We’ve spent a lot of time this week talking about character actors — what defines them, how to recognize them, how and why they excel. But character actors don’t always stay character actors forever. The chaos of fame is indeed a ladder — a series of them, actually — and with the exception of the select few A-listers who had stardom thrust upon them from the very beginning, the careers of actors and actresses must often travel a long and winding road to the top. For many character actors, they reach a point where they cease to buttress the story of the main attractions and become an attraction all to themselves. They either find a way to graduate to leading roles, or they become so famous in their own signature, scene-stealing parts that they cease to meet the character-actor criteria.
The pathways by which character actors leap free of the gravity of their trappings are different and varied for each, but to get a better grasp on just how a character actor makes that leap, we’ve broken it down into six routes that even the bittiest of bit-part actors could take to advance up that ladder of fame, should critical acclaim and niche-but-fervent fandom not be enough for their liking.
Get Some Oscar Buzz
Best Example: Octavia Spencer
Others Who Took This Route: Mahershala Ali; J.K. Simmons
Yes, Even She Was Once a Character Actress: Viola Davis
Even with designated categories for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, it’s more rare than you think for a genuine character actor to win an Oscar. Just look at the recent run of winners and you’ll see box-office big fish like Brad Pitt, Laura Dern, Christian Bale, Alicia Vikander, and Anne Hathaway, not to mention the likes of Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Margot Robbie, Emma Stone, Adam Driver, and Nicole Kidman as nominees. But on the rare occasions when a character actor can break through for an Oscar win, it really does wonders for their career. Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for 2011’s The Help and it launched her into a decade of bigger and bigger roles. She went on to get two more Supporting Actress nominations — for Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water — but she’s also moved into lead roles in movies like Luce and the upcoming Netflix superhero comedy Thunder Force. The Oscars might not have figured out how to address all the long-standing complaints against them, but we wouldn’t have gotten Spencer crooning “Don’t make me drink alone…” in Ma without them.
The Oscars have also opened up huge leveling up possibilities for beloved players like Mahershala Ali, who won for Moonlight and Green Book, and who’s now the heir apparent to play Blade in the MCU. Even if an Oscar-winning character actor remains in character roles, like Whiplash winner J.K. Simmons, he’s still graduated from “that guy from Law & Order” to “Hey, J.K. Simmons is in Palm Springs!”
The old cliché that “it’s an honor just to be nominated” also applies to character actors, who can even get a boost without necessarily winning. Viola Davis’s nomination for 2008’s Doubt was a springboard that led her to a lead role in The Help (and another Oscar nomination), and from there, it was nothing but TV and film stardom. (We could say the same about Melissa McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated performance in Bridesmaids, but she fits even better in the next category.)
Breakthrough Role in a Big Hit
Best Example: Melissa McCarthy
Recent Example: Catherine O’Hara
Too Iconic to Be Character Actors Anymore: Giancarlo Esposito; Michael K. Williams
The truth of the matter is that Melissa McCarthy didn’t need the (incredibly well-deserved) Best Supporting Actress nomination she got for Bridesmaids to make the leap to movie star. From the moment she hopped atop that bathroom sink and commanded Wendi McLendon-Covey to look away (a Hollywood trajectory as old as time), she was a movie star. The career turnaround was immediate, with Identity Thief, The Heat, Spy, and some other films directed by her husband that we don’t talk about except to say that, yes, she’s still a movie star, even when the movies are bad.
