As E! Channel has insisted upon telling us for the past two months, actors are quite a big deal. Now, though, weeks of coverage dedicated to everything they wear, say, don’t say and questionably deserve has ceased for another year, allowing those lofty subjects the chance to breathe again. Daniel Day-Lewis can revert to cobbling wicker shoes in his hand-built cave until he feels like another Oscar, Anne Hathaway can go and grow her hair back, hopefully in silence, and Jennifer Lawrence can bask in being debated in pubs worldwide as a true, potential ‘10’.
It’s worth remembering, though, that acting is a profession. It may be unlike any other, but it’s still merely a job. Just as there are probably superstar butchers and award-winning librarians gaining the constant plaudits of their industry, so are there countless others who never quite rise above the status of ‘that guy’.
We all know ‘that guy’: men and women who seem to pop up in almost every film, without us ever bothering to learn their names. These people haven’t the luxury of a Troy McClure-style introduction; they just appear, charming and irritating audiences with their prolificacy in equal measure. Breaking through this glass ceiling of ‘supporting the support’ is rare, but not impossible. For years, the likes of Steve Buscemi, Melissa Leo, Bryan Cranston and Damien Lewis were ‘that guy/girl’, until breakthrough roles attached names to their already familiar faces. Here’s five actors who, somehow, haven’t quite gotten there yet…
Much like swallowing spiders in your sleep, it’s scientifically probable that the average person has seen at least four Jeffrey Wright films in their lifetime, but never known it. Despite a leading breakthrough as the eponymous New York street artist in 90s biopic Basquiat (which, incidentally, boasted ensemble support from the likes of Walken, Bowie, Oldman, and Hopper), Wright has spent more than a decade allowing other actors the limelight, never quite gaining the appreciation he deserves.
This relative anonymity could, in part, come as a result of his tendency to choose characters already established as more famous than himself. Aside from playing Felix Leiter in both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Wright has thus far portrayed Muddy Waters (Cadillac Records), Howard Bingham (Ali), Colin Powell (W.) and Martin Luther King (Boycott) – I suppose making him America’s less punchable answer to Michael Sheen. Elsewhere, you ought to have seen him provide stellar support as a moustachioed, concerned man with his top collar undone in Source Code, The Manchurian Candidate, The Ides of March and Syriana; as a Mexican gangster in Shaft, and as perhaps the only positive note in M. Knight Shyamalan’s bizarre The Lady In The Water. Next year, Wright will be seen opposite newly crowned ‘Darling of the World’, Jennifer Lawrence, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. No chance of being left in the shadows there, then.
I know what you’re thinking. How has a man named ‘Barry Pepper’ managed to find work as a professional actor, rather than in his predestined occupation as a cartoon greengrocer? The answer is as simple as it is sincere: war.
With its widespread fatalities, divisive nature and loud bangs, war has an unfortunate reputation. Don’t mention that to Barry Pepper, though. It’s gifted him a life. Pepper is probably the hardest working soldier in the United States military, having served in Saving Private Ryan, We Were Soldiers, Battlefield Earth, Enemy of the State and Flags of our Fathers all in the past fifteen years, as well as a recurring role in the ‘Call of Duty’ games franchise. As a result, he is one of a select group of people who become more noticeable when dressed in camouflage, not less. It’s unclear whether this series of murderous roles is in deliberate opposition to his child-friendly moniker, but we’d be mad, mad fools to rule it out.
Pepper isn’t purely seasoned in warcraft, of course. You’ve seen him on leave as various civilians in the likes of 25th Hour, Seven Pounds, True Grit and The Green Mile. This year, though, he reverts to type: as cavalry leader Captain Jay Fuller, in Disney’s long-delayed remake of Lone Ranger. When watching that film, be sure to no longer mutter “wasn’t he a soldier in something/everything we’ve seen before, darling?”. Instead, bellow at your partner “THAT MAN IS BARRY PEPPER”. For it will be he, and he will be it.
As a man whose dramatic speciality appears to be ‘morally ambiguous white authority figure in a suit’, it’s perhaps unsurprising that William Fichtner manages to be in everything. You’ve probably enjoyed him as FBI Agent Alex Mahone in three series of Prison Break, or even as Phil Yagoda in Entourage, yet it’s in his film career where Fichtner’s true work rate is revealed. Despite obvious typecasting, there must be few actors in the world who can boast a credit list so varied as to include Heat, The Perfect Storm, Armageddon, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The Dark Knight and Blades of Glory on the same CV.
Perhaps it’s his likeness to Kevin Bacon which puts people off remembering him. Perhaps it’s the fact ‘Fichtner’ contains so many consonants that the human mouth actually shuts down when trying say it. Perhaps it’s because he was abandoned in a dustbin as a baby (truth, look it up). Either way, the man is an ever-present on our screens and deserves, at the very least, some plaudits. So well done, William. Well done.
We probably all know somebody for whom the title Professional Bitch would be apposite, but only one woman could take that as a compliment. If ever you’re watching a film and there is a middle aged, crazy brunette, then rest assured – Beth Grant is playing her. The psychotic judge in Little Miss Sunshine? Beth Grant. The lunatic rival parent in Donnie Darko? Beth Grant. The racist mother-in-law in No Country For Old Men? Beth Grant. The neighbour with hundreds of children in Rain Man? Slightly younger, but still Beth Grant. I could go on, but won’t, for your sake.
That’s her name, above is her face. Now, let’s marry the two and live happily ever after.
Some actors, with their mere presence on screen, can immediately make a film terrible. Others, like Samuel L. Jackson or Christopher Walken, instantly make it ‘theirs’ (for better or worse). Between these extremes, though, lies a category of actor whose unselfish work serves to strengthen almost anything they appear in. Notable, rewarded examples include Amy Adams and Stanley Tucci, but Bruce McGill is on a whole other level of support. People like him support the support. McGill’s work in Collateral, Law Abiding Citizen, Cinderella Man and The Insider are just four performances where his absence would have severely weakened each feature, and yet barely a peep of appreciation is flung his way. Elsewhere, he’s bettered the likes of Animal House, Lincoln, Vantage Point, The Sum of All Fears and Shallow Hall for us, in a career still ploughing along after 35 years. Recognise and appreciate: if lead actors are merely standing on the shoulders of giants, well Bruce is that giant.