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Netflix

20 Character Actors Who Make Everything They’re in Better

Netflix
Netflix

If the main character in your movie is a straitlaced do-gooder, or really, blandly relatable in any way, you’re going to need some eccentric figures to bring some spice to the party. More than mere sidekicks, these characters either make the world they inhabit feel dangerous and chaotic or bring order to insanity by sheer force of personality. They’re characters that make your ears perk just as the movie starts to lose you.

Character actors are tasked with making movies more interesting, but only the best of them succeed. So here are 20 ultra-talented stars who never fail to make good films great, great films classic, and terrible films almost watchable.

1. PETER STORMARE

Peter Stormare in 'American Gods'
Jan Thijs, Starz Entertainment/FremantleMedia North America

Thank Fargo for this one. Peter Stormare’s magic stems from his range, which runs from Genuinely Kind to Terrifyingly Aggressive. You might expect him to play a growling bad guy every role, but his comic timing and humane sensitivity allow him to play everything from an unlicensed eye doctor in Minority Report to multiple voices on children’s shows to an incompetent nihilist kidnapper in The Big Lebowski.

2. OCTAVIA SPENCER

Octavia Spencer in 'Hidden Figures' (2016)
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Octavia Spencer is a world-class actor and producer with the hardware to prove it (including an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe). She’s a dynamite talent who offers a Herculean amount of support to everyone she shares scenes with. It’s possible that her trademark is a wry, knowing sense of humor, but she’s not that easily pinned down or pigeonholed, mightily subverting expectations in genre work like Snowpiercer and gut-wrenching dramas like Fruitvale Station.

3. SCOOT MCNAIRY

Scoot McNairy in 'Halt and Catch Fire'
Eric Ogden, AMC

Possessing leading man looks and chops with a character actor’s transformative ability, Scoot McNairy is a deft craftsman who brings meek powder keg Gordon Clark to life on Halt and Catch Fire as well as embodying slimy slave trader Brown in 12 Years a Slave and amateurish holdup man Frankie in the crime drama Killing Them Softly.

4. TILDA SWINTON

Tilda Swinton in 'Only Lovers Left Alive' (2013)
Sandro Kopp, Sony Pictures Classics

Some character actors are in the hall of fame, some have won awards, but Tilda Swinton is on (and possibly from) another planet. She can more than hold her own as a leading performer, delivering searing portrayals in We Need to Talk About Kevin and deathly mystery in The Only Lovers Left Alive. But it’s her bizarre character work that most endures, like having your brain smacked with a rainbow baseball bat. From her toothy despot in Snowpiercer to her thousand-year-old dowager in The Grand Budapest Hotel to her wintry witch in The Chronicles of Narnia to a dozen other deeply strange performances, Swinton is playing a totally different game than everyone else. If Hollywood ever makes a David Bowie biopic, they know who to hire.

5. OLIVER PLATT

Oliver Platt in FX's 'Fargo'
Chris Large, FX Networks

An actor’s actor, Oliver Platt never seems content to play the same role twice, yet he has the peerless ability to make it feel as if we’ve known a character our whole lives. That bone-deep familiarity is a quality that comes from another level of acting talent. Even if he’s only in one scene, Platt never phones it in. He’s never less than fantastic. Whether droll and off-the-cuff or stridently severe, you get the feeling that Platt is in it for the pure, unbridled love of acting.

6. ANN DOWD

Ann Dowd plays Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

This Emmy-winning, 30-year veteran is in five movies coming out this year alone. That’s on top of a busy slate of guest starring roles on TV shows where she almost always becomes the best thing about the episode. She just finished up a remarkable run as the dead-eyed, chain-smoking Patti in The Leftovers, but her reign of matronly terror as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale has only just begun.

7. GIANCARLO ESPOSITO

Giancarlo Esposito in 'Breaking Bad'
Michele K. Short, AMC/Sony Pictures Television

To offer some perspective on Giancarlo Esposito’s genius: he recently did a single episode of Westworld where he delivered a fiery monologue that shook a character to the core, and the creators of Westworld almost definitely hired him because they knew he’d deliver a fiery monologue that would shake an entire audience to its core. Best known as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul), Esposito has appeared in more than 75 movies and a list of TV episodes no one has time to count (though it's worth a reminder that he played Big Bird's camp counselor on Sesame Street). Unfailingly charismatic, Esposito is a modern marvel who, over four decades of acting, has never failed to astound.

8. CARRIE COON

Carrie Coon stars in HBO's 'The Leftovers'
HBO

Carrie Coon’s acting talent is so outstanding that she often commanded entire sequences in The Leftovers without interacting with anyone else. Her character was marked by isolation, and you could wind up not remembering to blink while watching her complete even the most mundane of tasks with a seemingly infinite pool of sorrow. She brought that concentration of anxiety to Gone Girl, where she played the sister of Ben Affleck’s character, and, most recently, to the third season of the Fargo TV series.

