This week’s question comes from reader Kate Lander:
During a recent viewing of the largely mediocre Lie To Me, I found myself thinking about how my interest in the show is almost entirely based on Tim Roth’s lead performance. So my question is: Who is an actor that you find so compelling, you watch films or television shows you’re not otherwise interested in, simply because of their involvement?
It’s getting to the point where I think I’d watch Jesse Eisenberg in anything. This isn’t the coolest answer, and given Eisenberg’s pretty lame potshot at critics, one I’m sure he himself would scoff at. But it dawned on me recently that he’s excellent in pretty much everything he appears in. This year alone, he’s been quietly heartbreaking as a panicked new father, successfully transformed from earnest beta to smooth alpha before our eyes, and injected some much-needed scenery-chewing lunacy into a dour superhero blockbuster. Eisenberg has never been a chameleon; what he’s great at is offering precise, nuanced variations on a type—he’s like the neurotic-geek version of an old Hollywood star. And there’s no greater proof of my yen for his surprisingly malleable persona than the fact that I once stumbled upon Rio on TV and didn’t change the channel. Also, I feel oddly compelled to catch up with Now You See Me 2.
I’m going to go with everyone’s favorite Scot: James McAvoy. While he’s been in a lot of very good projects—The Last King Of Scotland, Atonement, most of the recent X-Men movies—he, like most actors, started his career by starring in a few small-budget duds. And, lord help me, I’ve seen them all. I’ve watched Becoming Jane, a movie that stars Anne Hathaway as a young Jane Austen, a number of times. I sought out Penelope, a movie where McAvoy falls in love with a literally pig-faced Christina Ricci, and I’ve spent good hours of my life invested in Bollywood Queen, a movie that’s part Romeo & Juliet, part hyped-up Bollywood showpiece. Because of McAvoy, I’ve pretty much loved them all, and that’s saying a lot. He’s charming and suave, cheeky but not ridiculous, and he brings a kind of honesty to even the most hackneyed parts. He makes everything he’s in better, and I can’t wait to see every single movie he makes for pretty much the rest of his and/or my respective lives.
I’m convinced I share some sort of Sense8-style psychic link with Keith David, which I admit is mostly because I randomly bumped into him with alarming frequency during my brief residency in New York City. In the interest of transparency, I’m also convinced Jeffrey Wright was my benign stalker at the time, and I don’t quite understand the concept of population density, so, y’know, grain of salt. Still, no matter how irrational it is, I’ll watch pretty much anything he’s in. Good thing he’s a magnificent actor with a regal presence and a vocal tone that is to the average speaking voice as 70 percent cacao dark chocolate is to a Milk Dud. Better still, David is equally adept at drama and comedy and has flitted between the two as nonchalantly as Meryl Streep. Right now he’s killing it on Greenleaf, but he made the biggest impression on me in his short stint on Community. Whatever David is in, he’s going to elevate it, so his name gets my buy-in automatically.
There are countless movies I’ve given a shot due to affection I have for one or more cast members; it’s almost frighteningly easy to assemble an ensemble like the one on display in, say, The Hollars at the drop of a hat. Age has started to inure me to this to some degree (I somehow resisted a movie starring Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick! Together!), but it’s hard for me to imagine ever saying no to Amy Adams. It helps that she seems to have terrific and eclectic tastes in material and filmmakers (she did The Master, The Muppets, Her, Big Eyes, and American Hustle all in the space of just a few years), but her combination of a sweet, sunny persona and the acting chops to subvert that persona consistently and skillfully makes her irresistible (and, okay, maybe I have kind of a crush on her). This means jumping at the opportunity to review crap like Lullaby, paying to see Leap Year in an actual movie theater, and always, always thinking “maybe Lois Lane will save this mess” when watching Zack Snyder superhero movies. She doesn’t, of course—she’s a miracle worker, not superhuman—but did she manage to briefly make the Lois Lane-Clark Kent relationship in Batman V Superman seem romantic, wistful, and sexy, rather than underwritten? She did!
I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the performers we’re naming are primarily the insanely prolific, unfussy type of character actors on which Random Roles was built—and look over here, it’s the 2012 Random Roles interview with Fred Willard! Now imagine Willard saying that “Look over there” line in his winking, showbiz-lifer tone of voice while trying not to smile, and you’ll understand why he’s my pick for this prompt. Then watch the YouTube clip above—from the mostly forgotten topical variety series, D.C. Follies—and witness Willard’s ability to brighten even the darkest corners of a Sid and Marty Krofft-produced Spitting Image rip-off. Wash it down with a great cameo in a great movie—from Wall-E—and you might agree that Fred Willard could make the apocalypse worth watching.
