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...