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The 20 Greatest Character Actors Of Our Time

15 August 2013 | Features, People Lists | by David Zou

character actors

Have you ever been watching TV or a movie and pointed to the screen and said, “Hey! It’s That Guy(Girl)!”? Well, here is where you’ll find him(her). This list is dedicated to the character actors collectively known as “That Guy(Girl)”.

That Guy(Girl) is easy to recognize and difficult to place. You can describe him(her) but not name him(her). Here are 20 character actors who are always underrated but never under seen.


20. Michael Shannon


That Guy From: Tigerland (2000), Pearl Harbor (2001), Vanilla Sky (2001), 8 Mile (2002), The Woodsman (2004), Bug (2006), Before The Devil Knows Your Dead (2007), Revolutionary Road (2008), Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009), Take Shelter (2011)

Why They’re Great: One of the youngest names on this list, Michael Shannon is probably the hottest character actor to have come out of Hollywood in recent years. Having quietly made an impression in a mixture of blockbusters and indies, he finally bagged the role his talent so obviously deserves as paranoid apocalypse-fearer Curtis in Take Shelter. 

In Their Own Words: [On celebrity] “It’s strange; it’s not anything I ever imagined happening to me. Maybe some people planned for it and it’s like their ambition to be famous but I just always enjoyed working.”


19. Danny Trejo


That Guy From: Runaway Train (1985), Desperado (1995), Heat (1995), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Con Air (1997), Six Days Seven Nights (1998), Spy Kids (2001), Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005), Machete (2010)

Why They’re Great: A reformed criminal turned character actor, Trejo’s story is such that it’s very difficult not to warm to him. Spending the best part of his career playing a host of brawlers, henchmen and general hard-cases, he finally carved out a leading role for himself in 2010′s Machete. Good for him, we say!

In Their Own Words: “Juvenile hall, youth authority . . . I was in a lot of trouble. I grew up like the characters I’ve been playing.”


18. William H. Macy


That Guy From: The Client (1994), Murder In The First (1995), Above Suspicion (1995), Fargo (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Pleasantville (1998), Magnolia (1999), Jurassic Park 3 (2001), Seabiscuit (2003), The Cooler (2003), Bobby (2006), The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Why They’re Great: William H Macy seems to have an affinity with life’s losers, telling their stories with a hangdog charm that makes you want to give him a big hug. Not that all his characters would deserve one, mind. Indeed, his character in Fargo follows some pretty reprehensible courses of action… and yet you can’t help rooting for him!

In His Own Words: [On convincing the Coens to cast him in Fargo] “I essentially told them I’d shoot their pets if they didn’t give me this role and I wasn’t leaving the room until they cast me.”


17. Paul Giamatti


That Guy From: Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Negotiator (1998), Planet Of The Apes (2001), American Splendor (2003), Sideways (2004), Cinderella Man (2005), Lady In The Water (2006), Shoot ‘Em Up (2007), Fred Claus (2007), The Last Station (2009), The Ides Of March (2011)

Why They’re Great: Dubbed “The World’s Greatest Character Actor” by Time magazine back in 2005, Giamatti has the happy knack of dodging Hollywood pidgeonholes. He’s played the loveable loser, the unloveable loser, the violent gangster… pretty much everything through to Father Christmas himself. After Sideways, the world was pretty much his oyster, and yet it’s telling that he’s kept a toe in more interesting waters (The Last Station being a case in point) to balance out the blockbusters.

In Their Own Words: “I don’t consider myself a very interesting person. I have the mentality of a supporting actor.”

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  • Raydeen Graffam

    How about Melissa Leo?

  • Carey Griffiths

    I’m surprised that there is no Gary Oldman. And as good as Danny Trejo is he kind of plays the same character in all his films.

    • Dan the Movie Fan

      Yep. I was just about to say the same thing. Oldman is in the running for #1.

  • Doc


  • Chaucers Left Testicle

    I’m as big a fan of Danny Trejo as it’s possible to be, but one of the ‘greatest character actors of our time’? Really?!

    Also, I must take exception to your inclusion of Brian Cox. The man can act, sure, but he is nothing special and certainly not fit to be on a list with the likes of Fran McDormand and Stanley Tucci.

    • George_Spelvin

      Danny Trejo is pretty much the same in everything. He’s the antithesis of a “character actor”.

  • GabrielBelmont

    Excuse me, but where the fuck is Daniel Day Lewis?

    • Eric Lavallee

      if anyone is missing it’s him should be #2

    • Brian Johnson

      He’s a “leading man”. A “Character actor” by traditional definition isn’t just an actor who can play characters well. It’s an actor who plays those side characters, the offbeat ones, the colorful ones to support the lead more than anything. A character actor can also play leading roles, but Day-Lewis is not a “character actor”.

      • George_Spelvin

        He certainly is. Just because the roles he does aren’t “colourful” doesn’t mean he’s not putting in the effort. Cruise, Nickolson, Pacino are all examples of “stuck playing the same role” actors. DDL is on the other side of the spectrum from these guys.

        I’m saying this not as a fanboy – I’ve probably only seen 1/4 of his movies at best but I will give the man credit he is due.

        • Matt Fino

          Like Brian said, he is a “leading role” actor.

          • George_Spelvin

            What I’m saying is: He’s both. There’s no reason a talented character actor can’t also be a leading man. It’s not as common as it should be but….

          • Matt Fino

            This is the definition of a character actor!!

            an actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles. I understand your argument, but he is a lead actor

    • Guest

      A character actor is a person who, effectively, plays only one character, but plays that character extremely well. There are variances in the roles, of course, but the real variance is how they are used by the director. DDL is a method actor who specializes in playing an insanely wide variety of roles.

