50 Greatest Character Actors

Allison Janney

That Girl From: The Ice Storm (1997), Primary Colors (1998), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) American Beauty (1999), Nurse Betty (2000), The Hours (2002), Hairspray (2007), Juno (2007), Away We Go (2009), The Help (2011)

Why They’re Great: One of the standout performers of TV’s The West Wing , Janney has quietly set about carving a big screen career peppered with memorable supporting characters, from Juno ’s good-hearted stepmother to the cowed matriarch of the Fitts family in American Beauty . She might also have held the key to what Lost was all about, her one episode offering the nearest thing to an explanation that the show ever mustered…

In Their Own Words: “Listen, I'm an actor. I can make anyone believe anything. I don't have to know what the hell I'm talking about.”

David Strathairn

That Guy From: Memphis Belle (1990), A League Of Their Own (1992), The Firm (1993), The River Wild (1994), LA Confidential (1997), Good Night And Good Luck (2005), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Why They’re Great: Strathairn’s reedy frame has largely counted him out of leading man opportunities, but he’s more than compensated for that with a host of intriguing supporting parts, culminating in his Oscar-nominated showing in Good Night And Good Luck . Look out for him lending a touch of class to such mainstream action fare as The River Wild and The Bourne Ultimatum .

In Their Own Words: [ On Good Luck And Good Night’s Oscar buzz ] “It feels as if you put on a many-pocketed coat with 100 cell phones, all on vibe alert, and they all start going off at random times, and you begin to think, 'This is pretty uncomfortable'.”

Joe Pantoliano

That Guy From: The Goonies (1985), Empire Of The Sun (1997), Midnight Run (1988), The Fugitive (1993), Bad Boys (1995), The Matrix (1999), Memento (2000)

Why They're Great: Those furtive feature were made for playing shady, double-dealing crooks and conmen, but with Pantoliano's gift of the gab, he's a difficult bad guy to dislike. Ambiguous characters like the ones he played in The Matrix and Memento give him the perfect grey area within which to work his magic...

In Their own Words: “A character actor to me was someone who played a bunch of different roles versus a leading man or supporting actor, I wanted to be a character actor and do good parts.”

Holly Hunter

That Girl From: Raising Arizona (1987), Broadcast News (1987), The Piano (1993), Crash (1996), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), Thirteen (2003), The Incredibles (2004)

Why They’re Great: Always a likeable screen presence in chirpy fare like The Incredibles or O Brother Where Art Thou? , Hunter is at her best in more challenging work. She was heartbreaking as a desperate mother in Thirteen , and won the Oscar for her wordless turn in The Piano . Her movie career has quietened down of late, and the Hollywood landscape is a poorer place without her.

In Their Own Words: “Actors are beggars and gypsies, that's just the way it is. And in many ways, I take what I can get. But I do search high and low for stuff that interests me.”

Stanley Tucci

That Guy From: Prizzi’s Honour (1985), Beethoven (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), A Life Less Ordinary (1997), Road To Perdition (2002), The Life And Death Of Peter Sellers (2004), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), The Lovely Bones (2009), Easy A (2010), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Why They’re Great: A confirmed workaholic, Stanley Tucci has cropped up in more supporting roles than you could count, without ever really graduating to leading man status. Not that that should bother the Italian-born star, who was recognised by the academy in 2009 with an Oscar nomination for his disturbing turn in The Lovely Bones . A writer and director with impeccable comic timing (see his hilariously sharp turn in Easy A for further details), Tucci can next be seen in franchise-in-waiting The Hunger Games . His part? Another great role as flamboyant telly host Caesar Flickerman. Scenes will be stolen…

In Their Own Words: “I think [ acting ] is instinctual. Even as a kid, I felt much more comfortable on stage than I did in real life.”

Joan Allen

That Girl From: Nixon (1995), The Crucible (1996), The Ice Storm (1997), Face/Off (1997), Pleasantville (1998), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), The Notebook (2004), Death Race (2008)

Why They’re Great: Joan Allen is a warm, friendly person off-screen, but there’s no doubt that her cinematic trump card is the chilly poise she brings to her celluloid creations. Even when she displays a warmer side in the later instalments of the Bourne series, it’s still through slightly pursed lips. Still, she remains one of Hollywood’s most consistent performers so its hard not to forgive her that ice queen persona.

In Their Own Words: “I think of myself more as a character actor than that ingénue leading lady… I’m a bit quirkier than that.”

M. Emmett Walsh

That Guy From: The Jerk (1979), Reds (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Blood Simple (1984), A Time To Kill (1996), Wild Wild West (1999), Youth In Revolt (2009)

Why They're Great: You can always depend on M. Emmet Walsh to bring a grubby scuzziness to proceedings, usually accompanied by a roguish smile and a knowing wink. His deliciously sleazy turn in the Coen brothers' Blood Simple shows him at the peak of his powers, creating one of the most unforgettably unscrupulous villains of all time.

In Their Own Words: “I approach each job thinking I may die of a heart attack, so it had better be the best work possible.”

Dennis Farina

That Guy From: Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), Midnight Run (1988), Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), Get Shorty (1995), Out Of Sight (1998), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Snatch (2000), What Happens In Vegas (2008)

Why They’re Great:
A former flatfoot in the Chicago PD, Farina can usually be spotted playing either cops or crooks, but its his comic timing as well as his tough guy persona that keeps getting him work. He stole the show in Get Shorty as a peevish gangster, whilst Snatch saw him bathing the likes of Mike Reid and Vinnie Jones in the warm glow of his charisma. On a more serious tack, he was great as William Petersen’s boss in Manhunter , and was similarly excellent in his early team-ups with Michael Mann. Chronically under-appreciated, we’re glad to finally be able to give him some well-deserved love.

In Their Own Words: “Some people approach acting with all these things in their head, making it more complicated than it needs to be, way too cerebral. I don't want to know that an actor lived in a cave for 12 days so that he could prepare for a part.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh

That Girl From: Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), The Hitcher (1986), Last Exit To Brooklyn (1989), Short Cuts (1993), eXistenZ (1999), Road To Perdition (2002), In The Cut (2003), The Machinist (2004), Synecdoche, New York (2008), Greenberg (2010)

Why They’re Great: Eschewing the conventional at every turn, Jennifer Jason Leigh has spent a long and varied career playing a host of emotionally damaged drifters and lost souls. A fearless performer, she’s never phoned in a performance in her life, an achievement you suspect means far more to her than any number of statuettes ever could.

In Their Own Words: “I could never play the ingénue, the girl next door or the very successful young doctor. That would be a bore.”

Stellan Skarsgrd

That Guy From: The Hunt For Red October (1990), Breaking The Waves (1996), Ronin (1997), Deep Blue Sea (1999), Dogville (2003), Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), Mamma Mia! (2008), Angels & Demons (2009), Thor (2011), The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Why They’re Great: An occasional leading man in his native Scandinavia (he starred in the original Norwegian version of taut thriller Insomnia ), Skarsgård has been cropping up in mainstream Hollywood fare for donkey’s years, bringing a degree of kindly gravitas to all manner of big budget projects. Although anyone who’s seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo will know not to discount out his sinister side…

In Their Own Words: “It takes a long time to make me beautiful, but it goes fast to make me ugly.”