They’re reliable! They’re versatile! They’re customizable! These are 19 actors who blow us away every time they transform into a new character.
Who: An actor who holds the rare distinction of not only emerging unscathed from the maudlin slog-fest Crash, but actually looking better for his involvement in it. Peña’s breakout performance as a working-class father trying to protect his daughter let him showcase what he does best: Bring personality and vulnerability to stereotypical “tough guy” roles. Despite recently starring in independent productions like End Of Watch and Cesar Chavez, it’s Peña’s scene-stealing supporting turn in Ant-Man that may finally push him closer to becoming a household name. In his hands, low-level criminal Luis is a loquacious comedic creation full of the kind of heart only Peña can deliver.
Usually plays: Police officers, FBI agents, tough guys with a soft side.
Key appearances: Crash, End Of Watch, Fury, Cesar Chavez, Ant-Man. [Caroline Siede]
Who: Massachusetts-bred Ann Dowd inhabits rarified Hollywood territory: a smart, often working-class everywoman. Although she had been working steadily in TV and film since the early ’90s (The X-Files, Philadelphia) her scene-stealing role as Kim Kelly’s short-tempered, long suffering mother in Freaks And Geeks made an indelible impression. Her breakthrough role in controversial indie Compliance netted her numerous award nominations, paving the way for her frighteningly sympathetic portrayal of the severely damaged Patti, leader of the chain-smoking, white-clad Guilty Remnant cult on HBO’s The Leftovers. Her salt of the earth crustiness, balanced with matronly humanity, is Dowd’s gift on screen. She projects world weariness, disappearing so well into characters beaten by life that you can almost visualize Dowd with calloused hands. That’s the true mark of a seasoned character actor.
Usually plays: Mothers, widows, working-class civilians.
Key appearances: Compliance, The Leftovers, Freaks And Geeks. [Drew Fortune]
Who: Stocky, middle-aged pro who alternates meaty theater roles—he’s played Macbeth and done The Seagull on Broadway—with short but memorable appearances in acclaimed films. Camp, who quit acting for a few years in the early 2000s to become a chef and a mechanic, is often cast in villainous side roles, and is rarely afforded the opportunity to be as eloquent on screen as he is on stage. (Leading man roles tend to elude actors of such gruffly ordinary appearance.) But Camp can make a big impression in the smallest of parts, like the crazy homeless thespian in Birdman, bellowing some relevant lines from The Scottish Play at a wandering Michael Keaton. Someone cast him and Ben Mendelsohn as fuck-up brothers, stat.
Usually plays: Brutes, thugs, and lugs.
Key appearances: Compliance, Love & Mercy, 12 Years A Slave [A.A. Dowd]
Who: Red-haired Midwestern everyman, occasionally bespectacled, whose knack for playing relatable, put-upon, white- and blue-collar Joe Schmoes makes him all the more effective at portraying creeps and con men. Healy is liable to pop up in a bit role—usually as someone who’s at least mildly annoyed—almost anywhere, be it a TV procedural or a Marvel movie, but his best work has been in low-budget indies and genre flicks. Whether he’s playing a cash-strapped mechanic in Cheap Thrills or hotel desk clerk in The Innkeepers, the actor has a way of injecting believability—whether it’s desperation or just plain curiosity—into outlandish scenarios.
Usually plays: The stressed, high-strung, and peeved.
Key roles: Cheap Thrills, Great World Of Sound, Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Who: Celebrated New York stage actor who moonlights as a reliable scene-stealer on screens big and small. When not winning awards for her work on and off Broadway—including a Best Actress Tony for her performance in Venus In Fur, opposite Hannibal costar Hugh Dancy—she’s bringing a brassy, bemused confidence to small, generally comic supporting roles, often in movies set in the tri-state area. Playing Janis Joplin in an upcoming biopic could make Arianda a movie star, assuming the film is still happening. If it’s not, she’ll surely have plenty of opportunities to keep punching up the margins of smaller films.
Usually plays: Eccentric and headstrong New Yorkers.
Key appearances: Higher Ground, Rob The Mob, Hannibal. [A.A. Dowd]
Who: A jittery, energetic presence who first came to attention during the second season of The Wire; Ransone made the young and impulsive Chester “Ziggy” Sobotka a bundle of emotional neediness, inserting pathetic bravado in place of confidence. The actor has gone on to specialize in imbuing a host of supporting roles with contradictory impulses—often a weak and insecure core covered over with brash or unusual traits. He stands out both when he’s a flippant motormouth or a soldier with a thousand-yard stare, and his wannabe-badass pimp in Tangerine is worth the price of a rental alone. He’s begun popping up in more mainstream fare, too: His starstruck deputy in Sinister was arguably the best part of that film, which is possibly why he subsequently stepped into the lead role for the sequel. Rarely does someone make wide-eyed awkwardness appear so commanding.