Juliette Binoche first captivated me at 14, with the charm and whimsy of her mysterious chocolatier in Chocolat. This film is too saccharine for me now, but it says a lot that she drew me in with one of the dimmer titles in her filmography, opposite Johnny Depp’s ponytail and blues guitar. It was years later that I saw her again, in The Lovers On The Bridge, and it was this devastating performance as the young vagrant Michèle, a painter whose sight is failing her, that set me on this path. I have since followed Binoche into duds like 1,000 Times Good Night and into some of the most obfuscated, if beautiful, European cinema. (Last year’s L’Attesa would’ve been a slog were it not for her at the center, embodying the breathlessness of loss.) And I’ve loved it all because Binoche always delivers. I’ve had this cliché-looking rom-com of hers with Jean Reno (Jet Lag) in my queue for at least two years, and as soon as I can convince my partner to waste our Saturday night on it, I’m still really excited to see what Binoche puts into it.
I may have been the only 17-year-old who watched CNBC’s The Charles Grodin Show, such a fan I was of Charles Grodin that I would watch him do pretty much anything—even grouse extemporaneously about the O.J. Simpson trial. I became obsessed with Grodin first through cable mainstays like Midnight Run and Seems Like Old Times (and, okay, the twilight-of-Jim Belushi HBO staple Taking Care Of Business), then through Grodin’s many talk show appearances, where he amped up his tetchy yet charming irascibility to nigh-subversive levels faux-sparring with Carson and Letterman. In addition to his baseline of aloof sarcasm, Grodin has the ability to switch seamlessly between roguish, twinkly-eyed charm and blown-gasket frustration (it made sense that he and Gene Wilder were longtime friends), but so few directors really knew how to use his personality to their advantage, besides fellow masters of comically awkward tension like Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and Albert Brooks. So in addition to discovering classics like The Heartbreak Kid, Catch-22, and Real Life, I also watched Grodin be relegated to the “angry dad” roles of Beethoven, the Christmas Story quasi-sequel It Runs In The Family, and Clifford—none of which I’d particularly recommend besides Clifford, a deeply weird film held together by Grodin’s performance, veering between hostile deadpan and volcanic anger. Grodin’s withering delivery has the ability to make everything he does just a little bit sharper and funnier, and I’m heartened that he’s recently started using it for acting again in places like Louie, rather than to just grumble about what’s in the news. Although, I’d watch that, too.
As an old-movie fan, the chance to preselect a certain actor from Hollywood’s golden age and watch the films pile up was absolute bliss when I first got a DVR. One of the first names on my list was Cary Grant. To be fair, of his large number of film credits, there are many certifiable classics: The Philadelphia Story, North By Northwest, Charade. But until my TiVo package, I hadn’t realized how many movies there are that even Cary Grant can’t elevate: Father Goose, Houseboat, even the re-pairing of Grant with his An Affair To Remember co-star Deborah Kerr in the snoozefest The Grass Is Always Greener. The worst is probably Kiss Them For Me, with Grant as an on-leave navy captain partying with a vivacious Jayne Mansfield and a lifeless Suzy Parker. I only turned off one, though: Penny Serenade, with Grant’s frequent co-star Irene Dunne. I was hoping for their usual dizzying and dazzling banter, instead got clobbered with a maudlin tearjerker Nicholas Sparks himself would call over the top. Why watch that when My Favorite Wife exists? Life is short.
That little brother of the big screen, Casey Affleck, has quietly amassed a filmography that’s both broad and kind of incredible. From sidekick in big bro’s movies Good Will Hunting and Chasing Amy (in which he played “Little Kid”) to comic relief in the Ocean’s movies to a fucking unstoppable star turn in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, he’s been all over the map in weird, compelling ways. (And how about vicious asshole in The Killer Inside Me or codependent prankster as both star and director of I’m Still Here?) And the funny thing throughout all of these great performances is that I still find Affleck slightly annoying, while sitting in awe of his talent. I can’t wait to see Manchester By The Sea, which by all accounts is going to be one of the best movies of the year.
I first fell for Shannyn Sossamon in The Rules Of Attraction,
probably because of that opening scene where she skateboards in to “Six Different Ways,” my favorite song by The Cure. But what pushed me over the edge was the Gap commercial where she flashes her distinct teeth-over-lip smile after saying, “My first love? Boys who scratch” and oozes this sort of older-sister, rad-girl vibe. She did that in a Gap commercial. Give her an award already! Unfortunately, that commercial also means I’ve suffered through quite a few subpar films just for the chance to see Sossamon in action. Things might be looking up though; I found Sinister 2 to be a legitimately enjoyable horror film, and I smell a franchise brewing.
