Parts that Didn’t Have Names
In a New York Times article about actors who play the minor roles, Stephen Tobolowsky gives a superb tribute.
Here is a taste to encourage people to read the entire article:
I am a character actor: the perfect combination of ubiquity and anonymity.
What makes the character actor different from our brethren who handle the leading roles?
My fellow actor and writer Larry Miller described it perfectly: “The definition of a character actor is anyone in the movie not kissing Renée Zellweger.”
I tend to think of it a little more scientifically. There is one thing that character actors have in common: we have all played parts that didn’t have names.
When you are Harrison Ford you play Richard Kimble or Han Solo. You have a first and last name, and the writer has thought enough about you to give you a life. Harrison Ford’s characters eat, sleep, drink coffee, shave, shower (from the back only, waist up), read the newspaper, get dressed, drive to work, run for their lives, shoot guns, deliver stirring oratory to alien warlords and possibly kiss Renée Zellweger — all because they have been named.
The Bite of Having No Name
I personally have felt the bite of having no name. …Do not be deceived, however—the acting of minor characters has to be just as full and vibrant as that of the major ones.
The only difference is that the parts with no names have been somewhat abandoned by the screenwriters, so it is the job of the character actor to bring substance to the role. That may take imagination, research or just plain prayer. But it has to be done. The character actor has to bring the complete person to the set, ready to roll with the punches.
The Lead and the Support
My first day on “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray shook hands with me and said, “Hello, nice to meet you — now show me what you’re going to do.” I jumped into a few enormously energetic moments of Ned Ryerson and Bill held up his hand. “Fine, fine, you can do that,” he said. “It’s funny.” Bill walked away.
I then asked the director, Harold Ramis, if I should play Ned a little more down to earth. Harold laughed and said: “No. Bill is the lead. He’s the stew. When you are a supporting character, you are the spice in the stew. Have fun.”
Every Part an Opportunity
Maury Chaykin was the epitome of the spice in the stew. One night in Montana, when Maury and I were shooting the family comedy “Josh and S.A.M.,” we were chatting as we waited for the cameras to get ready. Maury was playing “Pizza Man” with his usual deranged flair. I asked him how he was enjoying the movie. He shrugged and said: “It’s a part. Every part is an opportunity.” I asked, “An opportunity for what?”
Maury grinned like the Cheshire Cat: “I guess we’ll find out tonight.”
The Blessing of Anonymity
Like Maury and the rest, the very best character actors are made of equal parts discipline and madness, and the fact that our faces are more familiar than our names is not our curse, but our blessing.
The character actor’s goal, after all, is not to earn the adulation of the public; it is to give lives to a hundred nameless spirits who make us laugh or cry, who are both familiar and new, who show us that their journey is our journey, and who, like everyone in the audience, never get to kiss Renée Zellweger.
Stephen Tobolowsky, They Had Great Character, New York Times, 17 September 2010.
Image: “The definition of a character actor is anyone in the movie not kissing Renée Zellweger.” Tom Cruise gets to show he is the stew and not the spice when kissing Renée Zellweger in the film, ‘Jerry Maguire’.