This week sees the release of Andrew Dominik‘s “Killing Them Softly,” a gripping little crime movie than threatens to be one of The Playlist’s highlights of 2012. And among its many pleasures is the chance to see some character actor favorites like James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, and newer up-and-comers like Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn given substantial roles to chew on. Best of all is a major role for the incomparably great Richard Jenkins.
Jenkins is one of those actors who’s never anything less than wonderful, stealing the show in countless films, able to turn on a sixpence between comedy and drama, and elevating everything he’s in. And yet, even though Jenkins won a much-deserved Oscar nomination a few years back for “The Visitor” and averages four or five movies a year, it still feels like he’s chronically undervalued in Hollywood.
So to pay tribute to Jenkins and his performance in “Killing Them Softly,” we’ve rounded up ten other actors who don’t seem to quite get their due. Some are veterans, some are relative newcomers, and all have impressed in movies but maybe don’t get to work as consistently, or in as high-profile roles as we’d like. Casting directors should note: the presence of any of the below is basically enough for us to buy a movie ticket, and we’re pretty sure we’re not alone on that. You can read our picks below, and while we head off to write a screenplay with roles for all of the below, you can suggest your own favorites who you’d like to see more of in our comments section.
One of the crown princes of being “that guy” — a familiar, but maybe not immediately recognizable character actor who regularly steals the show (see also Stephen Root, William Fichtner, and many, many others) — Gary Cole has been in the game for three decades, usually in supporting parts. The Illinois-born actor was one of the early leading lights of Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Company, which helped give the world Gary Sinise, John Malkovich and Joan Allen among others. And after a few decades of reliable TV and movie parts, Cole finally poked into the mainstream in 1995, with two wildly different roles: Mike Brady in “The Brady Bunch Movie” and the Satanic Sherriff Buck in the short-lived, but wildly acclaimed Sam Raimi-produced TV series “American Gothic.” But either stardom didn’t come calling, or Cole shied away from it, with quieter TV and movie roles following again. Four years later, he again stole the show as Bill Lumbergh in “Office Space,” and although it helped to buy him comic cred and parts in films like ‘Dodgeball,” “Talladega Nights” and “Pineapple Express,” he still remains a well-kept secret from the general public. Over the last few years, Cole has stayed as busy as ever, appearing on pretty much every TV show going, from “The Good Wife” to “Bob’s Burgers,” but hasn’t appeared in a movie since 2011’s “Hop.” We know that he’s never going to be Tom Cruise, but there’s almost nothing that Cole can’t do, from broad comedy to sincere drama, and smart casting in the right major movie could see him soar.
It feels almost pointless to remind people that an actress who’s been working for nearly thirty years and who has an Oscar is worth hiring, but we’re not sure that Jennifer Connelly is really getting her due from the casting types these days. Connelly first appeared as a child actress in Sergio Leone‘s “Once Upon A Time In America,” and followed it soon up with Dario Argento‘s “Phenomena” and Jim Henson‘s beloved fantasy “Labyrinth.” She graduated to adulthood with “The Hot Spot” and “The Rocketeer,” and, while things were quieter in the 1990s, it picked up towards the end of the decade with Alex Proyas‘ cult film “Dark City.” And as the 21st century arrived, she suddenly exploded, with a bruising, gaunt, powerful performance in “Requiem For A Dream,” and another with the strong but underseen “Waking the Dead.” And her ascent to the A-list was completed the following year when she won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars for playing Alicia Nash in Ron Howard‘s “A Beautiful Mind.” Connelly’s had successes since, most notably in “Little Children” and “Blood Diamond,” but more misses, including “Dark Water” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” Her last few films have proven particularly dire with neither “Creation,” “Virginia,” “The Dilemma,” “Salvation Boulevard” or ‘Writers” proving especially popular with critics or audiences. Part of the issue may be that now she’s in her 40s, and Connelly’s hit that point where there are fewer and fewer plum roles for actresses of her age. But Connelly still has to be considered as one of the more pre-eminent actresses of her generation, and should really be getting better material, rather than just a string of wives and moms. Fortunately, some of her previous collaborators may be coming to the rescue. She’s got a key role in Darren Aronofsky‘s “Noah” as the missus of Russell Crowe‘s title character, and is following it up with “A Beautiful Mind” writer Akiva Goldsman‘s “Winter’s Tale,” also co-starring Crowe and alongside Will Smith and Colin Farrell. Hopefully it means the start of a third act to her career.
