top of page

Some of my favourite Character Actors - Part One - Americans

For some time now I'd wanted to do a blog about the glue that really holds the front line of my industry together - The Character Actor. I think I need to make it clear at the start of this blog that in my humble view any of the actors mentioned here could do the leading role and carry any movie and some of them certainly will (or even have done so already) The definition of the 'character actor' has come to mean different things over the last few decades in the industry and due to the variety and quality of excellent work out there, many such actors are no longer considered to be on the B list for supporting roles only and are in fact at the top of their game with few others who can rival their own abilities. But in a production meeting, theirs is unlikely to be the first name put forward by a producer as eminently bankable for box office (As shameful as that might be)

I've confined my choices to actors who are still living and in the case of this first batch all Americans. I can honestly say any of the following would be first pick for me and I really want to give them their due. There are many actors who have made a very successful career out of play the more unusual roles, but these roles can often be the most interesting and the most challenging. Some actors have that gift to be almost chameleon like in their appearance, having the ability to be your dashing hero in one role or your crazy scientist or hard drinking cop in the next. Those actors fortunate enough to carve a niche in such roles are often thespians who can perform a wide range of characters. In fact many are so talented, their careers often soar to new heights and as character types in new dramas become less and less predictable, they can find themselves leading a film or even getting their own show. (The wonderfully talented Bob Odenkirk who stole the show in Breaking Bad and went into to Better Call Saul would be an excellent example of such success.) As a director, who makes a point to follow the work of actors I admire, I have been lucky to meet and even work with some of the best 'character actors' on the planet, who I consider among the finest of their generation. It has to be said that I've also found them, for the most part, to be far more approachable and grounded than those propelled too quickly to the lofty heights of the A list. (Judi Dench aside, who's at the top of a list all of her own in any case) Their careers tend to be more varied and interesting for one thing, so here's a few of my faves and some speculation as to what I'd love to cast them in if I could. Not in any particular order, these are some of my favourite American character actors and I should add, I could think of another 50 people I would have loved to put on this list, but I ain't got time to write a blog that long, any more than you might have the time to read it. So here's ten of the many!


When I say Donal's name to people in conversation, it's a case of having to show a photo of him before they say 'Ohhhh that guy! Yeah, he's great!' And he literally is great in everything he is in. Donal first came to my attention in a small role in the criminally overlooked film 'And The Band Played On' which took a hard look at the AIDS epidemic way before the recent drama 'It's a Sin' was even conceived. The film was especially poignant for me as my closest cousin died of an Aids related illness on my birthday, on the year of its release. Donal would go on to have supporting roles in films like The Patriot with Mel Gibson, before playing the lead role in comedy The Tao of Steve and went on to do a whole plethora of film and television work. Recurring roles in drama staples like ER, Life & Grounded for Life led to a period where he was almost never not working. He's had prominent roles in several of my favourite shows including Sons of Anarchy, Vikings and Copper. He's taken on roles from everything to Harvey Dent in Gotham, to co starring as the lead in the short lived comedy drama Terriers. In addition to being an actor with the most incredible range he's got a precise knack for comedy, so you might also recognise him from his hilarious turn as Jimmy the New York Taxi driver, which has been a skit that Donal has revisited many times over the years. Donal was due to do a role in my film The Journey, which ultimately clashed with filming of Copper, so sadly I lucked out, but I am pretty certain we'll get to work together in my lifetime and I've had the honour of having my work described by him as some of the most talented writing he's ever read. He's attached to a couple of projects of mine and has always taken the time to read my work. I'm pretty sure one of the reasons he doesn't stop working is because he's just one of the most decent human beings you'll ever meet and I am most fortunate to consider him a close friend.


