By Christian Wilkinson
LIKE people you only see at parties but can never remember their names, there are many actors who are immediately recognisable for their looks, their acting styles, their propensity to be cast in similar roles and their often considerable screen presence.
Typecasting may be some actors’ greatest fear, but these actors turn this to their advantage by nailing certain character types, and making themselves the first choice for such roles. They also show that you don’t need “movie star looks” to have a successful acting career.
They may not be the biggest stars in the world, but character actors are loved by audiences and directors alike. Their usually lengthy resumes may or may not include a few lead roles, though these are unlikely to be in big-budget blockbusters.
Interestingly, character actors often have more than one recurring character type. For example, it’s not uncommon for an actor often cast as a tough criminal to pick up a few roles as a hardboiled law enforcer.
Here’s six of the best.
There’s no mistaking the veranda-browed features of Puerto Rican-American actor Luis Guzman, whose fearsome face usually lands him roles of thugs or criminals, usually a sidekicks or henchman. To think he used to be a social worker!
You can check out some of Guzman’s best henchman work in awesome 1993 crime flick Carlito’s Way, where he plays Pachanga, back-up man to Al Pacino’s Carlito, delivering some of the film’s most enjoyable moments.
Witness him lose his cool, lapse into Spanish and brandish a gun at a cowering, wheelchair-bound Viggo Mortensen! It’s even better when he argues to Carlito that the proximity of the river is a good enough reason to kill troublemaking nightclub patron Benny Blanco (John Leguizamo). Carlito should have listened!
Guzman is also in criminal mode in Crocodile Dundee II (1988), The Salton Sea (2002), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and a host of other films.
He’s not always a bad guy, though, with roles including a cameraman (Boogie Nights, 1997) and several roles as a law enforcer, including 1999’s The Bone Collector.
Many on this list have the distinction of being the best thing in a bad movie, thanks usually to their reliability, but it’s a much tougher task for a bit player to be remembered as the best thing in a good movie.
Jeffery Jones achieved both in 1986: As Dr Walter Jenning in legendarily bad comic-book adaptation Howard the Duck, and in John Hughes’ 1987 classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where he outshone the cast as principal and Bueller nemesis Ed Rooney, who huffed, puffed, talked tough and copped numerous misfortunes on his quest to expose Bueller’s school-wagging ways.
His performance was much more memorable than Matthew Broderick’s smug effort (though Broderick’s turn was probably appropriate for the times. Those crazy 80s!).
Tall Jones often found himself cast as an authority figure role (a reverend in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, an army officer in cannibal stinker Ravenous, both 1999). Perhaps it is his beady eyes or slightly gormless face, but he often played quite unlikeable characters.
So why haven’t we seen Jones on screen lately? The answer can be found online at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Sexual Offender’s Register. Something to do with taking dodgy photos of an underage boy in 2003. Oh Dear. Rooney’s secretary Grace would have been shocked.
View Jones’ shame and shake your head at http://offender.fdle.state.fl.us/offender/flyer.do?personId=38561.
John C. McGinley
New Yorker John C McGinley showed his wares on his second film, Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam triumph Platoon, where he set new standards in portraying a motor-mouthed sleazebag.
His character Sgt. O’Neill spent the whole film kissing the arse of hard man Barnes (A career pinnacle for Tom Berenger), only to be contemptuously turned away when the time came to call in a potentially life-saving favour. Ouch!
Stone was so impressed he went on to cast McGinley in six more films including 1999 American football epic Any Given Sunday, where he excelled as a sleazy sports journalist. With a big mouth, of course.
In silly 1991 action fest Point Break, McGinley applied a similar, though slightly more restrained, template to slimy FBI director Ben Harp, a great foil for Keanu Reeves’ gung-ho agent Johnny Utah.
With 60 features behind him, McGinley actually has a decent range, but he does the manic fast talker better than anyone, and that’s why he is on this list.
This Canadian actor looks not unlike a younger Robert de Niro, which explains why, after his brief role as the scarred Laeddis in Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island, internet forums were abuzz with “news” that Scorcese’s old muse had made a cameo. Some are still convinced.
He is also sometimes mistaken for CSI: SVU star Christopher Meloni.
Reliable Koteas can tackle a range of roles, with one of his earliest being including vigilante Casey Jones on a couple of the lame Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films of the 90s. He wasn’t in memorably-named sequel The Secret of the Ooze, but he played two characters in the third instalment. Yes, there was a third one. No, nobody saw it.
Koteas does a good cop (2007’s Zodiac or coming vampire flick Let Me In) or clergyman (The Haunting in Connecticut, 2009), but a good place to check him out is as crooked detective Chuck Dooney in Woody Harrelson’s 2009 superhero comedy/drama misfire Defendor (straight to DVD in Australia).
The film is ordinary but Koteas channels Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant to make his reprehensible drug-addled character positively ooze sleaze. There’s that word ooze again.
Casting a film and need someone to play a crazy old woman, neighbourhood hag or just some horrible biddy? Then call Beth Grant. Richard Kelly did when he needed someone to fill the role of dislikeable conservative parent and teacher Kitty Farmer in 2001 cult film Donnie Darko.
Hailing from the deep south of the USA, Grant also gets plenty of roles as a southern woman, sometimes unhinged in some way.
Why all the crazy or repellent characters? Let’s go out on a limb and say it is because of her overly wide mouth and jutting chin, giving her this odd, almost toothless look, well suited to some old cat lady type character, or some sort of witch. She also does a good shuffling gait.
Grant may not have dreamt of a career playing weirdos and nasty ice queens, but she gets plenty of work, something many actors stuck waiting tables to pay the bills would envy.
With a rough mug like that, it’s no surprise that tattooed, Pancho-moustachioed Californian Danny Trejo finds himself in the roles of convicts and tough guys.
Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn) is a huge fan, casting Trejo in just about every film he has made, including as “Machete” in the fake trailer of the same name from the Tarantino collaboration Grindhouse that flopped in the US and was unfortunately split into two features for Australia.
The good news is that there is a Machete feature film on the way! Will it feature the scene where Trejo’s Machete jumps a motorbike through an explosion while blazing away on a handlebar-mounted machine gun? The trailer says yes!
In a case of art imitating life, Trejo is a real life bad-ass (as they say in the States). A former child drug addict, he spent 11 years in jail, and was even the boxing champion of notoriously tough prison San Quentin.
He got his break after being spotted visiting the set of 1985’s Runaway Train as a Cocaine Anonymous counsellor to see a worker seeking help with a drug problem.