time they get. These are working performers who, by their very presence and talent, can lighten and charm and change the tone of any film.
KEVIN J. O’CONNOR
Kevin J. O’Connor has been starred in movies as diverse as F/X2 and Steel Magnolias. He’s often the nervous-voiced creepy guy in the back, chewing his fingernails and brooding. I first started noticing him in ‘90s genre films like the remake of The Mummy and Clive Barker’s Lord of Illusions (wherein he played a tortured magician and ex-cultist). After that I couldn’t stop noticing the guy, and found myself increasingly drawn to his performances. I found that he can play funny and energetic just as well as he can play intense and unscrupulous. He played a mad scientist in the maligned G.I. Joe film, but also the mysterious half-brother of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Kevin J. O’Connor adds a light touch to his roles, and brings a level of intensity heretofore unexpected from supporting roles. The hero may be flexing their muscles in the foreground, but you can’t take your eyes off of that sallow-eyed guy in the back.
I first noticed Canadian actor Matt Frewer in a mid-‘90s episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he played a time traveler claiming to be from the future, but who was, in fact, from the past. I was also part of the handful of people who saw the TV movie Generation X, a late-‘90s attempt to kickstart the superhero genre, where Frewer played the cackling supervillain who was trying to gleefully conquer the world through subliminal advertising. He did play the lead role in The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, which I actually bothered to see in theaters, and is, without hyperbole, probably one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, but I don’t hold that against him. Frewer is like the wacky uncle you hope to get. He’s got a long, spindly neck and an expressive face that is conducive to comedy. As a result, he has an irrepressible comedic charm that can’t be reproduced. Keep an eye out for him in the upcoming 50/50.
Alison Pill got started acting when she was still a child, having been featured in an Olsen Twins video movie at age 13. According to the Internet Movie Database, she’s acted in nearly 50 feature films, although I didn’t notice her until the controversial Lars Von Trier-scripted film Dear Wendy, where she played a teen girl obsessed with her guns. She received acclaim for her small roles in Pieces of April and Milk, where she played the spunky lesbian Anne Kronenberg. When it comes to deadpan delivery, though, she’s a champion, giving some of the funniest blank-faced one-liners in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I most recently saw her as Zelda Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and even though she’s not on screen for a long time, she brings a light and a sense of fun to the role that would naturally come from Zelda. I look forward to more of her work.
Often cast as weak, weasely types, David Paymer is one of the acting world’s champion nebbishes. He’s most definitely on the forefront of the “Hey! It’s that guy!” movement, as he has starred in nearly 150 films and TV shows, has always given a good, solid character performance, but rarely gets the main spotlight (as far as I can tell, his only leading role in a feature film was the forgettable family comedy Carpool in 1997). He is level-headed in one film and nervous in the next. He can ooze pathos, or be a supporting dad. The first film that made me fall in love with Paymer was Get Shorty, where he played Leo, the sniveling dry cleaner, who merrily pulled an insurance scam, but wasn’t quite smart enough to stay hidden thereafter. Seeing him stand up to, and then just as quickly back down from, other more intimidating characters is a marvel of acting.
She did just land the lead role in the American remake of Prime Suspect, so her supporting status is in jeopardy, but there was a long while there where I’d see the gorgeous Maria Bello in supporting roles, and always wished she would steal more leads. She was the unexpectedly sexual wife to Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence. She was the cute, put-upon love interest to William H. Macy in The Cooler. She was the sassy booze proponent in Thank You for Smoking. She did have a lead role, but it was in a little-seen and reprehensible-sounding film called Downloading Nancy, where she sold her body to a snuff film studio. Bello has that easy, effervescent charm that not only makes you want to watch her, but also has you longing to hang out with her. She seems whip-smart and coolly friendly. I found myself watching movies, and silently recasting the film in my head, with Maria Bello in the leading role. She’s great, and I look forward to seeing more of her.