Breaking Bad became a big enough hit on TV that it elevated a few of its actors from character-actor-dom. Giancarlo Esposito became so popular and acclaimed for playing chicken-and-meth entrepreneur Gus Fring that it lifted him to the next level of a long career, including a stint in the Star Wars universe as The Mandalorian’s big bad. Jesse Plemons, meanwhile, didn’t show up until Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season, but he hit the show at the exact right time, while it was cresting in the TV Zeitgeist. His performance as opportunistic creep Todd helped him pivot from “Landry from Friday Night Lights” to lead roles on Fargo and in movies like I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
The immediacy of television has been great for elevating character actors to name recognition — provided the show was a big enough hit. Allison Janney was a consummate character actress in movies like Primary Colors when she snagged the role of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing. Over seven seasons, Janney proved so compelling in the supporting role that she built C.J. into a beloved, fan-favorite lead. Similarly, Michael K. Williams became an icon via his performance as Omar Little on The Wire. The more that show became “the HBO drama you must be watching” among its dedicated base of viewers and loud TV critics, the bigger the legend of Williams’s performance grew. And given that Omar was treated as a legend within the narrative of The Wire anyway, it all added up to a character turn that made Williams a star in his own right.
Schitt’s Creek is a more complicated addition to this category, but worthy of mentioning nonetheless. Eugene Levy had already followed the breakout-in-a-big-hit route when his role as Jim’s dad in American Pie gave the longtime sketch-comedy star a signature role, one he parlayed into several American Pie sequels, wherein he became the franchise’s central character. Meanwhile, his SCTV castmate Catherine O’Hara was an all-star within the ensembles of the Christopher Guest movies but remained firmly a character actor. The sharp ascendence of Schitt’s Creek from “Canadian comedy you should be watching” to “cherished pandemic touchstone and Emmy sweeper” only served to affirm Levy’s star status, and via the high-wire theatrics of Moira Rose, O’Hara was vaulted from “the mom from Home Alone” to the status of national obsession and awards magnet.
Spin Yourself Off
Best Example: Bob Odenkirk
He Spun Himself Off, Then Back Again: Dan Hedaya
A close cousin of the breakout TV role is the TV spinoff, which comes with all the benefits of a breakout character actor and cuts out the middleman of finding a new lead role for them. It’s a time-honored TV tradition benefitting the likes of Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Lou Grant), Robert Guillaume (Soap to Benson), and of course the great Dan Hedaya (Cheers to The Tortellis). Currently, there’s no better case for this pathway than Bob Odenkirk, whose Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad got his own hugely acclaimed TV show, Better Call Saul, and now the former Mr. Show comedian is suddenly headlining action thrillers like the upcoming John Wick–lite Nobody.
Star in a Small Thing That Hits Big
Best Example: Frances McDormand
Others Who Took This Route: Bryan Cranston
Inspiration to Character Actors Everywhere: Paul Giamatti
The smaller the film or TV project, the better the chance a character actor nabs a major role. But therein lies the quandary: Most small projects stay small, leaving no room or audience for the character actor to break out. But on the rare occasion that a small movie becomes a big hit, a character actor can ride that wave to breakout success. So when Paul Giamatti — who up until the mid-2000s was a character actor best known for playing a character called “Pig Vomit” in Private Parts — got cast as the lead in Alexander Payne’s Sideways and that film caught fire as an indie sensation and eventual Best Picture nominee, Giamatti made the leap to name star and occasional leading man.
For years, Frances McDormand cut her teeth and paid the bills for years as a character actor, with some memorable supporting turns in films like Raising Arizona and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Mississippi Burning. Her lead role as police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo probably wouldn’t have done much to change her status if the film hadn’t become an indie sensation and major Oscar player in 1996. McDormand won the first of two Best Actress Oscars (with a third maybe to come next month?), which pretty much instantly vaulted her into the realm of lead actresses.
Bryan Cranston, meanwhile, was one of TV’s great character actors in roles like Jerry’s dentist on Seinfeld, and even in his Emmy-nominated role as the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, he was firmly a character actor. And then Breaking Bad (which at this point ought to have an entire wing in the Character Actor Hall of Fame) came along, cast Cranston as a high-school science teacher who starts cooking meth to make ends meet, and launched Cranston into the realm of leading roles on TV (currently Showtime’s Your Honor), stage (Broadway’s Network), and screen (oh, just a little film called Trumbo).