9. MICHAEL STULHBARG

Michael Stuhlbarg in 'A Serious Man' (2009)
Focus Features

Last year, in addition to his starring role in the third season of Fargo, Michael Stulhbarg was in three Best Picture nominees—The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, and The Post—where he played pivotal roles as a modest Soviet spy, a father with a barn-burning monologue of compassionate acceptance, and a cosmopolitan newspaper editor, respectively. Three in one year. That’s incredible, but easy to believe when it comes to a talent like Stuhlbarg, who combines a workmanlike consistency and a stage actor’s perfectionism to create everymen who, far from being boring, are each singularly memorable.

10. MARGO MARTINDALE

Margo Martindale in 'The Americans'
FX Networks

The one. The only. Margo Martindale is so transcendent that BoJack Horseman features a character called “Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale” (which is voiced by Martindale). Perhaps the most famous character actor currently working, she brings a maternal energy to even her craziest characters, which probably makes them seem even crazier. She also excels in roles that exude a sense of cool confidence, which helps if you’re handling soviet spies on The Americans or leading a weed-dealing family on Justified.

11. WALTON GOGGINS

Walton Goggins in FX's 'Justified'
FX Networks

Speaking of Justified: Walton Goggins earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of gritty-yet-charming criminal Boyd Crowder on the show, but he deserves so many more awards (though it's worth noting that he did win an Oscar in 2002, when The Accountant—a short film he produced and starred in—was named Best Live-Action Short Film). He’s got a flare for playing wild-eyed thugs and weirdos blissfully lacking self-awareness, but the scummy majesty he offers isn’t solely used for black hats. Goggins popping up randomly in movies and TV shows is always a delight because he’s a hell of an actor who seems to have time traveled here from the Wild West.

12. CCH POUNDER

CCH Pounder in 'NCIS: New Orleans'
CBS

CCH Pounder’s niche is serious professionals in police stations and emergency rooms, but she’s also brought steely playfulness to the neighborhood witch Madame Dorothea in the Mortal Instruments franchise. She’s consistently fantastic, drawing on years of expertise, natural magnetism, and an amazing number of starring and guest-starring roles on TV.

13. STEPHEN ROOT

Stephen Root in 'Idiotsitter' (2014)
Comedy Central

Stephen Root has portrayed so many outlandish characters that it’s shocking when he turns up in a movie in khakis and a Polo shirt. There are no limits on his range, and you can take your pick from a metric ton of favorites: Office Space, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dodgeball, Idiocracy, King of the Hill, NewsRadio, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Get Out are just a few. In his TV career, he’s been in over 700 episodes and continues to elevate his game. This is legendary character actor status here.

14. ALLISON JANNEY

Allison Janney in 'I, Tonya' (2017)
Neon

West Wing fans have known about Allison Janney’s ability to command a room either with charm, severity, or by doing "The Jackal" since the late 1990s. But she solidified her place in the Character Actor Hall of Fame with her Oscar-winning turn as Tonya Harding’s abusive, bird enthusiast mother in I, Tonya. With a comic edge that echoes vaudeville (see: Hairspray) and a scary intensity when things get serious, Janney excels in any role you lay at her feet.

15. PAT HEALY

Pat Healy in 'The Innkeepers' (2011)
Magnolia Pictures

Often portraying the disturbing or the disturbed, Pat Healy is willing to push extremes of manic glee while staying grounded. He most notably shines through the grit in Cheap Thrills as the downtrodden mechanic Craig who performs increasingly violent and degrading stunts for a bigger pot of money. He also menaced Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker by phone in Compliance and was menaced by ghosts in The Innkeepers.

16. MICHELLE HURST

Michelle Hurst in 'Orange Is the New Black'
Netflix

If you’re a fan of Law & Order and its 1000 spinoffs, you’ve seen (and likely marveled at) Michelle Hurst a dozen times. She possesses a sharp ferocity, as proven by her portrayal of the acerbic Miss Claudette on the first season of Orange is the New Black. She was sidelined after a 2013 car accident, but she’s back this year in a supporting role in the romantic comedy Permission, so hopefully casting directors will take of this criminally underused powerhouse.

17. MICHAEL PEÑA

Michael Peña in 'CHIPS' (2017)
Peter Iovino, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

If you only know Michael Peña as the fast-talking goof in Ant-Man, you’d be forgiven for not realizing the dangerous dramatic work he has done since Crash. He’s the rare talent who’s at the top of his game whether trying to make us laugh, cry, or wrestle with difficult truths. How else can you explain him stealing scenes in Marvel’s miniature superhero film a year after transforming wholesale into Cesar Chavez for a biopic of the civil rights activist?

