There are no small parts – just small actors …
…. Try telling that to me a few years ago when I was languishing on screen in such roles as 2nd Policeman or Concerned Bypasser and I probably wouldn’t have believed you. However those roles soon led to bigger roles and I realised that if I hadn’t have put my all into making the absolute most of any two or three line roles I have been cast in then my career would never have got going.
In Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins plays serial killer Hannibal Lecter and he won the Oscar for his terrifying portrayal. He is actually only on screen for about 16 minutes.
Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice only spent two weeks filming his role and believe it or not he too is only on screen for under twenty minutes. Ask anyone who stars in Beetlejuice and they will probably give you Keaton’s name before even mentioning Geena Davis or Alec Baldwin.
When I have an audition or casting for any role on television or film I treat it exactly the same regardless of how many lines, scenes or screen time I have. I do the same character analysis and homework as I would with a large role and I make each character as fully rounded and realised as I can before I go in and meet with the director. In fact with the smaller roles I am able to have more fun and be more creative with my backstory and character because it isn’t all written for me in the script.
Every single character you see on screen in a tv programme or movie has to be fully believable – if even the smallest role is badly acted then we get to peep behind the curtain and realise that the wizard is just a man!
Here are some examples of actors who really excel in smaller roles on screen. Yes, they are not just playing Waiter or Shop-Girl, they are playing roles which were written to stand out – but the moral of the story remains the same, if these roles were badly played then they wouldn’t have been at all memorable. In the hands of small actors these roles would have become forgettable and not stand-out movie moments.
Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love
Judi Dench won an Oscar for her protrayal of Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.
She is actually only on screen for roughly eight minutes. However short those eight minutes are she puts in a hugely memorable performance. When she won her Oscar she actually said “I feel for eight minutes on the screen, I should only get a little bit of him.”.
Every scene she is in she steals without even trying, although an actor of Judi Dench’s talent would never willingly steal a scene.
Her performance is fearless, droll and surprisingly understated. The power of being able to create an entire character in just eight minutes whose presence overshadows the whole film is something very few actors could do.
Drew Barrymore in Scream
Drew Barrymore opens the first movie in the very popular horror franchise Scream. This is perhaps one of the most famous openings of a movie ever.
Drew Barrymore was actually originally cast to play the lead role in the film, Sidney Prescott, but due to scheduling conflicts had to turn down the role. Director Wes Craven offered her the role of Casey deciding that the first big shocker of the film should be to ‘kill off’ the lead actress in the first five minutes. Drew was a huge star at the time and her face is the main face on the poster.
Filming for this role took five days (or nights) and Drew and director Wes agreed that there would be no fake tears, so they made up a secret story – believed to be about animal cruelty, something which Barrymore is a campaigner against – which Wes would tell Drew before shooting and it would make her cry real tears. For the hyperventilating Drew simply ran around a lot between takes!
Robert Blake in Lost Highway
Robert Blake plays the Mystery Man in David Lynch’s Lost Highway
The Mystery Man is probably one of the weirdest and creepiest characters in movies. He approaches leading man Fred Madison, played by Bill Pullman, at a party and announces that they have met before. What follows is a very strange and bizarre encounter.
Blake has a truly creepy presence with his odd Kabuki make-up and lack of eyebrows however his performance not just his appearance is what embraces the oddness of the role. He relishes the bizarre and turns in a mesmerisingly strange yet performance whilst still staying small and almost stiff in his stillness. He also has one of the most haunting and condescending laughs ever!
Ned Beatty in Network
Ned Beatty was nomintated for an Oscar for his role as Arthur Jensen in the 1976 movie Network
In this unforgettable moment from the film Arthur Jenson tells Howard Beale how the world really works. This film is almost 40 years old, but the message is still totally relevant today.
This is a true powerhouse of a performance. Ned Beatty said that his inspiration for this speech was his father who was a Baptist preacher – that is where he found the immaculate pacing for this delivery.
The opening roar which leads to a quiet closing section makes this a truely masterful monologue.
Beatty has just two scenes in this movie, this long monologue of a scene and another scene in which he has just one sentence of dialogue.
Beatrice Straight in Network
Judi Dench won her Oscar for just eight minutes of screen time but she didn’t break the record which was set by Beatrice Straight whose Oscar winning performance in 1976’s Network lasts just 5 minutes and 13 seconds! But boy, what a five minutes it is!!
Beatrice Straight plays Louise Schumacher, the wife of fired television executive Max Schumacher whose foundation is shattered as she learns of her husband’s extended adulterous affair.
Her acting in this scene is a tour de force where she journeys through nearly all the stage s of grief in just a few minutes. She absorbs the information which moves into angry confrontation then crumbles into sadness and pain before finally acceptance and love.
Again here we see an actor create a fully rounded character with a rich history and inner life in just a few moments – her work in this movie is solid, with a genuine empathy, clarity and dexterity.
Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction
Qentin Tarantino’s 1994 drama Pulp Fiction is full of knock out performances but my favourite is Harvey Keitel as ‘The Wolf’
Keitel steals the movie for me with his performance as Cleaner Winston Wolfe who solves problems. His performance is cool, calm and the dry moments of humour are underplayed played with perfection. Just look at the little moment when he first sips the coffee and silently remarks on how nice it is.
The true power of this performance for me comes in how he underplays the end of the scene, a moment which another actor could have gone overboard and acted mad yet Keitel keeps his cool which makes The Wold all the more frightening!
Harvey Keitel turns in another stellar small performance as a ‘cleaner’ in the Luc Besson produced movie The Assassin