By Bilge Ebiri
New York Times Magazine
Once strictly supporting names, these performers have now emerged as key players in a changing Hollywood.
Andy Serkis As a prominent motion-capture performer, he’s been Gollum in the ‘‘Lord of the Rings’’ trilogy and Caesar in the ‘‘Planet of the Apes’’ reboot. In 2018, he’ll direct the live-action update of “The Jungle Book,” in which he’ll play Baloo the bear.
“CAN I ASK YOU a personal question?” Ryan Reynolds’s character, a loner named Curtis, says to Ben Mendelsohn’s poker fiend Gerry, early on in the 2015 gambling drama “Mississippi Grind.” “How much do you owe?”
“A lot,” Gerry replies.
“To who?” Curtis asks.
Gerry looks around, gestures weakly at the bar and whispers, “Everyone.” Mendelsohn draws out this line, cracking a proud little smile, which transforms into a nervous grimace — as if he’s sharing a secret better left unsaid. It’s one of the most impressive eight seconds of film acting in recent years; with a single word, an actor pulls us into his character’s anguished world.
All actors play characters, of course, but only some are called “character actors.” The term is contentious — performers rarely use it to describe their peers — yet it has persisted for more than a century. It first became common in 19th-century theater criticism to discuss actors who immersed themselves fully in their roles, often using realistic makeup to become unrecognizable. By the 1930s, the term had changed in Hollywood to refer to entertainers who played specific types: Walter Brennan as the leathery old codger, Ward Bond as the avuncular authority figure. “Many character actors had created their archetypes in vaudeville or theater,” says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum. “Hollywood was turning out so many movies that character actors allowed for a kind of shorthand — you didn’t need a lot of exposition. It’s why films of that era are so breezy.”
Michael Shannon After acting this fall in ‘‘The Shape of Water,’’ directed by Guillermo Del Toro, Shannon will next co-star in HBO’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s ‘‘Fahrenheit 451.’’
These men also injected a note of humanity into what would otherwise have been broad, even stock, roles. “You recognize something concrete in them,” wrote the critic Gilbert Seldes in a 1934 Esquire essay, “The Itsy-Bitsy Actors.” Unlike a movie’s charismatic leads, character actors could be “rude, violent, ironic, mean, brutal and mocking. They say what the audience often feels.” For this, they didn’t go unnoticed — Brennan won three Best Supporting Actor Oscars from 1936 to 1940, a feat no actor has since matched. By the 1980s, the definition of a character actor again had shifted, this time to include supporting players who were familiar without being famous: people like Jon Polito, Vincent Schiavelli, Xander Berkeley. (Don’t recognize their names? Google their faces.) Occasionally, if he stuck around long enough, a character actor became an institution unto himself; look no further than the tributes to Harry Dean Stanton — known for playing grizzled oddballs — when he died in September.
NOW, THE CONCEPT of a character actor is changing once more. Over the past decade, a new kind of performer has risen, one defined by his skill and versatility. Men like Mendelsohn, J.K. Simmons, Don Cheadle, Michael Shannon and Andy Serkis are among the most prolific working artists today — in-demand and highly lauded — but they are the opposite of what character actors used to be: Instead of playing types, they are hired for their ability to play no type at all, to disappear into roles completely while at the same time imbuing their performances with something memorable; they are chameleons in the truest sense of that word. A character actor — as opposed to a celebrity — never plays himself, nor does he display his ego onscreen or accept the same kind of part year after year. Between them, these actors have taken on everything from a sadistic music teacher (Simmons in 2014’s “Whiplash,” for which he won an Oscar) to a flamboyant bounty hunter (Mendelsohn in 2015’s “Slow West”) to actual famous people (Shannon’s Elvis Presley in 2016’s “Elvis & Nixon”) to famous fictional non-people (Serkis’s Gollum in 2001-03’s “Lord of the Rings” series). The weirder and more singular the role, the more unforgettable the actor stands to become.
Ben Mendelsohn Much-praised as King George VI in fall’s “Darkest Hour” (a Winston Churchill biopic), he’ll soon be seen in Netflix’s “The Land of Steady Habits” and an adaptation of “Robin Hood.” These performers may not be conventionally handsome, nor are they truly household names, but audiences increasingly seek them out, in parts large and small, in projects that vary from billion-dollar blockbusters to tiny, barely seen indies. Their talent (often grounded by early careers in theater) is matched by their ubiquity across platforms, from movies to television, to plays, to voice-over work for video games, even to the occasional insurance commercial. Hollywood has always run on journeymen, but it’s these actors who have replaced movie stars as the essential human labor in cinema. That’s because celebrities can no longer be monetized the way they had been in the past: “Movie stars have become an endangered species,” was how Peter Bart, a journalist and former Paramount executive, predicted this shift in a 2014 essay in Variety, noting that a performer’s inherent adaptability was becoming more valuable — for the actor and the producers — than star power itself. Character actors, who take on several projects simultaneously and are therefore accustomed to building diversified careers, can still become successful even if some of those choices end up being blunders. “Historically, these guys have always been the workers,” says Susan Shopmaker, a veteran casting director. “When they’re not pigeonholed, they can fit into lots of places.”