18. KATHRYN HAHN

Kathryn Hahn in 'Happyish'
Showtime

Kathryn Hahn has been outshining her leading counterparts for years, but Bad Moms really gave her room to run. She absolutely has the skills to heighten the drama in movies like Revolutionary Road and This Is Where I Leave You, but the sweet spot of her talent is in finding humor by playing an exaggerated version of our funny best friend. Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight proved Hahn could shoulder a starring role, but it’s great that she has found her stride as the bar-hopping, sexually adventurous single mother ripping through stereotypes in a budding Bad Moms franchise and continues to command the screen in ensembles.

19. KEITH DAVID

Keith David and Parker Young in 'Enlisted'
Adam Taylor, Fox

This Juilliard graduate got his cinematic start with The Thing and Platoon, then went on to lend his unmistakable, Emmy-worthy voice and stature to a slew of harrowing dramas. But Keith David’s secret weapon is his comic perfection as an exasperated authority figure on display in There’s Something About Mary, Rick and Morty, the short-lived-but-brilliant Enlisted, and later seasons of Community. You can count on the Tony winner for acting perfection on screen or on stage.

20. BETH GRANT

Drew Barrymore and Beth Grant in 'Donnie Darko' (2001)
Newmarket Films

If you need an actor to play a religious zealot or snappy rule-enforcer, Beth Grant is your first and last phone call. She’s the consummate stick in the mud, crafting figures who scold and harangue the main character for having even the tiniest bit of fun. We often love to hate the characters she portrays in movies like Donnie Darko and No Country for Old Men (not to mention her regular role on The Mindy Project), but she always transforms flat antagonists into fully realized humans by carving out space for sympathy.

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Revisit Your Teen Years With Vintage Sweet Valley High Editions
Always Fits
Always Fits

The '80s and '90s were a special time to be a reading-obsessed child. Young adult series like The Baby Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High were in their prime (and spawning plenty of spinoffs and blatant knockoffs), with numerous books a year—Sweet Valley High creator Francine Pascal published 11 books in her series in 1984 alone.

You can't find original Sweet Valley High books on the shelves anymore (unless you want to read the tweaked re-release versions published in 2008), but fans of Jessica and Elizabeth no longer have to trawl eBay looking for nostalgic editions of their favorite installments of the series. Always Fits, a website that sells gifts it describes as “nostalgic, feminine, feminist and wonderful,” has tracked down as many vintage teen series from the '80s and '90s as it can, including a number of Sweet Valley High books.

A stack of Sweet Valley High books
Always Fits

The collection of books was sourced by the Always Fits team from vintage shops and thrift stores, and covers editions released between 1983 and 1994 (the series ran until 2003). While you can’t get a shiny new copy of books like Double Love, you can pretend that the slightly worn editions have been sitting on the bookshelf of your childhood bedroom all along.

Each of the Sweet Valley High books comes with an enamel pin inspired by the cover for one of the series's classic titles, Secrets. Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose which installment you want—you’ll have to content yourself with a mystery pick, meaning that you may get In Love Again instead of Two-Boy Weekend. Hopefully you’re not trying to fill in that one hole from your childhood collection. (You may not be able to get Kidnapped by the Cult!, but it appears that Crash Landing!, with its amazingly ridiculous paralysis storyline, is available.)

The Sweet Valley High book-and-pin set is $18, or you can get a three-pack of random '80s books for the same price.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Love Connection
Telepictures
Telepictures

Between September 19, 1983 and July 1, 1994, Chuck Woolery—who had been the original host of Wheel of Fortune back in 1975—hosted the syndicated, technologically advanced dating show Love Connection. (The show was briefly revived in 1998-1999, with Pat Bullard as host.) The premise featured either a single man or single woman who would watch audition tapes of three potential mates discussing what they look for in a significant other, and then pick one for a date. The producers would foot the bill, shelling out $75 for the blind date, which wasn’t taped. The one rule was that between the end of the date and when the couple appeared on the show together, they were not allowed to communicate—so as not to spoil the next phase.

A couple of weeks after the date, the guest would sit with Woolery in front of a studio audience and tell everybody about the date. The audience would vote on the three contestants, and if the audience agreed with the guest’s choice, Love Connection would offer to pay for a second date.

The show became known for its candor: Couples would sometimes go into explicit detail about their dates or even insult one another’s looks. Sometimes the dates were successful enough to lead to marriage and babies, and the show was so popular that by 1992, the video library had accrued more than 30,000 tapes “of people spilling their guts in five-minutes snippets.”

In 2017, Fox rebooted Love Connection with Andy Cohen at the helm; the second season started airing in May. But here are a few things you might not have known about the dating series that started it all.

