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« Thoughts I Had... While Staring at Lindsay's Lohan's Alleged Sex Partner List | Main | A Year With Kate: A Woman Rebels (1936) »
Wednesday
Mar122014

There Are No Small Parts. Beauty from the Margins

One of my favorite activities each year is compiling a list of actors who really nailed their brief but not necessarily coveted roles. Oh sure sometimes a small part is a true get and key to the narrative. There's no way to watch 12 Years a Slave, for example, and miss the importance of "Mistress Shaw", so perfectly rendered by Alfre Woodard. And some tiny parts are designed as cameos for stars: think Jean DuJardin and Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf of Wall Street. But the bulk of small roles each year in any actor's medium, go unnoticed with the actors adding depth to the ensemble and colors to the director or writer or showrunner's palette. Me, I love looking at the peripheries and seeing which actors are hungry, which find ways to maximize their tertiary characters or simply inhabit them so well that you get everything you need in that one scene or, if they're lucky, two scenes.

There are few things more unexpectedly satisfying than feeling like you could follow a minor character off into their own movie just this side of the screen. It makes the movie you're watching that much richer. 

Consider David Dastmalchian who plays the key suspect "Bob Taylor" in Prisoners. The actor pops up from time to time in sinister roles (he recently played a serial killer on "Almost Human"). I suspect this is the result of lazy amateur physiognomy happening in casting offices: Angular Face = EVIL! But he was so weirdly sympathetic but "off" and damaged in this role that I kept wanting to recast the movie in my head, and give him Paul Dano's role instead. More please.

Sometimes the face is more familiar but as far from ubiquitous as its possible to be. There's a lot to be said for casting directors that don't rely on whichever character actors happens to be all the rage to plug in to any movie here or there.

Remember Polly Draper from thirtysomething? I was happy to see her pop up in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects but I figured it would be a disposable part. In lesser hands, maybe. All aspiring actors should watch roles like this. Lead roles are very hard to come by but there are no small parts. If you get one, texture it. Serve the narrative but give it enough specificity that we could follow you right out of the scene.

It was difficult to narrow down my "Best Limited Role / Cameo" category this year. Eventually I settled on ten players ranging from little known talents like Hilary Baack (The East), to sitcom stars Kaitlyn Olson (I can't tell you how much I love that "Tatiana" scene in The Heat) and treasured characters actors like Robin Bartlett and F Murray Abraham (both from Inside Llewyn Davis) and yes, even movie stars. They're much less shy about doing "small parts" than they once were.

And, no, you're not even safe from the McConaissance here...

Begin your chest-thumping chants and read on...

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Reader Comments (38)

Still can't see images unfortunately...

These peripheral acting categories are always fun. So happy to see Alfre Woodard, F. Murray Abraham, Kyle Chandler, and Angela McEwan get some love. I would have included a handful of the teenagers from Blue Is The Warmest Color, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in The Spectacular Now and Kevin Hernandez in Short Term 12. And depending on the day I might have tossed in Naomi Watts in Movie 43. Girl could use a break after the year she had.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Jean DuJardin was really great in WOWS -- so smarmy. But apparently, he does that well in his French films.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBia

Yey! I thought you were not doing this category anymore! I love the inclusion of Robin Bartlett and F. Murray Abraham. I would add Goodman, Stark Sands (the soldier) and almost everyone else in Llewyn Davis, that masterpiece.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Excellent list. Alfre Woodard just floors you with that one scene, and Olson is such a reliably funny actress on 'It's Always Sunny' that I would love to see her continue to have great comedic character roles. 'Inside Llewyn Davis' has so many spot-on little performances.

And Kyle Chandler! I am loving how his movie career is going. I think he is laying the groundwork for a Patricia Clarkson/Garrett Dillahunt style character actor career, where you know he will always be reliably great. I loved him in WOWS as well, that scene on Belfort's boat was just perfectly played. The look on his face before he says 'can you repeat that?' when Belfort tries to bribe him is great.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I had to laugh because I saw David Dastmachlian's picture and i was like "i know that face! What was he in again? I feel like he might've molested someone...PRISONERS!!" Dude definitely could be a "creep" character actor.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck.

The small part, character and actor, that I fell in love with this year was BJ Novak as Robert B Sherman in Saving Mr. Banks. Probably too large to be a cameo though.

- The great idea/not enough of it was James Hong in RIPD. I love that guy.
- The great idea/just right amount was Nathan Fillion as the god Hermes in the latest Percy Jackson. He's the manager at UPS.
- Annaleigh Tipton won me over in Warm Bodies as the heroine's friend who puts makeup on the zombie hero so he looks "normal".
- Actors I love but were just barely there, didn't have much of a part (why?) were Bill Cobbs in Oz the Great and Powerful, and Clifton Collins Jr in Parker. Parker also didn't use the brief appearance of Bobby Cannavale to much effect, although Patti Lupone as Jennifer Lopez's mother(!) was really good in her little role.
- I counted the sentences my favorite Clifton Collins Jr had in Parker. It was 12 sentences. I wanted to cry. He's so good, is it that hard to cast Latino actors?

