50 Greatest Character Actors

Danny Trejo

That Guy From: Runaway Train (1985), Desperado (1995), Heat (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Con Air (1997), Six Days Seven Nights (1998), Spy Kids (2001), Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003), The Devil's Rejects (2005), Machete (2010)

Why They're Great: A reformed criminal turned character actor, Trejo's story is such that it's very difficult not to warm to him. Spending the best part of his career playing a host of brawlers, henchmen and general hard-cases, he finally carved out a leading role for himself in 2010's Machete . Good for him, we say!

In Their Own Words: “Juvenile hall, youth authority . . . I was in a lot of trouble. I grew up like the characters I've been playing.”

Paul Gleason

That Guy From: Arthur (1981), Trading Places (1983), The Breakfast Club (1985), Die Hard (1988), Van Wilder: Party Liaison (2001),

Why They're Great: Whether playing it for laughs or straight down the line, the late Paul Gleason would always be our first choice for a hard-ass authority figure. Whether playing cops, crims or best of all, teachers, there's always a knowing glint in Gleason's eye letting you know you're in for a treat. And that scene with the gorilla in Trading Places is the stuff of legend...

In Their Own Words: “I went into acting because I had nothing more sensible to do.”

Catherine Keener

That Girl From: Catchfire (1990), Johnny Suede (1991), Out Of Sight (1998), 8MM (1999), Being John Malkovich (1999), The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), Capote (2005), Into The Wild (2007), Synocdoche, New York (2008), Cyrus (2010)

Why They’re Great:
An accomplished comic actress often cast in sympathetic, well-observed roles, Keener’s unaffected, natural style scored big with the Academy in 1999 when she was Oscar-nominated for her turn in Being John Malkovich . She might not have won, but it gave her enough industry clout to carry on cherrypicking some increasingly juicy roles in critical darlings and crowd-pleasers alike.

In Their Own Words: “I like being a supporting actress. I like to come and go in the film. The interesting characters are very few if you want to be the lead, and they depend on you being beautiful.”

David Morse

That Guy From: The Crossing Guard (1995), Twelve Monkeys (1995), The Rock (1996), The Negotiator (1998), The Green Mile (1999), Dancer In The Dark (2000) Hearts In Atlantis (2001), Down In The Valley (2005), The Hurt Locker (2008), Drive Angry (2011)

Why They're Great: The archetypal “hey, I know him” actor of the '90s, Morse can always be relied upon to provide solid support to his leading men. Quietly effective in strong, man's-man roles, there's a weight of kindness behind those eyes that you just can't help warming to. We'll refer you to his performance in The Green Mile if you don't know what we mean...

In Their Own Words:
“You basically have to tell the director whatever they want to hear when you're looking to get a job.”

Stephen Lang

That Guy From: Twice In A Lifetime (1985), Last Exit To Brooklyn (1989), Gettysburg (1993), Tombstone (1993), Gods And Generals (2003), Public Enemies (2009), The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009), Avatar (2009), Conan The Barbarian (2011)

Why They’re Great: No longer Hollywood’s best kept secret, Stephen Lang can take great credit for making sure Avatar ’s less visually arresting sequences still held the viewer’s attention. His villainous turn as Colonel Quaritch might have been the most high-profile role of his career, but it was a break that this respected theatre actor was long overdue.

In Their Own Words: “Acting can be a very reactive profession. Acting is a fantastic thing, and it's my life, but writing is also part of me too, so I did it and in so doing took responsibility for my own life.”

Karen Black

That Girl From: Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Great Gatsby (1974), Nashville (1975), Family Plot (1976), Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Why They’re Great: Famed for playing women on the edge, Black enjoyed a golden period throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s with attention-grabbing roles in the likes of Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces . Her career tailed off somewhat in later years, but for a time, Black was synonymous with the kind of well-drawn but unconventional roles so often denied to female actors.

In Their Own Words: “There aren't any more movie stars, which is terrific with me. A lot of love now occurs in the business, people helping each other to do good work, getting high on each other's success.”

Frank Whaley

That Guy From: Born On The Fourth Of July (1989), Field Of Dreams (1989), The Doors (1991), JFK (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), Swimming With Sharks (1994), Broken Arrow (1996), Red Dragon (2002), Vacancy (2007)

Why He's Great: Nobody does stammering nervousness like Frank Whaley, as witnessed by his unforgettable appearance in Pulp Fiction as the luckless Brett. That cowed desperation is even more evident in his performance as Kevin Spacey's timid underling in Swimming With Sharks , before the inevitable sea-change halfway through. At which point he's a different beast entirely. That's range for you...

In Their Own Words: “After Pulp Fiction first came out I would get screamed at from cabs passing by lines from the movie. Nowadays people just scream things at me.”

Bruce Davison

That Guy From: Willard (1971), Crimes Of Passion (1984), Longtime Companion (1989), Short Cuts (1993), The Crucible (1996), Apt Pupil (1998), X-Men (2000), Runaway Jury (2003)

Why They’re Great: Despite being nominated for an Oscar for his performance as an HIV sufferer in Longtime Companion , Davison is one of those actors who seems to have spent a career dodging the limelight. That saifd, his recurring role in the X-Men series brought him blockbuster success in the noughties, and his status as a TV actor has always been consistent, with a part in the critically-acclaimed Luck his latest small-screen outing.

In Their Own Words: “That's who they all think of me as, Senator Kelly, this guy who melts. That's kind of unfortunate.”

J.K. Simmons

That Guy From: The Ref (1994), The Cider House Rules (1999), Spider-Man 1-3 (2002-2007), The Ladykillers (2004), Juno (2007), Up In The Air (2009)

Why They're Great: An enormously likeable screen presence, Simmons finally scooped some well-deserved acclaim for his touching turn in Juno , before making an equally enjoyable cameo in Jason Reitman's follow-up, Up In The Air . A great comic performer, we're mightily disappointed that he won't be stealing any scenes as J. Jonah Jameson in The Amazing Spider-Man .

In Their Own Words: “What I try to do is be adaptable to different writers, different directors, and different actors that I work with. I just try to be a team player.”

Amanda Plummer

That Girl From: Made In Heaven (1987), The Fisher King (1991), So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Hercules (1997), My Life Without Me (2003)

Why They’re Great: Amanda Plummer has enjoyed some of her greatest success working on stage, but its always a treat to see her bringing that ability to bear on the big screen. Whenever she does appear in a film, it’s usually in a memorable role – think her scene-stealing turn in Pulp Fiction … “any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you!”

In Their Own Words: “I'm not considered a movie person at all. It's hard for very distinctive-looking people like myself to make it in film because the face is unusual.”