Usually plays: Squirmy, socially awkward guys trying to punch above their weight.
Key appearances: Sinister, Tangerine, Low Winter Sun. [Alex McCown]
Who: Following in the footsteps of so many proud working British actors before him, Jones has bounced between eclectic lead roles in small movies like Infamous (where he played Truman Capote) and Berberian Sound Studio (where he played a movie effects specialist slowly going mad in Italy) and funky bit parts. The son of veteran thespian Freddie Jones—who played the title character’s owner in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man—the squat, distinctive-looking actor has proven surprisingly chameleon-like, using his facility with accents and his ability to shift from sweet to sinister to play sad-sacks, evil geniuses, and Karl Rove.
Usually plays: Socially awkward technocrats and super villains.
Key appearances: Berberian Sound Studio, W., Captain America: The First Avenger. [Noel Murray]
Who: A genre mainstay not to be confused with the similarly named basketball player, Durand may be best-known for his television work like his recurring role as Martin Keamy, a villainous mercenary (and, in the sideways timeline, killer omelet-maker) on Lost. He’s brought his slightly beady-eyed menace to a variety of other bizarre fictional universes: X-Men, Resident Evil, and David Cronenberg’s brain; he also has the unfortunate distinction of appearing in both I Am Number Four and The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones. Even Durand’s weaker genre films benefit from his utility gravitas, which he’s also shown off in more serious movies. He’s as natural as a jerk cop in Fruitvale Station as he is playing the Blob in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where his boxing scene opposite Hugh Jackman points to the pulpier, funnier movie that could have been.
Usually plays: The morally shady or outright corrupt.
Key appearances: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Fruitvale Station, Noah. [Jesse Hassenger]
Who: When Adrian Martinez appeared alongside Will Smith in the con artist caper Focus, it seemed like the fifth or sixth time he’d played a comic-relief sidekick. But this was actually one of his biggest movie roles ever; his merrily round face, long curly hair, and oft-narrowed eyes are just so distinctive that he’s been able to build his familiarity through movies as diverse as The Interpreter, In America, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Kick-Ass, and American Hustle, among many others. Many of his roles in these movies amount to only a scene or two, offering a glimpse into the normal life of someone who’s just brushed up against the movie’s heroes, but Focus and his appearances on Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer prove he’s got the comic goods to do more than just reaction shots.
Usually plays: Clerks, sidekicks, guys named Hector.
Key appearances: Focus, American Hustle, Casa De Mi Padre. [Jesse Hassenger]
Who: Big-eared, rough-featured essential supporting player, equally at ease playing terrifying goons and likable lugs. Boasting one of those colorful backstories that great characters actors are made of—namely, a stint as a pro baseball player in Yeltsin-era Russia—Bernthal has become in-demand in recent years thanks to some standout turns in high-profile films and and his role in the first two seasons of The Walking Dead. Bernthal, who trained as a stage actor at the Moscow Art Theatre and the American Repertory Theater, has a presence and range that goes well beyond fitting a classic that guy physical type, which explains both why he can be so good in smaller roles and why he seems to be on the verge of making a career in bigger ones.
Usually plays: Guys who look like they’ve been hit in the face with a cinder block at least once in their lives.
Key appearances: The Wolf Of Wall Street, Fury. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
11. Ben Mendelsohn
Who: Intense Australian actor who’s been a familiar face at home since his teens, but only began to break through internationally in his 40s, thanks to his role as a psychopathic lowlife in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom. Mendelsohn won the Australian Film Institute’s Best Supporting Actor award at age 18, for his role in The Year My Voice Broke—the movie that also launched the career of fellow long-faced Australian character actor Noah Taylor. Mendelsohn has a knack for playing complicated, conflicted men on the wrong side of the law; no movie better showcases this than David Mackenzie’s Starred Up, in which Mendelsohn plays a violent prison lifer who finds himself facing his son—an juvenile offender transferred into the adult population—behind bars.
Usually plays: Criminals and psychopaths.
Key appearances: Starred Up, Animal Kingdom, Black Sea. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Who: For a guy who had done a lot of high-profile projects, Scoot McNairy tends to blend into his roles like a good character actor should. He has mercurial, nervous energy about him that can be surprisingly visceral, as in his portrayal of frustrated engineer Gordon Clark on AMC’s computer drama Halt And Catch Fire, or the Farsi-speaking civil servant in Argo. He teams up with Ben Affleck once more in the upcoming Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Usually plays: Uptight types with an edge.