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Nathaniel, this is a completely off-topic comment, but I was just curious if I need to create a Pay Pal account in order to subscribe to the blog. Can I just pay with credit card??

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Nice list! Yes to Kyle Chandler in anything. And Sam Shepherd in MUD. I loved the Alien Child in the video game in HER (and learned later that it was voiced by Spike Jonze). And Lynn Cohen as Mags the mute, who got to ride around on Sam Claflin's back in HG:CATCHING FIRE, and who gave such a bittersweet smile as she...[spoiler alert].

I was annoyed with Dujardin in WoWS, but perhaps it was because that whole movie annoyed me, outside of DiCaprio's overall performance.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Angela McEwan as Dern's old flame in Nebraska. What an emotional impact in two minutes. The loveliest moment in theaters of 2013.

Alexander Payne films are always cast, right down to the smallest roles, with such precision. Thus his terrific track record.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Yes, he was very memorable in Prisoners!

BTW, I can see images just fine. Yesterday they didn't work for a few hours but then it got fixed.

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

Woodard's was my favorite "small role" last year, but I also want to express some love for Brie Larson nailing her pivotal little scene at the end of "Don Jon" after oh-so-cleverly flying under the radar for the rest of the movie. I also love those three exasperated kids that Sam Rockwell keeps giving exotic names to in "The Way Way Back."

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDback

This is a great category. Truly.

Yes, to McConaughey in WOWS, and yes to F. Murray (the original LLewyn) in Inside Llewyn Davis. "Play me something from INSIDE Llewyn Davis." Just the way he says that line. Perfection.

I'd also add:
*Alan Tudyk in "42."
*Ray McKinnon in "Mud."
Paul Giamatti in "Parkland" (underrated movie, people)
Elyes Aguis in Le Passe"
Mare Winningham in "Philomena" (also underrated)

March 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Whoops. Forgot. Adri made me remember: Nathan Fillon in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Wow.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Wait. We haven't said Robert De Niro in AMERICAN HUSTLE? Then Robert De Niro in AMERICAN HUSTLE.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Do not get McConaughey in WOLF. The chest thump thing is nauseating. I'd ditch him for either Coleman Domingo or Elijah Kelley from THE BUTLER.

As for actress side of things, Woodard and Alice McEwan from NEBRASKA are my two runaways, but I also had a lot of time for Nadezhda Markina from IN THE FOG, Joyce Payne in PRINCE AVALANCHE, and Jacki Weaver in STOKER (two scenes I think gets her in under the line).

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

This probably shows my age but I had to google Joanna Lumlay to see who you were talking about.

As soon as I saw her picture I cracked up. She really was beyond great in that bit part.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

So thrilled to see the Film Bitch Awards 2013 being completed :)
Love your cameo picks, especially Draper and Olson. Although I'd have added...

Paul Giamatti, 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Lior Ashkenazi, YOSSI
Xenia Kalogeropoulou, BEFORE MIDNIGHT
Jacki Weaver, STOKER
and... Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (hey, if it was released theatrically in Europe, I say their eligible.)

bring on Best Kiss, Sex Scene, Hero, Villain, Opening and Ending

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan S.

So thrilled to see Kaitlin Olson recognized who has been spewing comedy gold for 10 years on It's Always Sunny. When she made the trailer for The Heat I got my hopes up that she might have a larger role, but still she was dynamite in her set. What a wonderfully ugly accent!

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJS

Catherine Keener in Captain Phillips. Its not a stand out part like Mistress Shaw, but in the brief time she had, we learned everything we needed to know about the marriage and thus the man. And she did it all with very few words or gestures, just presence and attitude and being.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

My own random cameo categories go for:

- Miscast cameo: Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave
- Hammiest (pliz,look at me) cameo: Paz Vega in I'm so Excited
- Want to know more of you cameo: Angela McEwan in Nebraska
- Most wasted cameo: Ewan McGregor in August: Osage County

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Ewan McGregor is totally not a cameo in A:OC

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I figured this would go to Alfre Woodard ever since I saw 12 Years (though I'd be inclined to go with Jacki Weaver in Stoker, myself) - but now that you mention Kaitlin Olson - that's perfect! She nails that role in a way that I couldn't have imagined. I'd never have thought of her for this award, but I'm so happy to see you bring her up.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

I guess the parts aren't quite small enough to really qualify here. But I just feel the urge to direct some praise toward a couple of terrific (but largely overlooked )performances.
lElisabeth Rohm , warmly flamboyant as Jeremy Renner's wife in "American Hustle" (I was happy to see you gave her a bit of a shout-out) and Griffin Dunne, beautifullly unflamboyant as the south-of-the-border pill dispenser in "Dallas Buyers Club".

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKen

I absolutely loved Catherine Keener in Enough Said, she really gave some philosophical life into a the ex wife who could easily be a toxic.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMustafa

Throwing one out there for Richard Cabral in The Counselor. Unknown but pretty excellent in his limited screen-time as a loose, off, cartel heir. The Counselor had a few of these actually with Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Rosie Perez, and Bruno Ganz.