I'm not over stating it when I say this woman is one the most talented actors living on the planet. She has the most incredible range and depth in her performances and has played everything from bereaved widows to blue aliens; the wonderful CCH Pounder just makes every role she's in all her own. Although I certainly saw her in many roles before then, CC first came to my attention with her recurring role in the King of all medical drama series ER. In its prime ER was simply one of the most gripping television series of the 1990s. It's ensemble cast were all first rate actors who really earned their emotional arcs and they had me gripped from week to week and it was a show I tried really hard to get a job on. That show tackled many a topical issue and many of my favourite actors would take guest spots in episodes over time. It was one of the shows where I actually enjoyed spotting talented actors early in their careers, who I would look out for again. CC was one such actor. Over her career she has appeared in so many superb shows including several of my personal favourites - Sons of Anarchy and Warehouse 13. But for me, her career defining role was as Detective Claudette Wyms in my all time favourite cop show - The Shield. It was her partnership with know it all Detective Dutch Wagenbach (A superb turn from Jay Karnes) that in my view, led to some of the best acting of her career. Her character had a fantastic arc and was played with a beautiful vulnerability that few actors could have portrayed with such subtlety and nuance as the way CC did. I was so chuffed to see her in Avatar which I am sure gave her the pay cheque she had so richly earned, I was recently being interviewed by two black female actresses and when they asked who I wanted to work with CC was at the top of the list. When they didn't know who she was by name, I had to chastise them accordingly! I have absolutely no doubt that the career of this remarkable actress has inspired many of her junior contemporaries. I've a project in the works which if it happens, down the road, I know exactly which role I would want CC to play, not to mention she'd be perfect for the role of the widow of Efford Chabala in my Zambian football script We Are Home. Only time will tell.

3) TIM THOMERSON - 'Dry hairs for squids....'

As my friends from school will tell you, any film starring the solid, dependable and funny Tim Thomerson was an automatic video rental during our Saturday trips to the local video shop. If he was in it, we would hire it and more often than not we were not disappointed. It would not be unkind to say at one time he was something of the King of the video B movie and also can boast (in the unlikely event that he should ever need to do) as one of two actors whose careers I decided I would follow and watch all their films that came out (the other was Kevin Bacon, the third was Tom Hanks) While he continued working on a wide range of films and television roles throughout his career, in the video boom decade Thomerson was King of the low budget independents. He has had a long and varied career including regular roles on several television series including Sirens & Lands End. During the 1980s and early 1990s (which saw the rise and fall of Charles Bands Empire Pictures) Thomerson would earn a cult following by taking on the Blade Runneresque role of Jack Death in the cult hit Trancers, a man who used lots of hair gel to be sure but Thomerson really made the character memorable and it was such a success that it would see no less than four sequels. He did a number of other roles for Bands company, many of which have since been re-released under his Moon Pictures label including Dollman and Zone Troopers, which anyone who rented as relentlessly as I did back in the 80s might remember as not altogether brilliant films, but no less short on fun and ambition. Thomerson took on more serious fare including in the often forgotten and very first Vietnam veteran rescue movie, the hugely underrated Uncommon Valour, in which he starred opposite Gene Hackman, as Charts, a helicopter pilot with PTSD, a role which in the hands of a less skillful actor would have been easily forgotten. His stint in the Tom Hanks / John Candy comedy 'Volunteers' about the best intentions of the Peace Corps, saw him send up other roles he'd played with great gusto and he struck me as a man who was never afraid to poke fun at himself. I've never met or spoken to Thomerson in person (apart from meeting his absolute double a couple of years back in Cannes who swears he was not him but told me he gets asked that all the time - go figure!) so I have no idea what he would be like to work with, but he's always struck me as an actor who would bring a positive energy to any set and give any role given to him, his all. He's another actor who's never stopped working but I felt he really should have been given the chance to carry a film in a role worthy of any actor in Hollywood, because believe me, he could have handled it. At 74 the window for me to work with this great and vastly overlooked talent is closing but perhaps Quentin Tarantino will step in and give him a plummy role, because I am certain he must be a fan. Tim, if I had the chance, I'd work with you in a heartbeat.