Key appearances: Monsters, Halt And Catch Fire, Argo, Killing Them Softly. [Molly Eichel]
Who: The improv-trained comedian is half of one of the funniest duos on TV, anchoring USA’s Playing House with her longtime writing/performing partner Lennon Parham (with whom she also created the short-lived NBC series Best Friends Forever). St. Clair has also become a go-to guest star in movies and television, popping up in everything from The Dictator to Veep to Key & Peele. Her strengths are her big voice and her ability to cut straight through to the intention of a scene, which allows her to take what could’ve been forgettable roles—like Forrest MacNeil’s ex-wife in Review, or a girlfriend the family hates in The McCarthys—and give them color and shape.
Usually plays: Women with outsize personalities and minimal concern for what other people think about them.
Key appearances: Playing House, Best Friends Forever, Review, The McCarthys. [Noel Murray]
Who: With the kind of face that could be both familiar and totally creepy, Jimmi Simpson is best known for playing memorable roles on TV shows, including the disgusting Liam McPoyle on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and hacker Gavin Orsay on House Of Cards. Simpson has a scrawniness about him (see: Lyle The Intern on Late Show With David Letterman) with a darkness lurking beneath.
Usually plays: Psychos, nerdy types.
Key appearances: White House Down, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, House Of Cards. [Molly Eichel]
Who: Handsome, sometimes folksy ensemble player, just oddball enough to seem better suited to flavorful supporting characters than top-billed heroes. Like a lot of actors on this list, Dillahunt has extensive television experience, having scored regular gigs on the sitcom Raising Hope, the short-lived Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and those Western-themed character-actor breeding grounds, Deadwood and Justified. But Dillahunt has also built a strong, distinctive body of work in movies, testing his range in thrillers and dramas; he can be meek or menacing, warm or cold-blooded, funny or tragic. He looks most at ease in a cowboy hat, most at home in any decade but the current one.
Usually plays: Sheriffs, deputies, and outlaws.
Key appearances: No Country For Old Men, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Winter’s Bone, The Last House On The Left. [A.A. Dowd]
Who: A Tony nominee who cut her teeth in the more female-friendly world of theater before launching her onscreen career with two scene stealing performances. First Coon exuded world-weary sadness as a woman left widowed and childless in HBO’s The Leftovers. Then she quickly followed up that somber turn with her film debut in Gone Girl. As Ben Affleck’s twin sister Margo she was a much-needed source of warmth and levity in an otherwise icy film. Hopefully that kind of theater-honed versatility combined with Coon’s inherent elegance and maturity means this is just the start of her long career.
Usually plays: Wry, intelligent women.
Key appearances: Gone Girl, The Leftovers. [Caroline Siede]
Who: Jesse Plemons gained prominence as the sweet-faced, good-natured—despite the whole murder thing—Landry (a.k.a. Lance to Coach Taylor) on Friday Night Lights, but has since proved himself to be quite versatile, appearing Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and, notably, as the ostensibly dim-witted, ultimately evil Todd on Breaking Bad. He was rumored to be a front-runner for the new Star Wars, but next up, he’s in the second season of Fargo, and plays Whitey Bulger’s henchman alongside Johnny Depp in Black Mass.
Usually plays: Sweethearts, secret creeps, murderers.
Key appearances: Friday Night Lights, Breaking Bad. [Molly Eichel]
Who: Though she’s logged substantial time on TV shows like Deadwood, Sons Of Anarchy, House Of Cards, and Treme, fans of offbeat detective stories and/or Bill Pullman may recognize her as the enigmatic romantic lead of the fantastic Zero Effect. Her television career means that her resume isn’t as stacked as some other character actors, but David Fincher gave her one of her best recent roles by casting her as Detective Boney, the cop investigating Ben Affleck’s hapless husband in Gone Girl. Both Girl and Zero take particular advantage of her skeptical thoughtfulness; she can ground a scene just by appearing in it.
Usually plays: Neighbors, wives, and the quietly clever.
Key appearances: Gone Girl, Zero Effect, Hollow Man. [Jesse Hassenger]
Who: Lean, photogenic New Yorker whose weathered features and slight rasp never betray his pre-acting background as a Wall Street broker. Grillo—who looks like he could pass for Jon Hamm’s no-good brother—has built up quite a resume in the last few years playing grizzled fighters and pros, and has the screen presence to back it up, as seen in The Purge: Anarchy, a rare lead role that sometimes suggests that Grillo could be the 2010s’ answer to Lance Henriksen. His role as S.H.I.E.L.D. heavy Rumlow (a.k.a. Crossbones) in Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave him his widest exposure. It’s too bad Marvel already has him tapped. As much as we like Jon Bernthal—also featured in this guide—if they were really serious about the Punisher, this would their guy.
Usually plays: Cops, soldiers, and fighters.
Key appearances: The Purge: Anarchy, Warrior, The Grey. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]