Alfre Woodard, obviously. Also loved Paul Giamatti's work in it.

Spike Jonze as Dwayne in The Wolf of Wall Street. I was also living for Fran Lebowitz's cameo.

Angela McEwan was lovely.

Thiago Martins in Upstream Color, we cannot see his real face because in this it is made up of the materials of the sun.

Sam Buchanan in This is Martin Bonner.

Jeannine Serailles in Inside Llewyn Davis as Llewyn's takes no crap sister who wants what is best for her brother but is completely frustrated by him. I really loved that performance.

Guys, there are some here I would not call a cameo. Ewan's part is essentially in the play. And Elyes Aguis was on my Top 5 supporting actors and has enough screen-time. Don't confuse him as a child actor thinking his parts are just smaller by design.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Surprised no one yet has mentioned Adam Driver in Llewyn Davis.

Max Casella would also make my ballot for Blue Jasmine.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Elisabeth Röhm's performance in "American Hustle" made her wooden work in "Law and Order" such a distant memory. I didn't realize that was her until I did an IMDb search.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Great call re Olson - her accent is a marvel (I'm not sure if people realise that 98% of 'Eastern European' accents in movies are actually just sketchy bullshit) and it's just symptomatic of the precision and stutter-inducing genius of that little performance. The Heat as a film was just morbidly underrated. There was so much to love. It followed the formula with just the right proportion of verve and efficiency. Hollywood pulls off these formulas so rarely these days that movies like this have become uncommonly satisfying. They are to be celebrated.

But back to the topic at hand, I also really loved Doubleday, Woodard and Jonze in their respective films. (They'd all be runner-ups in my imaginary supporting ballots.)

And Dujardin is just sex on legs.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

So yes on Polly Draper. Side Effects was a big old mess of a movie, but you can't blame that on the supporting cast.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Ooh, Markina in In the Fog! Good call, Glenn.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Nathaniel!

His name is David Dastmalchian ( you forgot the L )

and the only good thing along with Hugh Jackman in that terrible terrible movie Prisoners

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

Manuel -- thanks. I didn't forget it. I just put it in the wrong place in the name. LOL. fixed.

March 13, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The very first people I thought of for this were Woodard, McConaughey, Polly Draper (seriously, how great was she in Side Effects?!?), and Robin Bartlett (UGH. Just tear my heart out, why don't you?!). And then Kyle Chandler. Boy does he loom large over that movie. And as soon as I saw the picture of David Dastmalchian I was nodding my head emphatically. SO GOOD. I LOVED Dujardin in Wolf, but it's a bit more than a cameo, no? I loved each and every one of your nominees and am SO GLAD you honor these people. In some cases, they were my favorite things about their respective films!

I might have cited Spike Jonze as the foul-mouthed videogame alien in Her - HILARIOUS. Elizabeth Rohm, too. Where the heck did THAT performance come from?!? And Brie Larson in Don Jon - how does she take a (almost literally) nothing role like that and spin complete comic gold from it?

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

And great call on "Nebraska"'s Angela McEwan. Her finally look as Bruce Dern's character drives down the street hit me right in the gut.

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

I refer to McGregor as a cameo because his part felt to underwritten and he's so underused that it felt like a cameo. Love the internet...

March 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

Chris Evans fun 50 seconds of "This is what Loki thinks of Cap" in Thor: The Dark World. It's not worth the price of admission, but it's the film's best comic beat because of just how INTO IT Evans is.

March 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Can I just say? I LOVE when you do these particular categories. Such wonderful tributes to the character actors, bit players, cameos, scene-stealers, non-actors and newbies.

Good call on Robin Bartlett, she's having a nice revival lately.

Some of my personal faves:
-Portia Doubleday in Her. Perfect and heartbreaking.
-Leslie Mann in The Bling Ring. That's exactly what those rich, former teen model, yoga-pants wearing Calabasas mothers look and sound like.
-Alfre Woodard, of course.
-Glad someone mentioned Xenia Kalogeropoulou in Before Midnight, she was lovely.

I don't think anyone mentioned her but I thought Stephanie Kurtzuba, as the once-struggling single mom, Kimmie, that Jordan gave a chance to in Wolf of Wall Street, was so good. She really helped sell that big going-away speech with her teary emotional gratitude and fierce loyalty.

Also, from the same movie, props to Natasha Newman Thomas as the female employee who gets paid 10,000 to be shaved bald in front of everyone. Totally real. You could feel the nerves, terror and then subsequently, the weight of the money. The only time I was truly horrified and cringing in that whole movie.

March 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

I want to second Mark the First in saying Stephanie Kurtzuba as "Kimmie" in WoWS. I was fascinated by how she coupled the character's arrogance with her vulnerability. She totally steals the speech scene from DiCaprio.

Also loved Alfre, obviously. Everything about her character seems calm on the outside, but her eyes are so haunted.

March 16, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBryan

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