All About the Character Actor – In Celebration of the Evan Arnolds of the World

For this week’s CIT Vault article we thought we’d revisit an article that debunks some of the negative connotations of the term “character actor.”  There are worse careers than making a living as an actor under the radar.

He’s a character actor,” you may hear one day while leaving your audition for the biggest pilot of the year. “Not fit for our lead.”

A line such as the above can feel like a death sentence for actors. Hollywood is known for its starlets and handsome leading men, and there’s a great fear of being left behind and not having an opportunity to shine. However, it’s mostly a misconception that you are missing out if you’re not the leading man or woman. In fact, sometimes our “character actors” most often have the chance to stand out, to show what they’ve got without having to stay within the parameters of “perfect” and “beautiful”.

Before we go into the pros and cons of the label of “character actor”, it’s important to understand the definition of such a term. According to dictionary.com, a “character actor” is defined as “an actor that specializes in playing odd or eccentric characters” or “an actor that plays supporting roles.” In films, television, and theater, these roles are generally the comedic relief or the eccentric villain—usually either aiding our hero or heroine or playing the antagonist against them.

While it doesn’t sound ideal to be the “sidekick” all the time, it’s important to remember the opportunities you have as a performer when playing the cohort of the lead. In film and television narratives, generally our hero and heroine are running towards a goal. As the sidekick, the best friend, the villain—you’re the wrench in the plans. You lead them off course. You create the tension and the drama and the comedy that keeps the storyline moving forward. Without the “best friend” or the “character actors”, there would be no compelling narratives.

It’s important to remember that because you may be labeled as a “character actor”, it doesn’t mean you’re never going to have your moment. Johnny Depp, arguably one of the biggest and most famous actors in the world, has made his career being a character actor. Think about it—Jack Sparrow, the eccentric pirate that helms the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, is the comic relief and sidekick to our hero, Will Turner, and our heroine, Elizabeth Swann. He’s played the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland to the sweet, lost Alice, and most recently will play Tonto to Armie Hammer’s Lone Ranger in Disney’s The Lone Ranger. Another actor that’s made being a “character actor” his career is Daniel Day-Lewis. While Leonardo DiCaprio ran through the Five Points in Gangs of New York as the “hero”, everyone remembers Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher the most.

There are also actors that straddle the line between being the leading man and character actor – for example, Zachary Quinto of Heroes and Star Trek fame. While Quinto isn’t known as the quintessential leading man, he’s always been able to capture the audience with his portrayals of characters like Sylar and Spock. His work in American Horror Story has also earned him a Critics’ Choice Television Award this year. His Star Trek co-star, Chris Pine, is on the other end of the spectrum—mostly known for his leading man work. However, had a  turn as the eccentric bad guy in Joe Anderson’s Smokin’ Aces, played the hippie wine-maker in Bottle Shock, and an arrogant jerk in the independent zombie film, Carriers. On the actress side, we have Kristen Wiig, first a star on SNL and then a big-screen breakout star with Bridesmaids. Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock have also successfully turned the “character actor” into the most compelling part of their films by stealing the moment from the more conventional leading ladies.

Being labeled as a “character actor” used to hold a stigma, one that meant you were always destined to be forgotten by way of the beautiful actor or actress headlining the movie.  These days it can mean just as much notoriety, and most obviously, steady work. Character actors are just as in demand as the handsome leads that grace the cover of magazines– and often they have more of a shelf-life then the stereotypical Hollywood actors. Don’t be dejected if you’re not immediately brought in for the leads of certain television shows and films! Rather, be grateful that more doors are open to you. As an actor, you should always embrace who you are and use that as an asset to bring into the room. There’s no sense in striving to be something you’re not, and it shows when you go into a room with confidence, knowing you can bring something to whatever character you’re reading for that no one else can. Don’t let labels and stereotypes get you down and remember that boxes aren’t always square—just because you’re auditioning for the “character actor” roles now it doesn’t mean you won’t have a successful, prosperous career.

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tara McGrath started her career in entertainment mainly because she couldn't see a life where she wasn't surrounded and inspired by actors in some way or another. After graduating from SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Theatre Arts and Film with a degree in Screenwriting, she worked for a year at Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. Interning under their casting department with casting directors Carrie Gardner and Jim Carnahan, she assisted in casting such productions as Spring Awakening, American Idiot and Fox's hit show, Glee. From there she moved 3,000 miles to Los Angeles and for the last year has been working for a well-known boutique talent agency in West Hollywood. She has also worked as a reader and marketing assistant for the Blue Cat Screenwriting Competition and has worked on independent features as both producer's assistant and P.A.

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