Somewhat of a slow-burner, Rosemarie DeWitt (who is the granddaughter of boxer James Braddock, the subject of the film “Cinderella Man,” in which she had a cameo) spent a good decade or so building up a formidable reputation in the theater, but really only started to make an impact on screens five or so years ago. After a brief year on the hostage negotiation series “Standoff” (which was cancelled quickly, but had the benefit of introducing DeWitt to co-star Ron Livingston, who she later married), DeWitt impressed with a recurring role as Don Draper’s mistress on the first season of “Mad Men.” Within a year, she was the title role in Jonathan Demme‘s “Rachel Getting Married,” and while co-star Anne Hathaway won most of the acclaim for the film, DeWitt was again terrific, and along with that year’s “Afterschool,” it put the actress properly on the map. She’s gone from strength to strength in the last few years, with 2012 marking three very good turns from the actress in the shape of “Nobody Walks,” “Promised Land” and in particular “Your Sister’s Sister,” which won her a Spirit Award nomination yesterday. Mainstream cinema hasn’t quite caught on yet, with her most prominent studio role to date a somewhat thankless part as Ben Stiller‘s wife in flop comedy “The Watch.” But with a reunion with Lynn Shelton in next year’s “Touchy Feely“ on the way, hopefully her profile will continue to grow. She’s someone we can absolutely see ending up with an Oscar nomination in the next few years.
His name and face might not be immediately recognizable to the general public, but in a remarkably short space of time — really the last year or so — Frank Grillo has become the kind of actor who makes everything he’s in about ten percent better. Grillo was a true working actor for the best part of twenty years, popping up most notably in “Minority Report” and “The Sweetest Thing,” but hardly landing atop casting wishlists. But then last year came “Warrior,” Gavin O’Connor‘s tremendously effective mixed martial arts drama, in which Grillo stood out as the trainer of Joel Edgerton‘s character. And he’s quietly had a strong 2012, standing out in “The Grey” even among a cast with several contenders for this list (Dallas Roberts, James Badge Dale), stealing scenes in “Lay the Favorite,” impressing in the otherwise skippable “Disconnect” and, giving something of a masterclass in one scene of “End of Watch” (his drunken melancholy at the wedding is one of the best bits of acting we’ve seen all year). There’s loads more on the way — “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Gangster Squad,” the Richard Curtis-penned HBO movie “Mary & Martha,” a lead role in action-thriller “Intersection,” James Franco/Jason Statham team-up “Homefront” — but he deserves to be working with more Bigelow-style A-list directors. Hopefully a high-profile villain role in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” will put him on the path to land those.
Given that she gave one of the most widely acclaimed female performances of the last few years — as the ever-sunny Poppy in Mike Leigh‘s “Happy-Go-Lucky,” which won her a Golden Globe — it’s a little puzzling that Sally Hawkins hasn’t exploded since. The actress, a RADA grad, has been winning acclaim on stage since the late 1990s, and became something of a Mike Leigh favorite in the movie world in the early ’00s, cropping up in “All Or Nothing” and “Vera Drake” before “Happy-Go-Lucky.” And even before the latter, she’d come to the attention of some big-name directors, with a smallish role in Matthew Vaughn‘s “Layer Cake” and a bigger one in Woody Allen‘s “Cassandra’s Dream.” But since, she’s been reliably superb in tiny roles — heartbreakingly compassionate as teacher Miss Lucy in “Never Let Me Go,” steely in a one-scene wonder in “An Education,” and terrifying in “Jane Eyre.” And that she didn’t get more attention for her phenomenal turn in Richard Ayoade‘s “Submarine” is kind of baffling to us. But things haven’t been so good with her lead roles — “Love Birds” was virtually unseen, and “Made In Dagenham” never quite managed to turn into the “Full Monty“-style mainstream hit it initially promised to be. Perhaps things would have been different if she hadn’t missed out, surprisingly, on an Oscar nod for “Happy-Go-Lucky.” But Hawkins isn’t threatening to be out of work any time soon. She’s in Mike Newell‘s “Great Expectations” at the moment and has “Junebug” director Phil Morrison‘s new film, alongside Paul Rudd, and a reunion with Woody Allen coming up in 2013. But we hope directors and casting directors take the time to see Hawkins opposite Rafe Spall in stage play “Constellations” in London at the moment where she’s giving a phenomenal performance.
