50 Greatest Character Actors

Fred Ward

That Guy From: Southern Comfort (1981), The Right Stuff (1983), Tremors (1990), The Player (1992), Short Cuts (1993), Road Trip (2000), Sweet Home Alabama (2002)

Why They’re Great: A grizzled, old-school charmer, Ward’s appeal is best encapsulated by his game performance in Tremors : wry, knowing and tough as old boots. Always a reliable bet if you need someone to give a cast a much-needed injection of badassery.

In Their Own Words: “I think it’s better for the picture to have as much of me as it can.”

Brendan Gleeson

That Guy From: Braveheart (1995), Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997), 28 Days Later (2002), Cold Mountain (2003), Harry Potter (2005 – 2010), In Bruges (2008), Green Zone (2010), The Guard (2011)

Why They’re Great: With his roguish smile and likeable face, Brendan Gleeson has a habit of appearing in minor roles and making them into a film’s star attraction. Such is his popularity, he’s started taking starring roles… albeit slightly unusual ones. Regretful hitmen and drug-snorting coppers don’t exactly make for conventional leading men!

In Their Own Words: “The whole point of film for me is that it’s such a joy. It’s such a wonder. The possibilities are literally endless in terms of what you can creatively do.”

Michael Shannon

That Guy From: Tigerland (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), Vanilla Sky (2001), 8 Mile (2002), The Woodsman (2004), Bug (2006), Before The Devil Knows Your Dead (2007), Revolutionary Road (2008), Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009), Take Shelter (2011)

Why They’re Great: One of the youngest names on this list, Michael Shannon is probably the hottest character actor to have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Having quietly made an impression in a mixture of blockbusters and indies, he finally bagged the role his talent so obviously deserves as paranoid apocalypse-fearer Curtis in Take Shelter . With a role in Man Of Steel on the horizon, the film world is soon to be his oyster.

In Their Own Words:
[ On celebrity ] “It’s strange; it’s not anything I ever imagined happening to me. Maybe some people planned for it and it’s like their ambition to be famous but I just always enjoyed working.”

Gary Cole

That Guy From: To Live And Die In LA (1985), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), Gang Related (1997), A Simple Plan (1998), Office Space (1999), The Gift (2000), Dodgeball (2004), Talladega Nights (2006), Pineapple Express (2008)

Why They’re Great: Having initially carved out a career playing tough guys on both sides of the law, Cole has enjoyed great success tapping into his comic ability with hilarious turns as Office Space ’s loathsome boss and Pineapple Express ’s OTT drug lord. Long may his oddball appeal endure!

In Their Own Words: [ On his epic chase scene with William Petersen in To Live And Die In LA ] “I never ran so much in a day in my life. It was running there, it was running across the bridge, and it was running through the industrial park, and finally Billy tackles me and roughs me up. We ran all day long!”

Alfred Molina

That Guy From: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981), Maverick (1994), Species (1995), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Chocolat (2000), Frida (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Hoax (2007), An Education (2009), Rango (2011)

Why They’re Great: One of Britain’s finest character actors, Molina is equally at home playing good-hearted softies ( An Education ) as he is with a scenery-chewing villain ( Spider-Man 2 ). He’s enjoyed a charmed life in Hollywood terms, with very few clunkers cluttering up his CV. When your very first Hollywood role comes in Raiders Of The Lost Ark , you know you’re probably on to a good thing.

In Their Own Words: “When you’re kind of my size and look the way I do, leading man romantic leads aren’t going to come your way.”

Kevin Bacon

That Guy From: Animal House (1978), Friday The 13th (1980), Footloose (1984), Tremors (1990), JFK (1991), A Few Good Men (1992), The River Wild (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), Wild Things (1998), Hollow Man (2000), Mystic River (2003), The Woodsman (2004), Frost/Nixon (2008), X-Men: First Class (2011)

Why They’re Great: In contrast to most on this list, Bacon began his career by doing the leading man thing, only to change tack and focus on more interesting, unusual parts. The Woodsman was the pinnacle of that career change, with Bacon seemingly achieving the impossible with his uncomfortable presentation of a wholly sympathetic paedophile.

In Their Own Words: [ On The Woodsman ] “If playing this kind of a role could have a negative effect on my public personality, I don’t care. I’ll play anything, if I think there’s something compelling, or there’s a director I’m dying to work with, or a part I hadn’t done before or a co-star I think is great.”

William Fichtner

That Guy From: Malcolm X (1992), Quiz Show (1994), Heat (1995), Armageddon (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001). Equilibrium (2002), Crash (2004), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), Drive Angry (2011)

Why They’re Great:
An extremely accomplished actor, we like nothing better than seeing William Fichtner turned loose on a role in which he can give the scenery a good gnaw. His flamboyant turn in the gloriously silly Drive Angry is the kind of thing we’re talking about, although he’s well capable of subtler performances too. The kind of actor that instantly raises your hopes about a film, even if logic should tell you to steer well clear…

In Their Own Words: [ On his Drive Angry scenery-chewing ] “I asked for toothpicks, what can I say? I think this is the best role I’ve ever had.”

Bryan Cranston

That Guy From: That Thing You Do (1996), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Drive (2011), Larry Crowne (2011), Contagion (2011), John Carter (2012)

Why They’re Great: Having slogged away in TV for decades, Bryan Cranston is suddenly everywhere. Much of that success can be traced back to his electric performance in TV show Breaking Bad , and now his craggily charming star has never been higher. With three more titles in post-production as we speak, he’s only going to get bigger in coming years…

In Their Own Words: “I’ve got a whole mantel just waiting for those awards to come, a whole big mantel. There’s just so much available space. I’ve got the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, all ready to shine on them. I dust it off every day.”

Helena Bonham Carter

That Girl From: Howards End (1992), Frankenstein (1994), Fight Club (1999), Planet Of The Apes (2001), Big Fish (2003), Corpse Bride (2005), Harry Potter (2007 – 2011), Sweeney Todd (2007), The King’s Speech (2010)

Why They’re Awesome:
Mrs. Tim Burton is an interesting one. If any other director insisted on casting their wife in every film they make, people would probably complain, but given that Bonham Carter is such a watchable performer, nobody seems to mind. Twice recognised with Academy Award nominations, the eccentric star is rapidly approaching “national treasure” status, a pidgeonholing title she would no doubt abhor…

In Their Own Words: “I’m drawn to emotionally damaged characters because there is more to unlock.”

Ron Perlman

That Guy From: Sleepwalkers (1992), Cronos (1993), Romeo Is Bleeding (1993), The Island Of Dr. Moreau (1996), Alien: Resurrection (1997), Enemy At The Gates (2001), Blade 2 (2002), Hellboy (2004), Drive (2011)

Why They’re Awesome: A classically trained actor, it wouldn’t be unkind to describe Perlman as unusual looking. However, those looks have eventually worked to his advantage, with Guillermo Del Toro’s casting of him as Hellboy propelling him into the Hollywood big leagues. Now an established telly star thanks to Sons Of Anarchy , Perlman has the best of both worlds: worldwide recognition and his pick of a slew of offbeat, interesting characters.

In Their Own Words: “I’ve always felt there were aspects of me that were monstrous, and you can either hide from it or confront it, embrace it and understand that those are aspects that make you unique and define you and motivate you.”

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