Writers' Note: Character Actors
Updated: Mar 2
Emmett Walsh. Judy Greer. Tim Blake Nelson. These are just a few of the many talented character actors who can steal a movie with just a few lines. The BFBs were asked to pick their favorite of the bunch and explain why their choice has made such an impact. This Writers' Note is all about bringing attention to fine performers who may not have many award nominations but always bring their A-Game to the table, even in the smallest of roles.
Bill Camp in Dark Waters (2019)
As a proud member of the Bill Camp camp, I will always attest to his status as one of our great character actors! A great character actor is somebody who makes an audience feel comfortable the moment they show up. Not comfortable in the assurance of what’s to come in the story or from their performance; comfortable in the sense that this performance will no doubt deliver, and with a steady hand at that. Whether he disappears into a role or plays it straight, Camp has proven time and time again that he deserves a place in the pantheon.
Recently seen in nearly every prestige miniseries or in bit-parts in awards contenders, Camp always brings a certain humanism to his roles, no matter villain or hero. Within every individual he portrays, he manages to find the soul of the man beneath the words on the page. Depending on the tone of the project, which he almost always matches, Camp can deliver on every front. In Dark Waters (2019), he steals the show as an irascible farmer whose dying cattle are the catalyst for Ruffalo's lawyer screaming at someone about how, “THEY KNEW!” Puttering and murmuring his way through the script, Camp is both hilarious as a presence and deeply sympathetic, refusing to peel back the layers to a man of few words, instead infusing his body language and gruff nature with the understated wisdom that comes with the territory.
Bill Camp in Passing (2020)
Camp’s range can be elucidated when looking at his work in Haynes’s film in contrast to his brief appearance in Rebecca Hall’s undersung masterpiece, Passing, wherein he plays a master of ceremonies of sorts, overseeing an – at the time –controversially interracial soiree. He converses with Tessa Thompson’s Irene about Ruth Negga’s Clare and how she passes. His take on the character is as flamboyant as one derives from the page while never losing sight of the man behind the mask, quietly sinister and strong in his convictions. Playing subtext is the key to Hall’s film – it is what passing is about in Passing, and he makes a meal with what little he is given. Every character actor has that secret weapon in them: they know how to steal the show without ever taking the spotlight.
Alan Tudyk in Arrested Development (2003-2019)
I’d love to pick some obscure international figure for this honor, but I have not explored any foreign cinema enough to unlock the gold that I have already found in the American scene. I already wrote a long, rambling essay about how much I love Steve Buscemi, so I’ll put him aside, even though I do still believe he’s one of the most down-with-anything actors working today. Likewise, Tilda Swinton might have done slightly too much as an eccentric to render her persona as a “character actor” equal to a lack of acclaim. Instead, I’ll return to my comedy roots and look at some of my favorite sitcoms with holy grails of guest actors: Arrested Development and Veep.
If it weren’t for Jane Lynch’s turn as Sue Sylvester and the fact that, by and large, she plays similar characters in all her works, she’d be a good choice. I love Gary Cole with a passion and his and Stephen Root’s characters in Office Space (1999) both jumpstarted my love for clever stupidity. If I had seen Mo Collins in just one or two more shows, her portrayal of Joan Callamezzo on Parks and Recreation would be more than enough. I think, though, based on the parameters I set for myself, I’m going to have to go with Alan Tudyk.
Alan Tudyk in Death at a Funeral (2007)
Aside from his extensive voice acting career, this man has done a lot. I remember the first time I reacted viscerally to a performance of his: Frank Oz’s Death at a Funeral (2007). It’s a British movie with all-British characters, and I was under the same guise about its cast, but as I would find out upon reading up on it, the accidentally-drugged Simon was played by an American guy who originally hails from Texas (Tudyk).
In later years, I would see him as the antagonistic baseball player Ben Chapman in Chadwick Boseman-vessel 42, a sun-tanned creep in Suburgatory, and of course, as the conservative Pastor Veal in Arrested Development – a played-straight role that is still wildly funny in its own special, Tudyk way. His promised presence is a quick sell for me in any project, no matter how small the part. He's a brilliant physical actor (seriously, please watch Death at a Funeral and marvel as he scales a roof in his birthday suit), and by how many Pixar voice-acting credits he has, you’ll know he has just as much talent in the realm of accent and intonation. Long live Tudyk.
*Listen to Josh's entry with his very creative voice recording.*
Matt Berry in What We Do in the Shadows (2019 - present)
I’m here to tell you about a character-actor extraordinaire, a brilliant chap by the name of Matt Berry – me. You’ve probably seen me on British television since I’ve been making people laugh for nearly twenty years and have a veritable host of credits to my name. People say about me – because I don’t talk about myself – that I’m always superbly dressed, I speak in an eloquent voice, and that I’m one damn good-looking gentleman.
Matt Berry in Toast of London (2013-2015)
I’ve famously starred in several hit programs, including The Mighty Boosh, Snuff Box, The IT Crowd, and the popular vampire mockumentary What We Do In the Shadows. I even have my own hilarious star vehicle, Toast of London, in which I play a fantastic and well-loved actor having the time of his life. Well, all right, maybe that last bit is stretching the truth but Steven Toast’s bad luck is by no means his fault. The world is simply not prepared for a performer of his caliber.
My characters are all witty, deadpan, laid back, and as horny as a blessing of unicorns. Now some critics say my characters don’t show enough humility, but I say to conceal one’s own greatness is not virtuous at all. Rather, we artists give all we can of our talents to the rest of the human race – so as a born entertainer it is my duty, as well as my privilege, to give you, the audience, the gift of laughter in every role I perform.
Bob Balaban in Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
When I was looking at my 2022 movie-watching stats in December, I had a first-place tie for my most watched actor between Bill Murray and Bob Balaban (eleven films each). I understood why Bill Murray was up there because, well, the guy is in everything. But I had no idea that Bob Balaban's scruffy little face passed before my eyes eleven times without me noticing. Most of them were from Christopher Guest and Wes Anderson movies, both of whose filmographies I watched in their entirety last year.
Bob Balaban is great because he's not flamboyant; he's just kinda there, but in a comforting way. Sometimes I can't tell if he is trying to be funny because his humor is so dry or that is just how he is. Nevertheless, I love it. I don't want to be basic and say my favorite performance of his is in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), so I won't and instead go with A Mighty Wind (2003). I am only slightly biased because I love Christopher Guest's movies, but also because his movies are predominantly improvised, which makes me feel like I'm watching something a bit more special.
Bob Balaban in A Mighty Wind (2003)
Balaban plays Jonathan Steinbloom, the son of a recently deceased music manager, who puts on a concert in memory of his father. Arguably the best scene in the movie is a minute-long conversation between Jonathan Steinbloom (Bob Balaban) and Lawrence Turpin (Michael Hitchcock) regarding the stagecraft for the show. Jonathan doesn't understand why a large painted banjo prop is two-dimensional. He insists that the audience will distinguish that the banjo is fake and not enjoy the show as much. The scene ends with Lawrence slapping Jonathan's head. It's so dumb, and the scene doesn't add anything to the movie, but it's great. There's nothing like watching Michael Hitchcock slap Bob Balaban's shiny bald head.
I don't want to completely ignore his performance in Moonrise Kingdom. But the only thing I particularly like about his character is that he wears a floppy hat and fingerless gloves. However, he is a great narrator because his voice has such a unique cadence; it makes me want to trust what he says. Balaban is fantastic and underrated – keep an eye out for him next time you watch a movie and don't let him slip by unnoticed.
-August, Lydia, Josh & Sophie