It's hard to pin exactly when Kim Coates firmly came onto my radar as an actor but I did take 25 people to see the opening weekend of Blackhawk Down for my Birthday at the Empire Leicester Square (an event that was famous for my friend Mark Chawner doing a runner before paying his share of the bill at the restaurant, than it was for anything else.) I'd seen Coates in a couple of other roles including Pearl Harbour (which to my shame I inflicted upon 16 of my cast for a play as a surprise night out... yeah, imagine how that went down!) and spotted him in Waterworld retrospectively but it was his small but prominent turn in Kevin Kostner's excellent Open Range that made me follow his work. (let's forget about Battlefield Earth, yeah, not gonna bold that one!) He had one of those faces when you put him up on screen, you can't really take your eyes off him, so I made a note to look out for him, certain that someone would give him a chance with a role where he would really make his mark and boy did he do just that. In the interim before what many would call his defining role, Coates really got to really make his mark in two great shows: Prison Break and CSI Miami, where he brought appropriate gravitas to his roles. If these two shows gave him a solid base of credit as an actor it was his role as Tigs in Sons of Anarchy that perhaps defined his career to date. The rather sexually diverse biker who was amenable to all kinds of ways of getting his rocks off yet had a sensitive as well as a brutal side to his persona. His conflicted character would often find himself in the middle of all kinds of schemes, yet you were always rooting for him. I am willing to bet that the writers didn't have it in mind that his character would survive to the final chapter but thanks to Koates skillful performance, his popularity was thus that ending his character storyline prematurely would have only been the gravest of mistakes but fortunately the shows creators were not slow to recognise this and gave him more depth and a great arc as the show unfolded. More recent fare has shown Coates take on an ever increasing diverse range of roles and not only that, but he has lent his name to small indy films like Coldbrook, which probably wouldn't have secured the funding without actors of his calibre putting their name to the project. More recently he's been a series regular in three vastly different shows: Ghost Wars, Godless & Bad Blood. I'm sure we've still to see a great deal more from Mr Coates. I've got about a dozen roles he could play in several scripts, but I'd love to see him do Charles Bronson in my making of the Magnificent Seven stage play. Here's hoping.


Few actors can claim to have played such a wide range of roles as this talented man. Making his debut in the Susan Sarandon/Sean Penn vehicle Dead Man Walking, Sarsgaard followed this with several decent roles in a mix of films but it was as the narcissistic John Lotter in Boy's Don't Cry that he really showed his acting chops. A solid and dependable performer he always brings something different to every role he takes on. When he appeared in K-19 The Widowmaker, alongside a friend of mine, I asked my buddy what he was like. They described him as an extremely pleasant and very talented young man. That put him on my 'want to work with list' straight away. A rather long and boring flight back from Los Angeles was made a little more entertaining for me when I decided to watch Shattered Glass, a film which didn't receive much of a release in the UK, but is well worth your time. Sarsgaard is the new newspaper editor who suspects his star reporter (Hayden Christensen) might be embellishing some of his stories in order to gain notoriety. Watch the scene where together they call the fake computer software company to see Sarsgaard skillfully underplay a scene to great effect. Sarsgaard has been in so many film and television shows that there's still much of his work I've yet to see including what he personally cites as his proudest performance; playing a man on death row in Season 3 of The Killing (Peter I am on the case!) Of his more recent work I really rated him in the excellent series The Looming Tower, which if you haven't watched, you must.

As an actor, his vast range and versatile repertoire can be partly explained by the fact that this is a man who flits between both big budget and independent films (good on your sir for supporting the little people!) then regularly returning to the stage to perform his craft and has appeared in both on and off Broadway productions. I wish I could have seen his Hamlet, which judging by an interview he gave, sounded as if it would have been very fresh and exciting. The man has already received tremendous critical acclaim for numerous performances and although he hasn't won it yet, but I'll stick my neck out now and say Mr Sarsgaard will win an Academy Award in his lifetime, not to mention an Emmy or two. I'd count myself lucky if I ever got to work with him. I'd love to do a Western with four brothers, I would cast Mr Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Wes Bently and Frank Whaley as that family. I always wanted to do a remake or a nod to The Sons of Katie Eldar. Damn, what a line up of talent that would be! (And if you don't know who Frank Whaley is watch the indy film A Midnight Clear. Superb.) When it comes to Mr Sarsgaard, I know if I watch something with him in it, the chances are it's going to be good.


