What is a Character Actor, you ask? Think of a Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou? for example. George Clooney is the lead. Clooney will always be the lead of almost whatever film he is in. You can say the same about Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts and so on. These actors have been categorized as “lead actors” meaning its general accepted that they are relatable enough to carry a film on their own. Yawn. Lead actors are incredibly boring, in my opinion. The most interesting roles are those of the character actor; an actor who has so captured a certain type or one who has taken the role of supporting characters in films. In O Brother Where Art Thou? John Tutturo and John Goodman are the character actors. These are the Ned Beatties, the Luis Guzmans, the Amy Sedarises. And many times, its the character actors who can make a terrible film actually watchable.
Stephen Tobolowsky (IMDB credits: 200 roles; Groundhog Day, Memento, Deadwood, Glee)
“That first step is a doooozy.” For most of this is the line that cemented Stephen Tobolowsky into our psyches, I know it was for me. It was Ned Ryerson, the annoying insurance salesman and former high school classmate of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. In that role, Tobolowsky was able to repeat the same performance again and again, and somehow made Ned increasingly more annoying with each iteration. Tobolowsky is a Dallas native and made his film debut in 1976. It wasn’t until later pictures, like Spaceballs, that audiences really took notice of his face. Beyond simply being an actor, Tobolowsky has become a well known personality in Hollywood due to his skilled abilities as a storyteller. He co-wrote True Stories with David Byrne after, according to Mr. Tobolowsky, staring at Byrne worldlessly for two hours and making pencil drawings related to plot ideas. If you can track it down, and I never have been able to, there is a documentary featuring his storytelling titled Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.
Michael Lerner (IMDB credits: 158 roles; The Candidate, Barton Fink, Newsies, Elf, A Serious Man)
Lerner is known by his trademark silver hair and an educated Brooklyn accent. I remember him best as Jack Lipnick, the fast talking Hollywood producer who expresses his utter confidence in screenwriter Barton Fink, that is until Fink actually turns in his first script which transforms Lipnick into an apocalyptic figure of rage. Lerner got his start as a television guest spotter, popping up on The Brady Bunch and The Rockford Files, before transitioning to films as a supporting actor. No matter where he shows up, he is instantly recognizable, in particular I remember him in Safe Men (1995), a very small independent film, where he plays crime boss Big Fat Ernie Gayle who accidentally hires two singers (Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn) as safe crackers. Gayle has a son, Bernie, Jr. who dresses and behaves like his father minature clone, as well as a henchmen named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti). A very odd film, but full of great work from other character actors as well.
Beth Grant (IMDB credits: 142, Rain Man, Donnie Darko, The Rookie, Little Miss Sunshine, No Country For Old Men, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, King of the Hill)
She really doubts your commitment to Sparklemotion. The role of the uptight conservative Christian schoolteacher in Donnie Darko has cemented itself in the minds of many of my peers and it was definitely a standout in an amazing career like Beth Grant’s. Grant was born in Alabama and its hard to believe she is 60 years old. The character type that she seems to have captured is the one mentioned above, a rules stickler and a Bible thumper. As a youth she was an incredibly accomplished young woman, working as a page in the North Carolina Senate and being recognized as a talented and gifted student by the North Carolina governor. Grant is a staunch liberal and enjoys creating these characters audiences love to hate, which she admits are based off certain people she grew up around who expressed very narrow minded views. Grant has taken her energy from years involved in politics and transferred them into a career that would exhaust the most energetic twentysomething, not only taking on multiple film and television roles a year, but also working in live theater for which she has won multiple awards.
Brad Dourif (IMDB credits: 133, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dune, Blue Velvet, Child’s Play, Alien: Ressurection, The Lord of the Rings)
One of the most recognizable actors I’ll be talking about, Dourif has had a character actor’s dream of a career. His second film was his breakout role as poor tragic Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he has kept working ever since. Even in film duds like David Lynch’s Dune or the dismal tv mini-series Wild Palms, Dourif is always a standout. He’s just one of the actors with the wonderful combination of an interesting look and awesome talent. Dourif lent his voice to the killer doll Chucky in the Child’s Play series which has garnered him a huge following in the horror film community and, what is likely his biggest role to date, he played the bewitching Grima Wormtongue in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Dourif dipped his toe in playing the lead early in his career, most prominently in John Huston’s Wise Blood, a film that is by no means perfect but showcases the intensity Dourif brings to every role.
Margo Martindale (IMDB credits: 71, Lonesome Dove, The Rocketeer, Dead Man Walking, The Hours, Million Dollar Baby, Dexter, Paris Je’Taime, Walk Hard, Hung, Hannah Montana: The Movie)
Margo Martindale is one of those actors, that when I see them on the screen, I am immediately happy. There is something about her persona and the types of characters she plays that are comforting. She looks like your mom, but she has taken on such a variety of roles, playing everything from doctors to prostitutes to a woman soliciting a prostitute to mothers to nuns. Beyond film, she has led an amazing career in the theater, getting a Tony nomination in 2004 for the role of Big Mama in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was also in the original stage production of Steel Magnolias in 1987 and her role was played by Dolly Parton in the theatrical version. Martindale hails from Jacksonville, Texas and started, like many actors, in commercials, her most well known being a Downy fabric softener series that first made her a recognizable face to the public. My favorite performance of Martindale’s has to be from Alexander Payne’s segment in the short film collection Paris Je’Taime. It’s a thing of beauty and you should find it…right now…go!