1. AN AD FOR A VIDEO DATING SERVICE INSPIRED THE SHOW.

According to a 1986 People Magazine article, the idea for Love Connection came about when creator Eric Lieber spied an ad for a video dating service and wanted to cash in on the “countless desperate singles out there,” as the article states. “Everyone thinks of himself as a great judge of character and likes to put in two cents,” Lieber said. “There’s a little yenta in all of us.”

2. CONTESTANTS WERE GIVEN SOMETHING CALLED A PALIO SCORE.

Staff members would interview potential contestants and rate them on a PALIO score, which stands for personality, appearance, lifestyle, intelligence, and occupation. Depending on the results, the staff would rank the potential guests as either selectors or selectees.

3. IN 1987, THE FIRST OF MANY LOVE CONNECTION BABIES WAS BORN.

John Schultz and Kathleen Van Diggelen met on a Love Connection date, which didn’t end up airing. “They said, ‘John, she’s so flat, if you can’t rip her up on the set, we can’t use you,’” he told People in 1988. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.’” However, they got married on an episode of Hollywood Squares. As the article stated, “Their son, Zachary, became the first baby born to a Love Connection-mated couple.”

4. IT LED TO OTHER DATING SHOWS, LIKE THE BACHELOR.

Mike Fleiss not only created The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, but he’s also responsible for reviving Love Connection. “I always had a soft spot for that show,” Fleiss told the Los Angeles Times in 2017. He said he was friends with Lieber and that the show inspired him to “venture into the romance TV space.” “I remember it being simple and effective,” he said about the original Love Connection. “And I remember wanting to find out what happened on those dates, the he said-she said of it all. It was intriguing.”

5. A FUTURE ACTOR FROM THE SOPRANOS WAS A CONTESTANT.

Lou Martini Jr., then known as Louis Azzara, became a contestant on the show during the late 1980s. He and his date, Angela, hit it off so well that they couldn’t keep their hands off one another during the show. Martini famously talked about her “private parts,” and she referred to him as “the man of my dreams.” The relationship didn’t last long, though. “I had just moved to LA and was not ready to commit to anything long-term," Martini commented under the YouTube clip. "The show was pushing me to ask her to marry me on the show!" If Martini looks familiar it’s because he went on to play Anthony Infante, Johnny Sack’s brother-in-law, on four episodes of season six of The Sopranos.

6. BEFORE THE SHOW WENT OFF THE AIR, A LOT OF CONTESTANTS GOT MARRIED.

During the same Entertainment Weekly interview, the magazine asked Woolery what the show’s “love stats” were, and he responded with 29 marriages, eight engagements, and 15 children, which wasn’t bad considering 2120 episodes had aired during its entire run. “When you think that it’s someone in our office putting people together through questionnaires and tapes, it’s incredible that one couple got married, much less 29,” he said.

7. CHUCK WOOLERY WAS AGAINST FEATURING SAME SEX COUPLES.

In a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the interviewer asked him “Would you ever have gay couples on Love Connection?” Woolery said no. “You think it would work if a guy sat down and I said, ‘Well, so where did you meet and so and so?’ then I get to the end of the date and say, ‘Did you kiss?’ Give me a break,” he said. “Do you think America by and large is gonna identify with that? I don’t think that works at all.” What a difference a quarter-century makes. Andy Cohen, who is openly gay, asked Fox if it would be okay to feature gay singles on the new edition of Love Connection. Fox immediately agreed.

8. ERIC LIEBER LIKED THE SHOW’S “HONEST EMOTIONS.”

When asked about the show's winning formula, Lieber once said: “The show succeeds because we believe in honest emotions. And, admit it—we’re all a little voyeuristic and enjoy peeking into someone else’s life.”

9. IN LIVING COLOR DID A HILARIOUS PARODY OF THE SHOW.

In the first sketch during In Living Color's pilot—which aired April 15, 1990—Jim Carrey played Woolery in a Love Connection parody. Robin Givens (played by Kim Coles) went on a date with Mike Tyson (Keenan Ivory Wayans) and ended up marrying him during the date. (As we know from history, the real-life marriage didn’t go so well.) The audience had to vote for three men: Tyson, John Kennedy Jr., and, um, Donald Trump. Tyson won with 41 percent of the vote and Trump came in second with 34 percent.

10. A PSYCHOLOGIST THOUGHT THE SHOW HAD A “MAGICAL HOPEFULNESS” QUALITY.

In 1986, People Magazine interviewed psychologist and teacher Dr. Richard Buck about why people were attracted to Love Connection. “Combine the fantasy of finding the perfect person with the instant gratification of being on TV, and the two are a powerful lure,” he said. “There’s a magical hopefulness to the show.”

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