13 Glorious Character Actors Who We Love And Secretly Hope Never Become Superstars
Here’s to the heroes. The ones who toil in the shadows so that those in the light can shine all the brighter.
Here’s to the chameleons. The faceless ones who flit from role to role; life to life. The itinerant souls who embody a thousand lives.
Here’s to… Well, these amazing actors we really dig, who have never been superstars, and we kind of hope never will be.
Some older, some younger, at the moment they’re almost like our little secret, and we’d kinda like to keep it that way.
John Hawkes has never met a role that he wouldn’t absolutely destroy. The Sessions, American Gangster, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Lincoln, Identity, Deadwood; and especially the one-two punch of Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, which demonstrates how, despite his slight frame, there is perhaps not a single scarier character than one that John Hawkes can will into existence. These aren’t simple caricatures that he paints, however, and no two-dimensional, jump-scare clown in the window at the foot of your bed in the the dead of night can elicit quite as much terror as the fully realised, layered, human monsters that Hawkes creates in those two movies.
It would be a disservice, though, to suggest that fear is the only, or even primary, emotion that Hawkes can draw from a viewer, as he is an actor capable of the most extraordinary range. If the name ‘John Hawkes’ pops up in the credits at the start of a movie you’re about to watch then you can rest easy knowing that you’re in for a treat, whatever the hell the rest of the movie is about.
Rosario Dawson will make your life better. And your movies. And your TV shows. The closest on this list to genuine stardom, Dawson has been acting since her debut appearance in Larry Clark’s and Harmony Korine’s boundary-pushing Kids in 1995, but she has never really quite cracked through the public hivemind membrane to become a superstar. Good. Rosario Dawson is too good for superstardom. An actor of great warmth and humanity, she brings an indefinable magic to every role that makes the screen hum with her presence. Crucially, she is also a very generous performer, and other actors just perform better when in her presence. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chris Rock’s fantastic Top Five, which, if you haven’t seen then read TK’s review and immediately see, because it is wonderful. Dawson imbues her character in the movie with wit, depth, and humour, and she elevates the entire thing to another level, bringing Chris Rock — a veteran performer but never superb dramatic actor — with her. Witness the same effect in Netflix’s Daredevil.
Never change, Ms. Dawson, for you are luminescent.
Jeffrey Wright is a veteran craftsman, and at his age is unlikely to explode into the stratosphere of fame. He seems happy where he is too — providing stellar supporting work of varying screen time in things like Source Code, Boardwalk Empire, Syriana, and the Hunger Games movies. The polar opposite of an ego-driven actor, Wright puts effort into doing what the character actor knows he must do: letting the stars and billed names do the showy stuff while he lays the foundations with strong, nuanced work. Perhaps the best showcase for this is in Jim Jarmusch’s criminally unseen Only Lovers Left Alive, where he plays ‘Dr Watson’, a briefly glimpsed blood bank doctor supplying rare type O negative blood to Tom Hiddleston’s reclusive vampire. In lesser hands this conflicted character could become an almost redundant part of the scenery or an unnecessary distraction, but with minimal lines and no background information to work with Wright makes him an essential and yet unobtrusive component.
Stop! Stop reading this list for a second. Have you seen Monsters? No? Go do it now. I’ll wait right here.
All done? Good. Now I hope you see why Scoot McNairy is on this list. Monsters is an absolutely fantastic, gorgeous movie that’s just as much about the inner journey McNairy’s character has to take as it is about his literal, physical journey, and he completely nails the masked vulnerability and slow transformation required of him. A relative newcomer, no-one can do sniveling-and-douchey-but-with-unexpected-levels-of-humanity quite like he can. He seems to be hovering on the edges of the public’s consciousness thanks to excellent turns in movies like Killing Them Softly and Argo, but I hope he stays where he is for at least a while longer. The edge is where he thrives.
Here’s a confession: I have only seen Rosemarie DeWitt in one movie — 2008’s Rachel Getting Married, but that was enough for her to sear herself into my mind. Although perhaps ‘sear into’ is the wrong term. ‘Bloom in’ might be better. Anne Hathaway got all the attention (and an Oscars nod) for her showier performance in this flawed but excellent movie, but it was DeWitt who anchored it and gave the fractured familial relationship at its centre a genuinely human core. Her eponymous character is warm and caring, but in possession of jagged edges and a history of pain, and it is impossible to imagine anyone but DeWitt selling all of that with just one conflicted smile as she does.
Currently she seems to average about two or three movies a year.
That’s not enough.
Rosemarie, DO MORE THINGS!
Look at that face. That face is a gift to casting directors. And behind it? Gigantic reserves of charisma and talent.
I know I should write some words here, but you know what? Watch this compilation of his scenes from Drive Angry instead:
Yeah. That movie has Nicolas Cage in full-on Nicolas Cage mode for almost two hours, and yet it still wouldn’t be a stretch to just call it William Fichtner: The Movie instead.
