When Jon Voight agreed to take the role of Mickey on Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” he was enthusiastic about being a part of a capable ensemble and didn’t give any thought to where his name might land in the credits.
“I’m a real character actor. I like stutters and limps,” says Voight, who built a career on playing leading men in films like 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy” and 1978’s “Coming Home,” for which he won an Oscar. “Every role is a character, and some of the characters are enjoyable to me because they’re so crazy. So Mickey’s perfect. I was fortunate to meet with him at this juncture.”
While some supporting actors, like “Parks and Recreation’s” Chris Pratt, enjoy their upgrade to leading man status, it’s even more common the other way around.
Voight is just one of the accomplished actors better known for playing leading men now finding meaty roles as supporting players on TV.
Hugh Laurie, who starred on Fox’s “House M.D.” for eight seasons, joined HBO’s “Veep” in a supporting role, while Joshua Jackson went from the star of Fox’s sci-fi favorite “Fringe” to supporting player on Showtime’s acclaimed “The Affair.” Former “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” star William Petersen joins the bandwagon next season with a supporting turn on the sophomore run of WGN America’s “Manhattan.”
On the distaff side, Kate Mulgrew and Mayim Bialik once headlined their own series and last year both earned Emmy nominations for their supporting work in Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” respectively. Jada Pinkett Smith, once the star of “Hawthorne,” made waves this past season with a scenery-chewing supporting turn as a villain in Fox’s “Gotham.” And Sissy Spacek, who boasts six Oscar nominations and one win in the best actress category, ventured into TV series for the first time with a supporting part on Netflix’s “Bloodline.”
ABC’s “Black-ish” producer and recurring player Laurence Fishburne says his career was built on dozens of supporting roles in film before he was cast as a lead in 1988’s “School Daze.” He went on to land a lead actor Oscar nom for 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and three lead actor Emmy nominations for telepics including “Miss Evers’ Boys.”
Though Fishburne took the lead on “CSI” from 2008-11 and more recently a supporting part on NBC’s “Hannibal,” he says it’s all about the role.
“It’s a blessing to be able to work as an actor in any capacity,” Fishburne says. “You know, there’s that old saying, ‘no small parts, just small actors.’ It’s always been about the material and not necessarily whether or not I’m the lead or not.”
He adds that playing an out-of-the-box character like Pops on “Black-ish” also enables him to be a little more outrageous when he’s onscreen for less time.
“Pops gets to say a lot of things that people think, but are too afraid to say,” he says. “Anthony (Anderson, the show’s lead) is a pretty out-of-the-box guy himself. So it’s nice to be a foil for him.”
Martin Sheen, who starred as President Bartlet on “The West Wing” for seven seasons, also enjoys the freedom offered by his supporting role as a man who comes out late in life in Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.”
“It’s clear I’m not playing the leading man any more or the adventurer, which is fine,” Sheen says. “I’m able to resource a part of myself in a very personal way, and I’m surprised that I’ve had this opportunity to do that. There’s a lot about working now at this stage in my life that is deeply gratifying.”
Sheen says he remembers having a conversation with Hal Holbrook on the set of the ABC TV movie “That Certain Summer” in 1972. As a young actor in his 30s, Sheen approached Holbrook to say he was impressed by the actor’s ability to access his emotions in such a powerful way.
“He said, ‘Well, the older you get, the easier it is,’ and he was absolutely right,” Sheen recalls.
“The ego is so big, so strong, and you don’t always hear that intimate voice when you’re a young man. Now, when you get to be my age, I hear this voice so clearly and it’s about being human, about being vulnerable and it’s a reflection of the joy that I experience every day of my life.”