My answer can only be Tim Curry. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was deeply obsessed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Back then, using a fan-curated FAQ as a guide, I thought I could see just about everything the Rocky Horror stars had ever been in, and Curry’s movies were the ones I was most anxious to watch. So every week, I’d scan the shelves of the local video store, hoping to spot such forgotten titles as Blue Money, The Ploughman’s Lunch, and Pass The Ammo. I must have spent a lot of time watching those movies, but I barely remember them now. It wasn’t a bad experience, though. I probably fast-forwarded through the boring parts to get to Curry’s scenes. I’d never get through Annie otherwise. But, god, YouTube would have saved me so much time. Tracking down Rock Follies Of ’77 nearly drove me to madness, and now it’s a click away.
For my money, Albert Brooks is the funniest man alive. He was one of the all-time great stand-up comedians, a revolutionary and innovator who transformed his act into a brilliant meditation on the nature of show-business, and stand-up comedy, and runaway narcissism. Then he segued to filmmaking with Real Life, one of the best and most prescient cinematic satires of the past 50 years. As a filmmaker, Brooks is maddeningly non-prolific. He hasn’t released a directorial effort since 2006’s Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World but he has been a lot more active as of late, tweeting up a storm, doing voice-overs in half the animated films coming out this year, and popping up in neat supporting roles in movies like Drive, which should have won him a long-overdue Academy Award. But it’s tough to beat Brooks’ appearances on The Simpsons, which are so hilarious and revered it’s tough to believe he’s only appeared on the show a handful of times. Though he was of course also in the movie, which was solid yet oddly forgotten.
Ever since Bridesmaids I’ve basically been a Melissa McCarthy loyalist. Okay, so it’s not perfect. I have not watched much Mike And Molly. I didn’t make it through all of Identity Thief. However, I’ll mount a defense of Tammy and The Boss if need be. And of course there are the genuinely enjoyable ones, which I watch over and over: The Heat and Spy. I wasn’t as enamored of Ghostbusters, but I assume it will make it into the rotation once it hits cable. Even if the movie around her doesn’t totally gel, her boisterous presence and incomparable knack for physical comedy and timing guarantees a chuckle.
This is slightly cheating, as there really isn’t any actor I’d sit through garbage for just for their sake; I’m perfectly willing to watch garbage for itself. Every so often, though, that means finding someone famous before they actually break through, which is how I ended up seeing Michael Fassbender be terrific in movies I loathed before I ever knew his name. 300 is absurd, belabored trash; Jonah Hex is muddled, lopsided tedium—but in both, Fassbender does work of such immediately gripping intensity that I found myself actually interested in what was going on onscreen, if only for a few minutes at a time. He plays a soldier in the former, a major henchmen in the latter, and the borderline psychotic energy he brings to thinly written parts throws the cardboard cut-out worlds around him into sharply unflattering focus. So while I’m not sure I’d be willing to pick up a movie just because his name is above the title, I know that if I do, there will be at least one thing worth watching.
Looking back at my life, I’ve watched more than my fair share of crap thanks to Michael J. Fox. Doc Hollywood. Teen Wolf. The Secret Of My Success. Greedy (although you can chalk that one up to my love of the late Phil Hartman, too). And it’s all thanks to Back To The Future, my favorite movie when I was a kid. I didn’t just love Fox’s Marty McFly; I wanted to be him: a cool smartass in a life vest, with an awesome best friend who’d take him on trips through time. And so I’d go looking for Marty in all of Fox’s other roles, even as none of his good-natured hustlers—boyishly charming as they might be—could match the original thing.
It’s taken a while, but 12 Years A Slave finally made Chiwetel Ejiofor the internationally acclaimed actor he’s deserved to be for a long time. I’ve been mildly obsessed with the British thespian ever since Stephen Frears’ moody and tense 2002 immigrant drama Dirty Pretty Things, where he managed the rare feat of making Audrey Tatou seem like just another actor. True, for a long time he was most recognized for the hokey Love Actually, but like any great character actor, he’s managed to elevate every project in which he’s involved—and there have been some real stinkers. (Looking at you, Three Blind Mice.) His greatest feat might be taking rote supporting roles in Hollywood popcorn and imbuing them with soul and charisma. From 2012 to Salt to Four Brothers, he’s never less than magnetic. And that’s not even getting to his best stuff: Lead roles in juicy dramas from David Mamet’s Redbelt to the aforementioned Oscar winner. Plus, his creepy assassin in Joss Whedon’s Serenity is dead sexy.