“Bridesmaids” aside, the post-Apatow comedic revolution has been kinder to the men than it has to the women. But one of the exceptions to the rule is Kathryn Hahn, who first came to fame on TV’s “Crossing Jordan,” but has been stealing comedy roles since “Anchorman” in 2004. Hahn was one of the more memorable news team members in the film (fingers crossed she gets an expanded role in the upcoming sequel), and was even better as Adam Scott‘s over-sexed wife in “Step Brothers.” She’s also paid her rom-com dues in films like “A Lot Like Love” and “The Holiday,” and only earlier this year was stealing scenes in David Wain‘s ‘Wanderlust” and on “Parks and Recreation.” But there’s a lot more to her than funny bones, and she was impressive in a small role in Sam Mendes “Revolutionary Road,” and gave a great recurring performance in the first season of “Girls.” It’s not that she hasn’t had proper showcases in the past. She starred in short-lived sitcom “Free Agents,” and James L. Brooks gave her a good-sized role in the botched “How Do You Know?,” but they’ve never quite landed. There’s more on the way, most notably “We’re The Millers“ and “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty“ in 2013, but again, a canny indie filmmaker could end up storming the festival circuit by writing a role to her real strengths.
Michael Pitt is another slow-burner. He’s been a familiar face on screen for over a decade, and seemingly every time he comes close to serious stardom, he ends up pulling back. For the most part, his bona-fides are from the indie world, beginning with an impressive performance in “Hedwig & the Angry Inch,” followed soon enough by Larry Clark‘s “Bully.” He tipped his toe into studio waters alongside Ryan Gosling in the “Rope“-indebted “Murder By Numbers,” and M. Night Shyamalan‘s “The Village,” but it was a pair of indies around the same time that really suggested he had the potential for DiCaprio-esque stardom: Bernardo Bertolucci‘s “The Dreamers” and Gus Van Sant‘s “Last Days,” the latter seeing him giving an astonishing performance as a Kurt Cobain-ish rock star. His next few films — “Delirious,” “Silk,” the remake of “Funny Games” — never quite went anywhere, but he seemed to get a second lease of life as one of the leads in the stacked cast of “Boardwalk Empire.” It served as a serious reminder of his talents, and *spoiler* with the show-runners choosing to kill his character, Jimmy Darmody, off at the end of the second season *end spoiler*, Pitt’s been a free agent for the last year or so. But it doesn’t quite seem to have converted into more roles. The actor had a tiny cameo in “Seven Psychopaths,” and was nearly cast as Tetsuo in the aborted “Akira” remake, but he doesn’t seem to have taken a serious role in the meantime. Fingers crossed, that’s about to change. He co-wrote, produces and stars in the 1920s drama “You Can’t Win,” which is one to watch on the festival circuit in the next year, and with any luck that’ll see him get more attention. And he’s returning to gangland territory for “Rob the Mob” alongside Nina Arianda soon. Pitt’s talent certainly isn’t in question, but it’d be nice to see him cropping up more on screen in the next few years.