Where did Olivia Thirlby go? The last time I was aware of her presence was in 2012’s awesome B-movie, Dredd, where she somehow managed to draw some attention away from Karl Urban’s epic scowl. IMDB tells me that she was in last year’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, which I have yet to see, but that isn’t good enough! I know the very premise of this post is caution of overexposure, so I will soothe my nerves by assuming she is doing it for our own good — so that she can continue to hang out with us cool nerd kids who saw and loved her in the aforementioned Dredd, as well as Snow Angels, and The Wackness.
A brief tangent: if you haven’t seen The Wackness, do it! Do it now!
Win Win, Birdman, Capote, Gone Baby Gone, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead - Amy Ryan disappears into a role utterly and completely. She betrays no sign of an internal effort or monologue. She is the anti-Leo. Like the best actors, she imbues her characters with a sense of off-screen history — when she first appears in a movie it never crosses your mind to think she just walked in from make-up; she is always a living, breathing human being with a life outside of the immediate narrative being told. It is a rare talent indeed to be able to communicate that, with or without the script doing the heavy lifting. Nowhere is this more apparent than her character in season two of The Wire, Beadie Russell. Beadie appears to us as a season’s worth of mythology building and narrative momentum is momentarily put aside. She has an uphill struggle to just exist, to get us invested in her story — not only is she new, but she has to anchor an entirely new and unfamiliar arc and plotline, one that we are resistant to from the outset because of its novelty. Amy Ryan knocks it out of the park, and in a show full of dazzling, unforgettable performances, she delivers one of the finest.
Have you seen Take Shelter? Jeff Nichols wrote and directed this phenomenal work and released it upon an undeserving world in 2011. It stars Michael Shannon as a small town husband and father plagued by apocalyptic visions that may or may not have some terrifying connection to reality, and it is one of the best acting performances by anyone on any sized screen since at least the dawn of the millennium. It is a force of nature even more so than the storms depicted in his character’s visions, and it’s remarkable that for an actor capable of generating this much electricity — and with such a distinctive face — that Shannon can disappear into his roles so effortlessly as he does. Sure, he can do villainous better than almost any other actor working today — from the terrifying Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman to the cartoonish, Wile E. Coyote-esque crooked cop in the underrated Premium Rush — but it’s in his more subdued roles in films like Mud, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and Shotgun Stories that the depth of his craft is really revealed.
Clifton Collins Jr.
The consummate chameleon. Think of a movie from the past decade and a half, and Collins Jr. has probably been in it; and you probably didn’t know. In fact, when you next walk past a mirror, give it a double-take, because there is not an insignificant chance that you’ve been Clifton Collins Jr. this whole time without realising it.
See him in Capote, where he holds his own effortlessly against one of the greatest actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman. See him too in Tigerland, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Traffic, Star Trek, Sunshine Cleaning, Pacific Rim. You name it, he’s in it, but odds are you cannot picture him in it, because for Clifton Collins Jr. there is no Clifton Collins Jr. There is only the role.
A coiled spring of danger, humour, and erudite wit, Bokeem Woodbine brought to crackling life one of the greatest characters in one of the greatest seasons of television ever made — Mike Milligan in season 2 of Fargo. I don’t know about you, but my reaction upon first witnessing Woodbine do his Milligan thing was, ‘Holy freakin’ shit! Where the hell has this guy been hiding?!’ In plain sight was the answer, as Dustin dutifully reported.
I’m sorry, were you expecting more writing here? I’m afraid I’m now caught in an infinite loop, watching the Jabberwocky scene from Fargo on repeat.
Shea Whigham is a breath of fresh air. There is an unpredictability about him; a hyper-masculine and yet vulnerable aura that colours every outburst and every piercing look with a livewire energy. Not for nothing has he been tapped by directors like Scorsese, Malick, Herzog, Redford, Stone, David Gordon Green, and Jeff Nichols. Shows like Boardwalk Empire and Agent Carter have seen fit to deploy his singular presence too.
However it’s by looking at Whigham in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant and Nichols’ Take Shelter (where he holds his own against the aforementioned powerhouse, Michael Shannon), however, that the key to his magic can be found. Menace, humour, compassion, fear, melancholy — Whigham brings everything to these roles, in exactly the right measures, and you get the strong sense that he does so with minimal direction, that he simply burrows deep into these wildly disparate characters and understands intuitively what is required of him. If Shea Whigham was in every other movie released next year, I wouldn’t complain.
I’m just gonna leave this here:
Tessa Thompson has the most fledgling career of anyone on this list. Apart from an appearance in horror dud When A Stranger Calls and a small role on Veronica Mars she first appeared on our radar in 2014’s excellent Dear White People. And what a first impression that was. As the fearless and flawed Sam White, Thompson is perfect at portraying a smart young black woman trying to navigate the fraught hypocrisy of ‘post-racial’ America. Deftly managing to deliver both the nuanced, character-driven dialogue and some of the more on-the-nose-but-necessary pronouncements of the movie, she works as the perfect fulcrum on which that cascade of messages and imagery turns. Appearing opposite Michael B. Jordan in last year’s much more successful Creed will have raised her profile exponentially. Here’s hoping that that fierce independent glow doesn’t get snuffed out or dulled by an endless procession of thankless girlfriend roles. She deserves much, much better than that.
Petr Knava plays music but he’d also love to micromanage every actor’s fame in order to calibrate and maintain it at precisely the correct levels.