This actress is another new edition for me but no less worthy a mention than anyone else on this list. Ms Martindale is someone whose work I only focused on recently when I caught her in the indy film The Hollars, which was the directing debut of John Kranski of The Office fame. She gave an incredibly touching performance as an ailing Mother bringing her family together one last time before shuffling off her mortal coil and she played the role so, so well that even though I knew I'd seen her in literally hundreds of roles, it was this performance that made me track down her work more extensively. Martindale has been a hard working jobbing actor since the late 1980s. Often cast as the friendly neighbour, barmaid, Mother or amenable Aunt, a number of memorable television roles led to Martindale grabbing decent bit parts in several high brow feature films early in her career including; The Rocketeer, The Firm, Days of Thunder and Twilight. She would go onto to secure recurring roles in several television shows, including Medium, Dexter, The Riches but really came into her own in the comedy sitcom, The Millers, as the overbearing parent of her recently single son. In August: Osage County, she easily held her own against such heavy weights as Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper (Another great character actor) Sam Shepard and Julia Roberts. Clearly a woman with a sense of humor she was happy to send herself up in Bo-Jack Horseman playing a role she was destined to play - Character Actress Margaret Martindale! More recently she appears in two series worth checking out: Mrs America and Your Honor, starring alongside Bryan Cranston. I think she's one of the finest actresses of her generation and makes many a role in the hands of someone less skilled, might feel mundane, absolutely unforgettable. If I can ever get 13 Seconds in Kent State commissioned as a mini series, I'd cast her as one of the parents of the students who were killed.


Now, I didn't want this list to be people that already had huge bodies of work under their belt. I wanted to give a plug to at least a couple of actors in a much earlier stage in their career and few have had a life as interesting as Richard Cabral. If there was ever an example of a Cinderella story in the acting ranks, it would be his. I am a huge fan of the television drama show Southland, and it was in this very show that he made his debut playing a latino gang member, a role for which he had extensive real life research to draw from. Involved in East LA gangs at an extremely young age, Cabral did a prison stretch for assault with a deadly weapon at 15. Upon his release aged 25, he was determined to turn his life around and turn it around he did. He has one of those faces that you can't take your eyes off of on screen. A kind of latino Keith Gordon (Who was one of my favourite actors from the 80s and would later mentor me as a writer). Cabral did various similar roles before getting a substantial part as Hector Tonz in American Crime. This in turn led to him being cast in the Lethal Weapon television series, something I will confess, I've not watched. An actor with such a specific background and look as the tattooed Cabral who is not afraid to show his roots, might find themselves limited when it comes to casting, but I get the sense that there's people in the industry who have his back and are actually writing roles specifically for him. The uber talent that is Kurt Sutter, clearly spotted his talents and I felt his performance as Johnny 'Coco' Cruz, was the most endearing character in Mayans M.C Season One and while that show found its feet, he was certainly one of the things that kept me tuning in every week and I'm pleased to see it's coming back for a third season. (Don't kill him off please!) An actor like Cabral can bring a level of emotional realism to a part that only someone who has experienced the life journey he has had, can imbue into a role. I just love watching this guy, he's got such a presence without even having to try and that's his gift. He's recently attached to star in the second indy feature of director Joseph Pernice, The Night Between Us. I for one, cannot wait to see it. In my Diamonds In The Sky book series, there's a Mexican storyline coming up in book 3, guess who one of those characters is inspired by? Yup, tatts an all, Mr Cabral.


Brooks is a tough one to squeeze into this category, because he not only had a career as a director fairly early on, he's got the lead part in several films he's written and directed and isn't just a character actor for hire but he's certainly done his fair share of roles in that category. But I just love the work of this man and wanted to give him a shout out and if not now, when? He's 73 and not getting any younger! Not many off the wall actors get to direct and star in their own vehicles but by the time he was in his 40s, he was doing just that. Make no mistake, he'd worked his butt off to get to that position, just read his history and you will see what I mean. My introduction to Mr Brooks was in the outstanding performance he gave as the third lead in the film Broadcast News, playing the passed over but quick witted reporter who was in love with his long time Producer, (Holly Hunter in her finest role) a love which was destined to remain unrequited. Brooks not only had brilliant comedy timing with this character but he could turn a role on its head in an instant, with very affecting underplayed moments in his performance. There's a scene in Broadcast News which has been played at many a Christmas Movie Quiz of mine where Brooks is on the phone to his producer who is in turn coaching his replacement. 'I say it here, it comes out there...' this was just an outstanding moment of cinema. I saw this film at the packed out (now sadly gone) Odeon Haymarket and the audience were rolling in aisles. Brooks wrote, directed and starred in several of his own vehicles of which I highly recommend the first three; The 1981 comedy Modern Romance, followed by his own nod to Easy Rider with Lost In America which told the truth of what may happen if you give it all up and try and have a road movie adventure of your own. It had a very limited release in the UK and was a film I was constantly recommending to my friends and still introduce to newbies even as recently as last Christmas. This was followed up in 1988 with Defending Your Life, which I saw on my first visit to the states. He starred across from Meryl Streep, a story about the afterlife, which was both funny and touching, Streep and Brooks have an ease of chemmisty together on screen which is rare. Brooks has done a huge amount of voice over work for shows such as The Simpsons and animated features like The Secret Life of Pets but he's played the straight man to great affect a couple of times too. I've only briefly touched on his career here and it was a toss up between him and Charles Grodin of Midnight Run fame on this list. (Another great pairing as brothers they would make, good, they would act the socks off each other) If I could cast him in any project of mine, I'd cast him as Governor James Rhodes in 13 Seconds in Kent State, a role which would be a real departure for him, but which he'd be amazing in. You never know, keep eating the vitamins and healthy living Albert! (I'll try and do the same)