The Baltimore-born James Ransone‘s had a few false starts along his decade-long career so far, but hopefully a recent run of success will mean more people start taking notice again. The actor made his debut in Larry Clark‘s controversial, little-seen “Ken Park,” giving a storming performance as the auto-aspyhixiating, murderous Tate. Even if people didn’t see it, he didn’t have to wait for too long for more exposure. He played Ziggy, one of the most memorable (and infuriating) characters on the divisive second season of HBO classic “The Wire,” a few small movie roles followed, but Ransone was hooked on heroin in his mid-20s, weighing a mere 115 pounds, and ended up 30 grand in debt, which understandably curtailed his career somewhat. When ‘Wire’ creator David Simon cast him again in military miniseries “Generation Kill,” Ransone sorted himself out, and has steadily been climbing up the ladder again. HBO has continued to be good to him, with recurring roles on “How To Make It In America” and “Treme,” and after smaller parts in “Prom Night” and “The Next Three Days,” he’s had more impressive parts in indie favorite “Starlet,” and stole the show as the deputy in horror sleeper “Sinister.” Next year should be good to him, too. He’s got roles in Albert Hughes’ “Broken City,” Dito Montiel‘s “Empire State,” AMC pilot “Low Winter Sun” with Mark Strong, indie “The Timber” and Jim Sturgess vehicle “Electric Slide.” Perhaps most importantly, he’s become something of a protege of Spike Lee. After cropping up in “Inside Man” and “Red Hook Summer,” the director cast him in a key role in his “Oldboy” remake when Nate Parker dropped out. This is all heading in the right direction, but Ransone strikes us as the kind of guy who deserves leads, the kind of parts a young Pacino would have played. And we hope that casting directors start to realize the same thing soon.
She might not have got the Oscar nomination, but when “Juno” landed five years ago, Olivia Thirlby impressed almost as many people as co-star Ellen Page. Snappy, sexy, and able to get her head around the script’s Diablo Cody-isms, it suggested that a star was born, and Thirlby swiftly followed it up with another strong performance in ’90s coming-of-age tale “The Wackness.” And later that year, she won rave reviews on stage for “Farragut North” opposite Chris Pine (the play was turned into George Clooney’s “The Ides Of March,” with Evan Rachel Wood taking Thirlby’s role). But since then, the 26-year-old seemed to hit a bit of a speed bump. She was replaced (amicably) as Seth Rogen‘s high-school girlfriend in “Pineapple Express,” and indies like “Arlen Faber” and “What Goes Up” never really went anywhere (though a recurring guest spot on “Bored To Death” proved more of a highlight). 2011 saw her venture into the studio world for the first time, but she was wasted in “No Strings Attached,” and featured in the quickly forgotten “The Darkest Hour.” This year has, admittedly, been better — she showed a new side to her range with the kick-ass Judge Anderson in “Dredd,” though the film’s meager box office means it won’t be a continuing interest. More crucially, and the thing that truly reminded us of her talent, was Ry Russo-Young‘s “Nobody Walks,” in which Thirlby gives one of the more undervalued female performances of the year as an aspiring filmmaker staying with an L.A. family (John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt) who up-ends their lives. Hopefully it’ll remind more people of her talents.
Michael Pitt‘s far from the only actor to get a good showcase from “Boardwalk Empire” — the increasingly strong series has given meaty material to everyone from veterans like Steve Buscemi and Michael Shannon to folks like Kelly Macdonald, Michael K. Williams, Michael Stuhlbarg and Gretchen Mol, and relative newcomers like Vincent Piazza, Jack Huston and Charlie Cox. But perhaps the actor we most hope gets a boost off the HBO show is perpetually underrated character actor Shea Whigham. The actor, a theater veteran who first broke out in “Tigerland” and “All The Real Girls” in the early ’00s, seems to get better each time we see him, not least on ‘Boardwalk,’ as Nucky’s semi-treacherous brother Eli, where he’s been continually impressive. Whigham’s one of those actors who has absolutely no problem getting work. In the last four years, he’s managed to find room for 16 movies alongside three seasons of “Boardwalk Empire,” but they’re generally smallish roles in things like “Machete,” “Fast & Furious,” “Big Miracle” and “Savages.” But every time he gets something with a little more substance, like his great work in “Take Shelter” or even his brief turn in this year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” he shows why he deserves more work. And the few leads he has had — he walked away with “Wristcutters: A Love Story” as the Russian-accented co-lead — have only backed that up. It seems to us that Whigham is primed for a Michael Shannon/John Hawkes-esque break out to the big leagues. It just needs a sharp indie filmmaker to realize that and take that chance. In the meantime, he’s reuniting with Scorsese on “The Wolf of Wall Street” and turning up in Terrence Malick‘s “Knight of Cups,” which can only be welcome moves.