While there are many forces behind the rise of such performers, chief among them is the implosion of Hollywood’s star system over the past two decades. The unchecked increase in movie-star salaries in the 1980s and 1990s led to a reckoning throughout the 2000s, as expensive talents like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy released films that vastly underperformed. Even Will Smith — once considered infallible — has struggled to achieve anything approaching the box-office triumphs of his mid-’90s heyday. Studios didn’t respond to these deficits by cutting budgets, though; instead, they pursued increasingly extravagant franchises, many of which were engineered solely to manufacture new celebrities to replace the outdated models. These films varied in quality — some were admittedly entertaining — but they were formulaic when it came to plotting and casting.
That uniformity, however, made it easier to market these movies to a global audience, so even the weakest entry in an established series could gross astronomical sums. (This year’s example is “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” which opened to execrable reviews, but still earned $795 million worldwide.) And as franchises continued to dominate Hollywood, the financing for serious, midbudget dramas, the sort that enthrall critics and discerning audiences, decreased with each year, making it less likely that big stars would appear in them; they were too busy doing the work of becoming global celebrities. Instead, it was the character actors, men like William H. Macy and Paul Giamatti, who took their places. Such actors “have more control, in terms of being creative and pursuing fulfilling work,” Shopmaker says, “rather than worrying about whether projects are big enough for their careers.” As the nature of celebrity changed, so too did the domestic definition of a movie star.
Don Cheadle He’s appeared in four Marvel films as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes; another will be released next year. He’s also at work on “Ball Street,” a comedy about 1987’s Black Monday crisis.CreditPhotograph by Emiliano Granado. Hair by Quan Pierce and Makeup by Linda Whang, both at Dion PeronneauOVER THE COURSE OF this great fragmentation in the film industry — a system increasingly divided between major-studio blockbusters that are announced a decade in advance at shareholder meetings and tiny indies that often disappear after a week in theaters — character actors have only moved further into the mainstream. In lower-budget projects, they are cast in complicated leading roles that win them acclaim; in mega-films (especially superhero ones), they are relied upon for their ability to bring soul to underwritten, potentially clichéd parts: Cheadle is mesmerizing in what is essentially a glorified sidekick role in this decade’s Marvel “Avengers” films; Mendelsohn brought a uniquely weasel-like quality to the one-dimensional villain of 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’; Shannon was unusually stirring as the nutty interplanetary invader General Zod in 2013’s “Man of Steel.” In an era in which the authentic — in food, in fashion, in social media — feels increasingly elusive, these men, all of whom have been working for decades, don’t feel fake(Hollywood’s favorite epithet), but slow-grown and purposeful. Especially when compared to those we call “leading men,” beautiful vessels who all compete for the same few superlative parts, yet seem more naïve and distant from reality with each passing role.
Indeed, what truly defines a character actor is that he “makes the person he plays feel approachable,” says Avy Kaufman, the casting director of “The Sixth Sense” and “Life of Pi.” (Stars, by contrast, are never approachable: Even when they play imperfect people, there’s something perfect about them.) And in the absence of new models in Hollywood, audiences and critics alike have anointed these character actors as the emotional anchors of an otherwise mundane two hours. That holds true even when they aren’t playing actual humans: In Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Caesar, the simian protagonist of this decade’s “Planet of the Apes” series, he is completely transformed into an ape using CGI. But Serkis makes Caesar’s conflict — his rage toward humans versus his need to preserve his tribe — terrifyingly real.
J.K. Simmons He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2014’s “Whiplash” and will soon star in “Counterpart” on Starz.CreditPhotograph by Emiliano Granado. Grooming by Elizabeth Hoel-Chang at MCH GlobalThere’s one other reason character actors are ascendant right now: When Hollywood stopped producing scripts of real merit, veteran filmmakers and screenwriters began making “prestige” television, which inadvertently became a training ground for these actors, much as theater once was. “I like to say that television is about character and movies are about story,” says Keith Gordon, an ’80s-era character actor who now directs television, including “Homeland” and “Better Call Saul.” “With a film, you ask, ‘What’s going to happen?’ With a TV show, you ask, ‘What’s going to happen to this character I like?’ ” Only great actors — those like Mendelsohn, who won a Lead Actor Emmy last year for his role in Netflix’s “Bloodline” — can bring the required depth to roles that are meant to encourage binge-watching: hours, if not days, spent with a character (and a person) who must be compelling enough to sustain the audience’s interest and emotional engagement.
Perhaps this isn’t so different from The Itsy-Bitsy Actors that Seldes eulogized almost a century ago. They, too, had the ability to break through the confines of the screen to present feelings that were recognizably human. Yet those original character actors offered a brief respite from the uniformity of Hollywood’s dream machine — they supported the stars, helped them tell their stories. Today, it’s the character actors who viewers remember long after the rest has faded to black. And the only thing these supporting players are supporting is the weight of the industry itself.
April Yvette Thompson