Rather than a chiseled chin and piercing blue eyes, they deal in eccentric hairstyles and world-weary wrinkles. Fans are likely to remember them for specific scenes, rather than the movies in which they unfurled. Quite often, their yearly output is two to three times the amount of your typical leading man.
They are the supporting actors, and moviegoers have learned to love them dearly. But when it comes down to the exact nature of what they do so well, even the cream of the crop can't quite agree on what "supporting" really means.
"Your job, as an actor in general, is to service the story," explained Steve Zahn, the affable actor who created memorable characters with minimal screen time in flicks like "Out of Sight" and "Daddy Day Care." "Hence, your lead actor is the story."
"The leading man, for one thing, he gets the girl," said Christopher Walken, whose greatest successes have come while stealing scenes from lead actors rather than being one. "You just hope that the scenes you do are good."
The fact of the matter is that, ever since there have been movies, there have been two types of supporting stars: Those who support the lead actor (from Walter Brennan to Ned Beatty to Danny Huston) and those who steal the movie away from them (from Peter Lorre to Ernest Borgnine to Christopher Walken). Which is the better method? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
"What you want to do is tell the story properly — you want to feed the story, whatever that is," answered Jon Voight, an Oscar-winning lead actor who has spent the past decade chewing on meaty supporting scenes in flicks like "Ali" and "Holes." "You have a job to do, and you want to come in and do it. It's like being on the bench — I played basketball, I was on the bench a lot, and you'd come in and you'd want to score a few points and help the team out."
But in movies ranging from "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" to "Billy Madison" and "Con Air," Steve Buscemi (who many see as a modern-day Lorre) wasn't content to just come off the bench. Instead, his brief camera time was dominated by a showy slam-dunk.
According to Buscemi, the reason he chooses such roles is the same as why the directors want him. "I know going in that I'm gonna have fun," he said of his criteria, "and I'm gonna have a character that's gonna be challenging to play."
That explanation is roughly the same for a younger supporting star, chameleon-esque Giovanni Ribisi (see "Giovanni Ribisi: Better Known Than Another 'Perfect Stranger,' Balki Bartokomous?") — but in his mind, a few scenes in something like "Saving Private Ryan" or "Lost in Translation" don't put the burden on him to "support" anyone. "I don't look at myself like that," he said of the label. "The people who inspired me were the character actors — which is kind of paraphrasing the supporting actor — that came to the forefront and were leading men. Men like the Robert De Niros, the Dustin Hoffmans and Al Pacinos. For me, ultimately, [taking on any role] is about the experience and the character."
To divide things even further, you then get into your supporting actors who readily admit to hoping a brilliant performance in a movie like "Thirteen Days" will open the door for a Paul Giamatti-esque ascension to lead-actor status. "I don't want to be trapped in those leading-man roles," laughed Bruce Greenwood, who acted alongside Denzel Washington in "Déjà Vu" and joined Will Smith for "I, Robot." "That's why I've avoided the leading-man thing — I've avoided becoming a star. I've had to work very hard at it. I've been offered many huge, huge starring parts in major motion pictures."
"I'd rather be a small actor? No!" laughed a more forthcoming Jonathan Pryce, the theatrically trained supporting face in films like "Glengarry Glen Ross" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy. "It's better to be the lead, obviously."
And so, from time to time, a free-thinking director takes the rare chance of giving a supporting star a movie of their own — and the results are often quite fascinating. Whether you're talking about Borgnine in "Marty," Harry Dean Stanton in "Paris, Texas," Richard Farnsworth in "The Straight Story" or Giamatti in "Sideways," each of these actors rose to the occasion. Typically, they are soon pushed back into their "supporting" box — but for the most part, they don't seem to mind.
"I always look at these things as jobs — you're supporting a much higher, bigger purpose within the film," said Adam Goldberg, the "Private Ryan" and "A Beautiful Mind" actor who equates the supporting actor/ lead actor relationship to that of an employee and a CEO. "Your job is just to do your job."
But was Jennifer Hudson a supporting actor in "Dreamgirls"? Was Samuel L. Jackson a supporting player in "Pulp Fiction"? Quite often, the lines are blurry enough to be downright demeaning.
"Those debates go on in the mind of every Academy voter," explained Sean Astin, who, despite his lengthy screen time in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, was nonetheless viewed as secondary to Elijah Wood. "[The voters and studio thought] Sam is in support of Frodo ... [but] it's an ensemble movie, so everybody feels like a supporting player of everybody."
"I suppose every story and every film requires a different job, in the sense of how you're going to fulfill that role," reasoned Huston ("The Aviator," "The Constant Gardener"). "As an actor, what I like to do is to really dissect a character, practically with a scalpel. I look for the flaws in the character and that's what helps me [to] help the director or help the story evolve."
Sometimes, that evolution takes place in smaller pieces than others.
"I've played the lead. I've been in movies where I've been in every single scene and then, you know, you have a whole story to do your performance," said John Turturro, a subtle leading man in "Box of Moonlight" and a scene-stealing supporter in "The Big Lebowski." "I've done movies where I've been in one scene."
"I've had some juicy parts in 'Pulp Fiction' and 'True Romance,' " Walken said of two unforgettable flicks in which he had only one scene to make an impact. "Being an actor is a little bit of a roll of the dice ... but I have been lucky when it comes to supporting roles."
Of his over-the-top work in "Lebowski," Turturro said things really come together for a supporting star when you can simultaneously have your moment and support the story. "Sometimes you can be very flashy in a role, because everyone is building you up, and then you have to not let the audience down," he grinned. "Then, you can do anything you want to do in order to earn what everyone is talking about."
Whether showy or subtle, supporting actors agree only on one guiding principal: Take it scene by scene — no matter how brief those scenes may be.
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