Do It Yourself
Best Example: Billy Bob Thornton
Underrated Example: Danny McBride
Occasional Example: Jon Favreau
This pathway isn’t the easiest to walk, but there have been some major successes over the years. Basically, if a character actor is struggling to break into leading roles and they’re just not coming their way, it’s a real luxury to be able to write and direct something yourself. That’s how Billy Bob Thornton managed to traverse the path from a blackjack dealer cowering before Kurt Russell in 1993’s Tombstone to the Oscar-winning writer-director-star of Sling Blade by 1996.
Steve Buscemi attempted to pull this off with his writer-director effort Trees Lounge, the kind of talky, introspective indie that characterized a lot of mid-’90s filmmaking. That film’s failure to become a mainstream hit illustrates the limitations of the DIY model. As a character actor, Buscemi wasn’t a big enough star to make Trees Lounge into the kind of hit that would make him a big enough star to make Trees Lounge into a hit. (It’s a Möbius strip of a career path sometimes.) Ultimately, Buscemi was able to build up a critical mass of breakout roles in big hits like Reservoir Dogs and Fargo, and as it turns out, David Chase was a big fan of Trees Lounge and that’s why he tapped Buscemi to direct the famous “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos, and later to star in a season-long arc as Tony Blundetto, so sometimes these things do work out.
Jon Favreau is currently busy making bank directing movies and TV shows for Disney, but in the ’90s, he broke out of character parts as best friends (Rudy) or stoners (PCU) by writing a lead role for himself in Swingers, which put him on the map. He’s since revisited the writer-director-star thing in a few films, some (Chef) more successful than others (Made).
Danny McBride parlayed a combination of character roles in Frat Pack comedies like Pineapple Express and cult hits that he co-wrote himself, like The Foot Fist Way, into a kind of low-level fame and notoriety among his dedicated fans. He then leaned into that cult appeal by co-creating and starring in Eastbound & Down, which became an even bigger cult hit. And since HBO is a star-making platform even when the shows aren’t Sopranos-level smashes, McBride was able to complete the transition from character guy to comedy auteur, amassing enough juice to get HBO to bite on The Righteous Gemstones and probably whatever comedy series he’ll think up next.
Best Example: Sam Rockwell
Emeritus Example: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Should Also Have Qualified for the Oscars Path: Delroy Lindo
We could also call this category “Get in Good With Auteur Filmmakers,” since that’s how an actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman marched through years of character-actor work, delivering one memorable character after another for filmmakers like the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson. Hoffman’s gifts were so apparent in roles like Lester Bangs in Almost Famous and Phil Parma in Magnolia that he’d made a name for himself even before his leading role in Capote earned him an Academy Award.
Delroy Lindo’s relationship with Spike Lee began with a supporting role in Malcolm X and led to him getting a featured spotlight as a drug dealer in Clockers and a father of five in Crooklyn, two performances that stood out among a rich array of character roles throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. The last few years have seen Hollywood wake up to Lindo’s abilities, with a lead role in the TV show The Good Fight and, this year, a reteaming with Lee for Da 5 Bloods, which, in a just and sane world, ought to have earned Lindo his first Oscar nomination.
Sam Rockwell’s course out of the character-actor realm was a long and staggered one. He’d gotten lead roles early in his career in small films like Lawn Dogs, and he got cast as the lead in George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. But as often as the lead roles came around, the character parts pulled him back in, with ensemble turns in films like Galaxy Quest and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. But a successful partnership with Martin McDonagh led to roles in Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the latter of which earned him an Oscar, and most recently, he hoofed it as Bob Fosse on TV opposite Michelle Williams.
Rockwell — like all the character actors we’ve mentioned here — managed to emerge as a lead actor via good timing, good luck, and good relationships, but he also did it by being a really great character actor. Instead of trying to break free from character roles, these actors got so good at them that the rest of the industry finally took notice.