Now as someone who is a recent fan of the superb drama series Queen Sugar, I'm a bit of a late arrival on following Ms Liffords career. Sure, I'd seen her in things before (I even remember her cameo as an addict in New Jack City) but as she carved a very successful career playing recurring characters in multiple television shows, including: Parenthood, South Central and Crisis Centre, these were shows that sadly passed me by. (I mean you can't watch everything and when it came to medical shows, ER was mine, which she also briefly appeared in) But I did spot her in Grand Canyon and Deep Space Nine which I watched religiously back in the day. She's done a huge range of roles playing everything from Judges to Doctors, Police Officers to CIA Directors but if you want to see Lifford in her element, performing a role so effortlessly she unintentionally steals every scene she's in then you need to see her play Violet Borderlon in Queen Sugar. There's two characters that keep me watching that show and Violet is one of them. The sassy cake baking Violet is the subtle beating heart of the show and it's a role she was born to play. It's one of those dream parts where an actor gets to show their full range of emotions as her character deals with everything from man troubles to dealing with a lupus diagnosis. You can also catch her in the remake of the New Zealand show Filthy Rich, but if you want to see just how brilliant this woman is, start with Queen Sugar, from the brilliant creative wand of Ava DuVernay. I suspect this role was written for her, if so, deservedly so. I sure hope I get to do the same one day. More than anything I would love to direct her in a play.


Recently Steve Coogan was not slow to recognise the talents of this phenomenal actor. Along with Thomerson on this list, he's probably the actor that I have followed the longest. I went to the very first UK screening of Casualties of War, a gut wrenching true story of a terrible atrocity which took place in Vietnam, in which he played the role of the easily led Private Hatcher opposite Sean Penn and Michael J Fox. One of the reasons I remember the film so well (apart from having watched it three times since) is because I had two tickets for the premiere and I was stood up! So I went into the film in an utterly foul mood but soon forgot all about my would be date. He would soon gain roles in a number of feature films including Days of Thunder, State of Grace and The River Wild where he had a more meaty role, but it wasn't until I saw him in Boogie Nights that I realised how much depth he could put into the hapless roles he often portrayed. Frequently cast as insecure characters who were normally followers over leaders, this gave Reilly a chance to build a superb body of work in a variety of well written roles where he was given the chance to make the characters his own. Although he's often lent his talent to deliberately comedic roles such as Walk Hard and his bat shit crazy Doctor Steve vignettes for Adult Swim, I find him most effecting where he plays the straight man who is often unintentionally funny, carrying around issues which he stumbles to communicate to other characters. He completely transformed for the role of Oliver Hardy in Stan & Laurel, perfectly cast across from Mr Coogan, a part he would not have been an obvious choice for. He's taken on a huge range of roles since and more recently I highly recommend you check him out in Moonbase 8, a charming little comedy, where he's an aspiring but bumbling astronaut. A friend of mine recently worked with him on the not so successful Holmes & Watson and it was lovely to hear that he is the nicest of people. In my humble view he was at his most brilliant as the lonely Police Officer in Paul Thomas Andersons masterpiece Magnolia. I just love his performance in that film and his scenes with Melora Walters were just so beautifully vulnerable, as these two dysfunctional people find love in one another, it was one of those rare moments that captured such a moment of human frailty so perfectly. Mr Reilly is always in demand and if I was ever lucky enough to work with him I'd cast him in the straightest role possible, something completely against his type. He'd be perfect.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page