NEXT: Bibbs' own picks for some of the best character actors out there, and why he finds many movie protagonists outright insulting…
FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM ‘BIBBS’ BIBBIANI:
Witney didn’t quite mention this, but I imagine that he had as much trouble narrowing down his favorite character actors to a manageable five choices as I did. For every star in the Hollywood galaxy, there are about a dozen beautiful planets surrounding them at all times. Matching their performances blow for blow, supporting the protagonist’s quest without making it their own, these are the unsung heroes of cinema. However many times they recast James Bond, for decades his supporting cast remained the same: whether it was Sean Connery, George Lazenby or Roger Moore’s movie, Desmond Llewelyn and Lois Maxwell were on hand to make the transition smooth. And while Maxwell departed during the Timothy Dalton era because the age difference was too significant, Llewelyn remained on hand for another decade or two just to keep things feeling “right.”
Witney wrote some splendid words on the power of the supporting character, and I have little to add. (Although I would like to note that I have an enormous crush on Alison Pill, and that she should call me. My girlfriend will understand… I think.) It’s true that Hollywood has somehow translated “relatable protagonist” to “milquetoast.” That’s an insult to each member of the audience if you ask me. I was offended when the rigidly mediocre Take Me Home Tonight told me I was supposed to be relating to Topher Grace’s clichéd “hero,” with his trite unrequited love story and embarrassingly dull life goal to “make something of himself.” I ask you, and I ask filmmakers and studio executives behind such decisions, who would you rather follow on Twitter? A guy with a happy family, vague political beliefs and half a sense of humor, or Lady Gaga, the kind of outlandish person you’d rather didn’t babysit your kids?
We seek leading men and women with charisma, often drawn from the supporting actor stable, and then plunk them down in roles where there’s none to be found. Plenty of excellent actors, too pretty to remain supporting for long, are undone when they make the transition to starring roles and find nothing to work with once they get there. Matthew McConaughey was wonderful in Dazed and Confused, and boring as sin in Contact. Colin Farrell, who debuted as the uniquely characterized lead in Tigerland, would have been better served by pursuing supporting roles than by accepting generic headlining parts in claptrap like The Recruit, even if he did get to share screen time with Al Pacino. He’s wonderful in the unusual In Bruges, and imminently forgettable in the menial action “thriller” S.W.A.T. Maybe he’s just too pretty for his own good. Maybe Matthew McConaughey is too.
Most of the great characters on my list (although all of them are great) never got the chance to headline a feature film, big or small. But they made an indelible impression on audiences anyway, giving themselves healthy, long-term careers that should be the envy of any A-List actor who prove unable to stay in the spotlight long. These are five people who, when I see them on-screen, excite me more than any above-the-title name, because I know that at least as long as they are on the screen, regardless of the rest of the movie’s quality, I am in very, very good hands. Picking these five was extremely difficult, so I would like to take the opportunity to shout out accolades to some of the folks who made my short list but, for no particularly interesting reason, didn’t make my arbitrary final five: Wes Studi (so brilliant in The Last of the Mohicans), Michael Rooker (whose performance in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer remains one of the finest serial killer portrayals in any medium), Dominique Pinon (one of the most reliable and unusual character actors in French cinema), Oliver Platt (who usually finds himself in films that don’t live up to his performances’ standards), and Toby Jones (whose characters’ timidity usual masks unexpected strength).
Patricia Clarkson has long been one of my favorite actors, beginning her career as Kevin Costner’s practical wife in The Untouchables, but earning greater acclaim (and an Oscar nomination, which she should have won) in Pieces of April. In that latter film she plays a mother dying of cancer who refuses to let her illness sap away her inner strength, and just as importantly her sense of humor. Beyond those films she gave truly memorable performances in the television series Murder One (one of my favorite shows, which also introduced me to another of my favorite character actors below) and Six Feet Under, the spritely but stupid romantic comedy Simply Irresistible (I forgive it), the truly exceptional low-budget horror tale Wendigo, and the highly unusual wrestling story Legendary, in which her character has a memorably unhealthy relationship with her own son that’s as maternally supportive as it is vaguely romantic. She’s a joy to watch in every role, possessed of a powerful sexiness, and I look forward to seeing her on screen again and again.
