Character actors hold the story together

They’re the backbone of the industry: those redoubtable character actors who bring so much texture to every project, though the audience may not even know their names.

“We character actors make the story happen. Leading actors? The story happens to them,” says Ned Beatty, a dean of the craft.

“The hope, in most dramatic pieces, is that the audience can relate to the principal actors in a personal way. But it’s the character actors who tell the story. We drive the action, make the story move along.”

As the voice of Lotso, malevolent daycare warden of “Toy Story 3,” Beatty helped make 2010 a banner year for character men, both in film (Dakin Matthews’ exasperated horse trader Stonehill in “True Grit”) and TV (Titus Welliver’s IRA gunrunner in “Sons of Anarchy,” vengeful D.A. in “The Good Wife” and Man in Black on “Lost”).

Jack McGee, long-suffering patriarch of “The Fighter,” speaks for them all when he reports, “You knock around this racket for 30 years and sometimes you work on clunkers, and sometimes you’re fortunate enough to be cast in something with some meat to it.”

Two meaty portraits — the dying financier in “Inception” and terrifying crime boss in “The Town” — came from Pete Postlethwaite, whose demise on Jan. 2 offered an occasion to commemorate his hardy tribe. Giancarlo Esposito, stone-cold druglord-cum-chicken restaurateur Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad,” worked with him in 1994′s “The Usual Suspects.”

“I remember Pete’s quiet eloquence and power,” recalls Esposito. “He was never trying to prove anything on screen. As a master actor, he was just there. And if he’s there, we in the audience are with him. When you take away all the juice and hype, what’s it really about? What’s left? He was a journeyman actor. That’s our life.”

Matthews identifies two types of journeymen: “There’s the one who does the same role every time, but brilliantly, and no one could do it as well,” citing Sydney Greenstreet and Strother Martin (who, amusingly, played Matthews’ role in the Western yarn’s 1969 incarnation). “It may take them a while to find that presence, but when they do they just inform each character with it, and it’s so fascinating you never tire of watching it.

“A second kind, the kind I am, develops a wide range of characters. That’s a much more theatrical way. But Hollywood is much more interested in the former.”

The power source, says producer Douglas Urbanski (“The Contender”), is “the comfort level when we see them on the screen. They somehow seem wildly appropriate. You see them in the role and could never in a million years imagine anyone else playing it.” (This year, buddy David Fincher found Urbanski wildly appropriate to impersonate Harvard president Larry Summers in “The Social Network.”)

Those below the title must provide layering. To Welliver, a thesp must “make quick, very specific choices to project the subtext, without making it seem as if you’re hitting it on the head.” His thuggish Jimmy O in “Sons,” for instance, “subtextually at his core, is part of a larger cause, to rid Ireland of English tyranny.”

In planning D.A. Chiles, Welliver thought, “This character’s interested in power, but what goes beyond that? He’s really kind of Machiavellian. To make it more interesting, you imbue him with an attitude of almost indifference to people who don’t serve his quest. He don’t give a fuck, as David Mamet would say. He has a moral compass, but he got too close to a magnet.

“I felt the more indifferent he is, the stiller he is, and it makes him extremely dangerous because he’s difficult to read.”

Part of the prep is finding a voice. Beatty calls Lotso’s “honey-dripped” accent (“Well hello there”) a variation on “Uptown New Orleans,” informed by years of the actor’s living around the South.

In studying Stonehill’s background, Matthews notes that “he specifically says he’s not an Arkansan; he came from Texas looking for a business opportunity. So I chose a specific flat, Texas accent from one of my grad school grammar professors; he’s 80 now. But I felt I didn’t choose it. The elevated language of the script required a heightening.”

Then the actor mentally structures his scenes. Beatty approaches it Stanislavski-style: “You find the action, choose the action, perform the action, and put it on the clothesline of all the other actions.” Matthews agrees: “If you’re only in one scene, it helps to treat it not as a one-shot, but with a ‘mini-spine’ that has a beginning, middle and end.”

His mini-spine for “True Grit” was resistance to a young girl’s machinations to get her way, and he charted its intensification in the script. “Hailee (Steinfeld) and I, we worked very closely to make sure of each time she tightened the screws on this guy.”

Preparation, however thorough, always takes a back seat to the reality of the moment. Esposito says, “You’re really focused on your fellow actors. It’s like, the quarterback drops back, who’s going to be open? You’ve got to react quickly and make the play happen. You can’t be calculating your moves. … If I’m studying Bryan Cranston, then I’m not concentrating on myself.”

Once McGee got a gander of “spouse” Melissa Leo’s passionate emoting, “I made the choice that you can’t stay one-on-one with Alice Ward. When she pushes him, he’ll go after her and speak his mind, but I had to be the one to step back and keep the family together. … You can act, but you can also react.”

Thanks to those reactions, McGee reports, helmer David O. Russell “kept giving me coverage, even when I had no words to say.”

Character men are often called “reliable,” and so they must be on set. Matthews recalls invaluable advice from the late Kathleen Freeman early in his career: “The thing you have to remember, she told me, is that you have to be perfect on every take. If you’re doing a two-shot, three-shot, four-shot they’ll use the take in which the lead gets it right. So you’ve always got to be on.”

One and all, the masters extol the writer. Matthews is “always dependent on what the author is giving me.” Esposito reveres “Breaking Bad” showrunner Vince Gilligan the way Welliver bows to David Milch. Beatty cites “a story so strong, just telling it was guidance enough in how the lines should come out.” Even non-pro Urbanski ascribes his ease on set to “Aaron Sorkin’s great script and all those great lines. … I loved sitting behind that desk and doing those 99 takes.”

Yet writing is more than sheer dialogue. “I sometimes look at a script and wish I had more to say,” confesses Esposito. “But then I say, ‘No, that’s Giancarlo talking. Gus wishes that it be exactly what it is.’ Everything can be said with the eyes and the physicality, and often that’s a lot more powerful, effective and chilling than anything that could be spoken.”

A combination of talent, preparation, intuition and practiced skill leads to a thesp’s submersion into his process, and our involvement in his result.

“If I can’t judge a take when it’s done,” Esposito concludes, “then I know we’ve done it: Giancarlo’s gone, and Gus remains.”

More from the SAG Awards:
Scene stealers among stars | SAG honors Ernest Borgnine | SAG merger with AFTRA a priority | Harmon to Tweet from SAG kudofest

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