      • George_Spelvin

        You are completely backwards on that definition. DDL is a fantastic example of a character actor. It just happens that most character actors wind up in supporting roles.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Surprised Stephen Root wasn’t listed, you see him everywhere. Best known as Milton, the red Swingline stapler guy in Office Space.

  • Bo_Crowder

    No Stephen Root? No Gary Oldman?

  • gbnz

    Surprised with Brian Cox but no Christian Bale.. Gary Oldman.. and Daniel Day Lewis is criminal.

  • Philip210

    How many people know that Michael Shannon was in Groundhog Day?

    • Joe

      How many people know Michael Shannon?

  • loco

    John Turturro forgot Don’t Mess with the Zohan”

  • Megan O’Hanlon

    how did you not mention john tutturros role in the big lebowski?!

  • kwrose44

    how about the big lebowski for turturro. and patch adams for philip seymour hoffman. both those rolls were great

  • Amanda Marvell

    Patrick Stewart? Gary Oldman? Daniel Day Lewis?

  • Anael Sanchez

    Awesome list!! The only other actor I would put in there is Hugo Weaving. That guy kills in every movie he is in. Lord of the Rings/Hobbit, The Matrix Trilogy, Captain America, just to name a few.

  • GinaLou

    I call BS on most of this article. “Character actors” are supposed to be people you see and say “oh, it’s THAT GUY” but you aren’t sure of their name. Not big name Hollywood people. I only agree with a few of these, not that they’re not all great actors, because they are…but, not the “greatest character actors of our time”. They’re too well-known.
    For actual character actors, you should check out the documentary “That guy…Who Was in That Thing.” :)

    • EnjoyTheSilence2123

      Do have to agree with you on that… and that was a great doc! Good call!

  • Lina Merit Jacobsen

    Three women out of twenty? Suggest whoever made this list should go and watch some more movies. Try some new genres!

  • Lina Merit Jacobsen

    Meryl Streep, Sissy Spacek, Grace Zabriskie, Amanda Plummer, Shelley Duvall, Jennifer Tilly, Linda Hunt…

    • Michelle Bryer

      Meryl is lead actress.

      • George_Spelvin

        That means nothing. It has more to do with their ability to get into a role and not repeat themselves.

  • Yoda

    Daniel Day Lewis & Meryl Streep. Great they are. Yeessss

  • Elisabeth White

    Geoffrey Rush.. and DDL :)

  • MegE_N

    Where’s Gary Oldman?

  • Rick Turnbow

    I acted in the same movie as #1, Steve Buscemi. The movie was Kansas City, directed by Robert Altman, granted I was just background.

  • Aaron Baker

    What, no Sissy Spacek? -_-

  • Craig Young

    J.T. Walsh

  • Leigh-Ann Hill

    Robin Williams anyone?

  • Aroreiel

    So many great character actors you’ve missed off this list. One that I haven’t seen mentioned in the comments: Sam Rockwell.

  • Brian Johnson

    Sorry, any list of “character actors” that does not include Jim Broadbent has missed the point of the term.

  • Jeffrey Haas

    How come no mention of Christopher Walken. From movies such as the Deer Hunter, The Prophecy, Catch me if you Can, and Suicide Kings. He is awesome.

    • George_Spelvin

      But his roles tend to be more homogenous than would be considered “character” roles. He’s completely enjoyable but you never forget that it’s Walken.

  • Brandy Jean Evans

    Don. Cheadle.
    Not only one of the best, but , for obvious reasons (ie: omission from this list), one of the most underrated. I heart him.
    Also Daniel Day-Lewis does, like, 3 movies every decade…and in each one he looks like he needs a shower. Lol, had to say it even though I really appreciate his talent :P

  • Texan4Peace

    I kept thinking the next one was gonna be David Straithairn. How is he not on this list???

  • teej

    Owen Wilson

  • Bob Wetsel

    No mention of “October Sky” for Chris Cooper?

  • rogaine

    No Gary Oldman? He should be #1 or at least the Top 5.

  • EnjoyTheSilence2123

    No Tilda Swinton?

  • Michelle Bryer

    I totally disagree with John Malcovich, Kathy Bates, and Hoffman, all of them can/could hold there own against any actor they have done films with.

  • Robert Johnston

    Philip Seymore Hoffman was also in “Patch Adams,” where he played Adam’s med school dorm roommate.
    Just thought that I would point that one out.

    And I have liked Danny Trejo since “Con-Air.”

  • Stacy

    Tim Roth anyone?

  • Matt Fino

    Character actor: an actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles. Right from the Encyclopedia!! Daniel Day Lewis might be one of the greatest actors but he is always the LEAD ROLE not a character actor

  • Matt Fino

    Giovani Ribisi should be on this list btw.

  • fatkat

    where’s Ed Harris?

  • Amanda

    Number 5: Brian Cox, was also in RED and RED 2. So was John Malkovitch. Matter of fact, John Malkovitch also played Lenny in Of Mice and Men. Very moving role.

  • kitano0

    Bruce McGill

  • Max Conoley

    Kevin Bacon. ’nuff said.

  • Matthew Rees

    It’s a pretty good list but it missed my favorite: Tom Wilkinson (John Adams, Shakespeare in Love, In the Bedroom, Batman Begins, Michael Clayton, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Valkyrie, Duplicity, The Conspirator, The Grand Budapest Hotel… just to name a few).

  • Jim Beaver

    Proud to see that 20% of the actors listed were my Deadwood colleagues!