Enrico Colantoni got his biggest break on the television series Veronica Mars, wherein he played Kristen Bell’s dour but endlessly talented private detective father. There’s a beautiful scene in episode 1.08, “Like a Virgin,” in which he turns the tables on a freeloader who acts crazy to scare his landlady into letting him keep his room. Colantoni’s gambit: to act crazier. He even tells the poor mope he’s about to do it. He screams and tears around the room, freaking the poor bastard out so bad that he just wants out, home or no home. Few actors could manage that delicate balance of calculated madness, and I’ve been in love with the man ever since. Colantoni usually hides out in TV Land, contributing memorable performances to such productions as Just Shoot Me, Flashpoint and The Kennedys, but movie fans will remember him from such films as Money Train, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Stigmata (an underrated supernatural thriller, if you ask me), and most popularly as the naïve but heroic alien leader Mathesar in the cult classic Galaxy Quest.
CLIFTON COLLINS JR.
The excellence of Clifton Collins Jr. was always there, but it came to me suddenly as I watched The Perfect Game, one of the first movies I ever reviewed for CraveOnline. In that simple, earnest Christian little league tale he played an alcoholic baseball player who learns the power of love, life and (naturally) God through the inspirational youths under his charge. It was a fairly dopey film, but Mr. Collins Jr. brought more thespian prowess to the part than it probably deserved, and deserved more recognition for his troubles. (At the time, I wrote that “[he] brings an excess of dignity to the film, saving it from absolute conventionality.”) Before that rare starring role he graced the screen in such fine films as Stuart Gordon’s wonderful The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (back then he went by “Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez”), Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Joel Schumacher’s under-appreciated Tigerland, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (he was one of the Vegan Police) and, most impressively, in Bennett Miller’s Capote. Philip Seymour Hoffman won all the awards for that film but he was bolstered by Clifton Collins Jr.’s uncanny performance as the condemned killer Perry Smith, and damn it, Collins deserved just as much recognition. I legitimately have no idea why he didn’t get it. Clifton Collins Jr. remains one of my favorite actors, even when he’s stuck in relatively thankless sidekick roles in the likes of Boondock Saints II: All Saint’s Day or Star Trek.
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Okay, think we're good. I also think there was an unspoken rule that Witney and I were going to focus on character actors working today, but the late, incredible actor Vincent Schiavelli remains a lifelong favorite and I wanted to talk about him anyway. Like many of the great supporting actors, Schiavelli has one particular fan-favorite performance: in this case, the irate subway spectre from Jerry Zucker’s unbelievably popular supernatural romance Ghost. In that role his unusual appearance – his face appears at once gaunt and thick, with eyes that can intimidate and invite compassion in equal measure – gave way to both eerie frights and, later, a haunting aura of tragic experience. Schiavelli appeared in 155 titles over his almost 30 year career. He regularly collaborated with Milos Forman on such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus (the first film I ever saw in a theater) and The People vs. Larry Flynt. He played the hilariously popular high school teacher Mr. Kerber in Better Off Dead. He was the instantly intimidating torture expect in Tomorrow Never Dies. He was a treasure in every film.
PRUITT TAYLOR VINCE
My first introduction to the unforgettable work of Pruitt Taylor Vince was from his Emmy-winning performance as Clifford Banks in the classic but under-seen television series Murder One. In that story arc, Vince played an endlessly sad sack accused murderer with the shiftiest eyes I’d ever seen. I would later learn that this wonderful actor’s trademark eye movements are actually a symptom of nystagmus, which cause his eyes to twitch involuntarily. Such a thing might have been a detriment to a lesser actor, since the eyes are of course one of the most valuable weapons in any actor’s arsenal, but Vince uses them to his advantage, and they are, depending on his role, a sign of menace, fear, uncertainty, vulnerability and much, muc more. Vince had his biggest role as the overweight hero of James Mangold’s debut feature Heavy, in which his unhappy character finds a kind of hope in his affection for a beautiful waitress (Liv Tyler) at his mother’s restaurant. He’s always an actor to watch and enjoy, in films ranging from Wild at Heart to Mumford, from Beautiful Girls to Mississippi Burning, from Nobody’s Fool to Angel Heart, and on television series like The Mentalist and Deadwood.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER ACTORS?