by Bilge Ebiri
[Bilge Ebiri’s “Those Guys” is an article (originally published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine on 3 December 2017) about “character actors” in cinema. Indeed, its on-line version is entitled “The New Generation of Character Actors.” (We’ll see that the application of the term is slightly different in stage work.) What does the phrase actually mean? It’s sometimes tossed about by moviegoers and reviewers—casting directors and agents sometimes use it, but actors seldom do—in such a cavalier way that its meaning is no longer clear. It did once have a fairly concrete use, but it was a term used almost exclusively inside the theater world—before there was such a thing as a film industry, much less television.
[Back when theaters were all “repertory companies” with standing corps of actors who would play different parts in each play, often changing roles from one day to the next, the troupes had to have actors to cover all the possible parts for each new script. There would be lots of doubling, of course, with some actors playing more than one role in the play, but the principal parts all had to be covered every afternoon. Theaters didn’t put out a call for auditions and cast new actors for each production like they do now; every troupe had a permanent company of actors on which to draw for all the roles. So, to cover all the possible parts of a play in an Elizabethan or Jacobean theater, the company was composed of actors of several designated “types” or categories. This, in fact, is the origin of the concept of “typecasting,” a system which was formalized and codified in the mid-19th century—although the word has shifted in meaning since the practice ceased in the middle of the 20th century.
[The actors who played the Richards, Henrys, Macbeths, Benedicks, Hamlets, and so on, were the leading actors. Younger and less-experienced actors in this category also played the Parises, Macduffs, Claudios, Laerteses, and similar parts. (After the Restoration in England, when women were permitted to appear on stage, the designation of Leading Man and Leading Lady came into being. All the categories expanded to include complementary types for each gender.) The roles of children and youths (and, in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater when women were prohibited from acting in public, female roles) were played by the juveniles (later ingénues for women and girls).
[Nearly all other roles were played by character actors—Character Men and Character Women after women were permitted to act—whether they were older people, comic figures, or unusual or even fantasy characters. Out of this came the tradition that character actors and actresses played a variety of parts of very different appearances, often altering their physical looks with make-up, prostheses, and costuming. It also began the tradition that character actors were often unrecognizable from play to play, role to role, and that off stage, spectators didn’t know who they were.
[In the days of typecasting in the theater, it was largely true that character actors were “strictly supporting performers,” as Ebiri observes, but that hasn’t always been true in the world of film and, especially, television. Many of the lead characters in film and later TV have been character parts: think of the roles played by Margaret Rutherford, Peter Lorre, Claude Rains, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, David Warner, Lynn Redgrave, Sidney Poitier, Dustin Hoffman, Richard. Dreyfuss, Paul Giamatti, Jane Lynch, Frances McDormand, and so many others who have played the main role or an important featured part in many films and TV shows. Donald Sutherland, arguably the ultimate character actor, was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile last Sunday. (Few TV series could even air without the character actors filling the title/lead roles, from Telly Savalas’s Kojak, Peter Falk’s Columbo, and Sharon Gless’s and Tyne Daly’s Cagney and Lacy to Anthony Anderson’s Andre Johnson Sr. on Black-ish, William H. Macy’s Frank Gallagher on Shameless, James Spader’s Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist, and Rami Malek’s Elliot Alderson on Mr. Robot.)
[Ebiri defines character players as “actors who immersed themselves fully in their roles, often using realistic makeup to become unrecognizable.” That’s a fair description, but very limiting. Today, character actors don’t often use extensive make-up like, say, the Lon Cheneys, père et fils. Indeed, some of the best film actors of the last couple of generations have been essentially character actors trapped in the bodies of leading men and women: think Maggie Smith, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Meryl Streep. The closest definition I found that sums up what I think of as character acting is quoted in an on-line article called “Treacherous Terminology: Just what is a character actor?”; it’s from the talk page of the Wikipedia entry for “Character actor”:
Character acting occurs when an actor makes a significant physical, vocal, external and/or psych[o]logical adjustment from the actor’s primary persona. This is in contrast to personality acting, where an actor simply uses their habitual persona while they act.
[It has little to do with the visibility of the role, its significance to the movie, but with the degree to which the actor disappears into the part. One of the greatest actors of the English-speaking world in the 20th century, who played Shakespeare’s Richards, Henrys, and Hamlets, was a character actor of some distinction: Laurence Olivier (1907-89). You need only see him do Archie Rice in the 1960 film adaptation of John Osborne’s The Entertainer. It’s the very definition of character acting in the cinema.]
Character actors were once strictly supporting performers, their faces identifiable if unmemorable. Now, though, a new generation has emerged as essential players in a rapidly changing Hollywood.
“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.”
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.
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.
Over 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.
There’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.
[Two comments about this article that I believe should be noted. First: it’s exclusively about character men; Ebiri mentions no character women at all. Yet they not only exist, both now and in the past, but many of the best actresses on the screen are character actors: Margaret Rutherford, Margaret Hamilton, Ruby Dee, Judi Dench, Mary Tyler Moore, Cicely Tyson, Meryl Streep, Taraji P. Henson, Melissa McCarthy, and many others.
[The second remark I feel needs to be made is that Ebiri has also restricted his discussion of character acting to film. The phenomenon goes back, as I said in my introduction, to the beginning of professional theater in the English-speaking world in the Elizabethan era—and it continues on Western stages till today. Most stage training, beginning with Stanislavsky’s System and including Lee Strasberg’s Method and Uta Hagen’s acting technique along with almost all other programs, focuses on character acting. Most of my favorite actors, especially in the musical field, have been the character performers (Ray Walston, Howard Da Silva, Stubby Kaye, Tom Bosley, Stanley Anderson, Robert Prosky, Richard Bauer—three Arena Stage actors I first saw as a boy in Washington, D.C.—Virginia Capers,.Lois Smith, Michael Countryman) —maybe because that’s what I was, even though I didn’t know that until years after I began seeing plays. It’s what I wanted to be: I didn’t want to play Hamlet or Romeo; I wanted to play Iago and Richard III!
[Bilge Ebiri, who studied film at Yale University, is a journalist and filmmaker. In 2003 he wrote, directed, and co-produced the low-budget feature film New Guy, released in 2004. After positive reviews in the New York Times and Variety, the film had a successful theatrical run in New York City and was released on DVD in 2005 by Vanguard Cinema.]