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.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson