20 Character Actors Who Make Everything They’re in Better

Netflix
Netflix

If the main character in your movie is a straitlaced do-gooder, or really, blandly relatable in any way, you’re going to need some eccentric figures to bring some spice to the party. More than mere sidekicks, these characters either make the world they inhabit feel dangerous and chaotic or bring order to insanity by sheer force of personality. They’re characters that make your ears perk just as the movie starts to lose you.

Character actors are tasked with making movies more interesting, but only the best of them succeed. So here are 20 ultra-talented stars who never fail to make good films great, great films classic, and terrible films almost watchable.

1. PETER STORMARE

Peter Stormare in 'American Gods'
Jan Thijs, Starz Entertainment/FremantleMedia North America

Thank Fargo for this one. Peter Stormare’s magic stems from his range, which runs from Genuinely Kind to Terrifyingly Aggressive. You might expect him to play a growling bad guy every role, but his comic timing and humane sensitivity allow him to play everything from an unlicensed eye doctor in Minority Report to multiple voices on children’s shows to an incompetent nihilist kidnapper in The Big Lebowski.

2. OCTAVIA SPENCER

Octavia Spencer in 'Hidden Figures' (2016)
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Octavia Spencer is a world-class actor and producer with the hardware to prove it (including an Oscar, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe). She’s a dynamite talent who offers a Herculean amount of support to everyone she shares scenes with. It’s possible that her trademark is a wry, knowing sense of humor, but she’s not that easily pinned down or pigeonholed, mightily subverting expectations in genre work like Snowpiercer and gut-wrenching dramas like Fruitvale Station.

3. SCOOT MCNAIRY

Scoot McNairy in 'Halt and Catch Fire'
Eric Ogden, AMC

Possessing leading man looks and chops with a character actor’s transformative ability, Scoot McNairy is a deft craftsman who brings meek powder keg Gordon Clark to life on Halt and Catch Fire as well as embodying slimy slave trader Brown in 12 Years a Slave and amateurish holdup man Frankie in the crime drama Killing Them Softly.

4. TILDA SWINTON

Tilda Swinton in 'Only Lovers Left Alive' (2013)
Sandro Kopp, Sony Pictures Classics

Some character actors are in the hall of fame, some have won awards, but Tilda Swinton is on (and possibly from) another planet. She can more than hold her own as a leading performer, delivering searing portrayals in We Need to Talk About Kevin and deathly mystery in The Only Lovers Left Alive. But it’s her bizarre character work that most endures, like having your brain smacked with a rainbow baseball bat. From her toothy despot in Snowpiercer to her thousand-year-old dowager in The Grand Budapest Hotel to her wintry witch in The Chronicles of Narnia to a dozen other deeply strange performances, Swinton is playing a totally different game than everyone else. If Hollywood ever makes a David Bowie biopic, they know who to hire.

5. OLIVER PLATT

Oliver Platt in FX's 'Fargo'
Chris Large, FX Networks

An actor’s actor, Oliver Platt never seems content to play the same role twice, yet he has the peerless ability to make it feel as if we’ve known a character our whole lives. That bone-deep familiarity is a quality that comes from another level of acting talent. Even if he’s only in one scene, Platt never phones it in. He’s never less than fantastic. Whether droll and off-the-cuff or stridently severe, you get the feeling that Platt is in it for the pure, unbridled love of acting.

6. ANN DOWD

Ann Dowd plays Aunt Lydia in 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

This Emmy-winning, 30-year veteran is in five movies coming out this year alone. That’s on top of a busy slate of guest starring roles on TV shows where she almost always becomes the best thing about the episode. She just finished up a remarkable run as the dead-eyed, chain-smoking Patti in The Leftovers, but her reign of matronly terror as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale has only just begun.

7. GIANCARLO ESPOSITO

Giancarlo Esposito in 'Breaking Bad'
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

To offer some perspective on Giancarlo Esposito’s genius: he recently did a single episode of Westworld where he delivered a fiery monologue that shook a character to the core, and the creators of Westworld almost definitely hired him because they knew he’d deliver a fiery monologue that would shake an entire audience to its core. Best known as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad (and Better Call Saul), Esposito has appeared in more than 75 movies and a list of TV episodes no one has time to count (though it's worth a reminder that he played Big Bird's camp counselor on Sesame Street). Unfailingly charismatic, Esposito is a modern marvel who, over four decades of acting, has never failed to astound.

8. CARRIE COON

Carrie Coon stars in HBO's 'The Leftovers'
HBO

Carrie Coon’s acting talent is so outstanding that she often commanded entire sequences in The Leftovers without interacting with anyone else. Her character was marked by isolation, and you could wind up not remembering to blink while watching her complete even the most mundane of tasks with a seemingly infinite pool of sorrow. She brought that concentration of anxiety to Gone Girl, where she played the sister of Ben Affleck’s character, and, most recently, to the third season of the Fargo TV series.

9. MICHAEL STULHBARG

Michael Stuhlbarg in 'A Serious Man' (2009)
Focus Features

Last year, in addition to his starring role in the third season of Fargo, Michael Stulhbarg was in three Best Picture nominees—The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name, and The Post—where he played pivotal roles as a modest Soviet spy, a father with a barn-burning monologue of compassionate acceptance, and a cosmopolitan newspaper editor, respectively. Three in one year. That’s incredible, but easy to believe when it comes to a talent like Stuhlbarg, who combines a workmanlike consistency and a stage actor’s perfectionism to create everymen who, far from being boring, are each singularly memorable.

10. MARGO MARTINDALE

Margo Martindale in 'The Americans'
FX Networks

The one. The only. Margo Martindale is so transcendent that BoJack Horseman features a character called “Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale” (which is voiced by Martindale). Perhaps the most famous character actor currently working, she brings a maternal energy to even her craziest characters, which probably makes them seem even crazier. She also excels in roles that exude a sense of cool confidence, which helps if you’re handling soviet spies on The Americans or leading a weed-dealing family on Justified.

11. WALTON GOGGINS

Walton Goggins in FX's 'Justified'
FX Networks

Speaking of Justified: Walton Goggins earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of gritty-yet-charming criminal Boyd Crowder on the show, but he deserves so many more awards (though it's worth noting that he did win an Oscar in 2002, when The Accountant—a short film he produced and starred in—was named Best Live-Action Short Film). He’s got a flare for playing wild-eyed thugs and weirdos blissfully lacking self-awareness, but the scummy majesty he offers isn’t solely used for black hats. Goggins popping up randomly in movies and TV shows is always a delight because he’s a hell of an actor who seems to have time traveled here from the Wild West.

12. CCH POUNDER

CCH Pounder in 'NCIS: New Orleans'
CBS

CCH Pounder’s niche is serious professionals in police stations and emergency rooms, but she’s also brought steely playfulness to the neighborhood witch Madame Dorothea in the Mortal Instruments franchise. She’s consistently fantastic, drawing on years of expertise, natural magnetism, and an amazing number of starring and guest-starring roles on TV.

13. STEPHEN ROOT

Stephen Root in 'Idiotsitter' (2014)
Comedy Central

Stephen Root has portrayed so many outlandish characters that it’s shocking when he turns up in a movie in khakis and a Polo shirt. There are no limits on his range, and you can take your pick from a metric ton of favorites: Office Space, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dodgeball, Idiocracy, King of the Hill, NewsRadio, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Get Out are just a few. In his TV career, he’s been in over 700 episodes and continues to elevate his game. This is legendary character actor status here.

14. ALLISON JANNEY

Allison Janney in 'I, Tonya' (2017)
Neon

West Wing fans have known about Allison Janney’s ability to command a room either with charm, severity, or by doing "The Jackal" since the late 1990s. But she solidified her place in the Character Actor Hall of Fame with her Oscar-winning turn as Tonya Harding’s abusive, bird enthusiast mother in I, Tonya. With a comic edge that echoes vaudeville (see: Hairspray) and a scary intensity when things get serious, Janney excels in any role you lay at her feet.

15. PAT HEALY

Pat Healy in 'The Innkeepers' (2011)
Magnolia Pictures

Often portraying the disturbing or the disturbed, Pat Healy is willing to push extremes of manic glee while staying grounded. He most notably shines through the grit in Cheap Thrills as the downtrodden mechanic Craig who performs increasingly violent and degrading stunts for a bigger pot of money. He also menaced Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker by phone in Compliance and was menaced by ghosts in The Innkeepers.

16. MICHELLE HURST

Michelle Hurst in 'Orange Is the New Black'
Netflix

If you’re a fan of Law & Order and its 1000 spinoffs, you’ve seen (and likely marveled at) Michelle Hurst a dozen times. She possesses a sharp ferocity, as proven by her portrayal of the acerbic Miss Claudette on the first season of Orange is the New Black. She was sidelined after a 2013 car accident, but she’s back this year in a supporting role in the romantic comedy Permission, so hopefully casting directors will take of this criminally underused powerhouse.

17. MICHAEL PEÑA

Michael Peña in 'CHIPS' (2017)
Peter Iovino, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

If you only know Michael Peña as the fast-talking goof in Ant-Man, you’d be forgiven for not realizing the dangerous dramatic work he has done since Crash. He’s the rare talent who’s at the top of his game whether trying to make us laugh, cry, or wrestle with difficult truths. How else can you explain him stealing scenes in Marvel’s miniature superhero film a year after transforming wholesale into Cesar Chavez for a biopic of the civil rights activist?

18. KATHRYN HAHN

Kathryn Hahn in 'Happyish'
Showtime

Kathryn Hahn has been outshining her leading counterparts for years, but Bad Moms really gave her room to run. She absolutely has the skills to heighten the drama in movies like Revolutionary Road and This Is Where I Leave You, but the sweet spot of her talent is in finding humor by playing an exaggerated version of our funny best friend. Jill Soloway’s Afternoon Delight proved Hahn could shoulder a starring role, but it’s great that she has found her stride as the bar-hopping, sexually adventurous single mother ripping through stereotypes in a budding Bad Moms franchise and continues to command the screen in ensembles.

19. KEITH DAVID

Keith David and Parker Young in 'Enlisted'
Adam Taylor, Fox

This Juilliard graduate got his cinematic start with The Thing and Platoon, then went on to lend his unmistakable, Emmy-worthy voice and stature to a slew of harrowing dramas. But Keith David’s secret weapon is his comic perfection as an exasperated authority figure on display in There’s Something About Mary, Rick and Morty, the short-lived-but-brilliant Enlisted, and later seasons of Community. You can count on the Tony winner for acting perfection on screen or on stage.

20. BETH GRANT

Drew Barrymore and Beth Grant in 'Donnie Darko' (2001)
Newmarket Films

If you need an actor to play a religious zealot or snappy rule-enforcer, Beth Grant is your first and last phone call. She’s the consummate stick in the mud, crafting figures who scold and harangue the main character for having even the tiniest bit of fun. We often love to hate the characters she portrays in movies like Donnie Darko and No Country for Old Men (not to mention her regular role on The Mindy Project), but she always transforms flat antagonists into fully realized humans by carving out space for sympathy.

This Smart Accessory Converts Your Instant Pot Into an Air Fryer

Amazon
Amazon

If you can make a recipe in a slow cooker, Dutch oven, or rice cooker, you can likely adapt it for an Instant Pot. Now, this all-in-one cooker can be converted into an air fryer with one handy accessory.

This Instant Pot air fryer lid—currently available on Amazon for $80—adds six new cooking functions to your 6-quart Instant Pot. You can select the air fry setting to get food hot and crispy fast, using as little as 2 tablespoons of oil. Other options include roast, bake, broil, dehydrate, and reheat.

Many dishes you would prepare in the oven or on the stovetop can be made in your Instant Pot when you switch out the lids. Chicken wings, French fries, and onion rings are just a few of the possibilities mentioned in the product description. And if you're used to frying being a hot, arduous process, this lid works without consuming a ton of energy or heating up your kitchen.

The lid comes with a multi-level air fry basket, a broiling and dehydrating tray, and a protective pad and storage cover. Check it out on Amazon.

For more clever ways to use your Instant Pot, take a look at these recipes.

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Q&A: Kristen Bell Celebrates Diversity In Her New Kid's Book, The World Needs More Purple People

Jim Spellman/Getty Images
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Kristen Bell is one of those household names that brings to mind a seemingly endless list of outstanding performances in both TV and film. She is Veronica Mars. She is the very memorable Sarah Marshall. She's the voice of Gossip Girl. She just recently wrapped up her NBC series The Good Place. Your nieces and nephews likely know her as Princess Anna from the Frozen films. She also has one of the most uplifting and positive presences on social media.

Now, adding to her long list of accomplishments, Kristen Bell is the published author of a new children’s book called The World Needs More Purple People. Born out of seeing how cultural conversations were skewing more toward the things that divide us, the new picture book—which Bell co-authored with Benjamin Hart—encourages kids to see what unites us all as humans.

We spoke with Kristen Bell about what it means to be a purple person, her new animated series Central Park, and becoming a foster failure. We also put her knowledge of sloths to the test.

How did The World Needs More Purple People book come to be?

Basically my genius buddy, Ben Hart, and I were looking around and sort of seeing how our children were watching us debate healthily at the dinner table, which is fine. But it occurred to us that everything they were seeing was a disagreement. And that’s because that can be fun for adults, but it’s not a good basis for kids to start out on. We realized we were not really giving our kids a ton of examples of us, as adults, talking about the things that bring us together. So The World Needs More Purple People was born.

Book cover of Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart's 'The World Needs More Purple People'
Random House via Amazon

We decided to create a roadmap of similarities to give kids a jumping off point of how to look for similarities ... [because] if you can see similarities, you’re more likely to walk through the world with an open mind. But if you walk into a conversation seeing only differences, your mind is going to think differently of that person’s opinion and you just never know when you’re going to hear an opinion that might enlighten you. So we wanted to give kids this roadmap to follow to basically say, “Here are some great features that no one can argue with. Have these features and you’ll have similarities with almost everyone on the planet.”

Part of the reason I love the book so much is because it encourages kids to ask questions, even if they're silly. What are some silly questions you’ve had to answer for your kids?

Oh my god. How much time do you have? Once she asked in rapid fire: Is Santa Claus real? Why is Earth? Who made dogs?

How do you even answer that?

It was too much; I had to walk away. Kids have a ton of questions, and as they get older and more verbal, the funny thing that happens is they get more insecure. So we wanted to encourage the question-asking, and also encourage the uniqueness of every child. Which is why Dan Wiseman, who did our illustrations, really captured this middle point between Ben and I. Ben is very sincere, and I am very quirky. And I feel like the illustrations were captured brilliantly because we also wanted a ton of diversity because that is what the book is about.

The book is about seeing different things and finding similarities. Each kid in the book looks a little bit different, but also a little bit the same. The message at the end of the book is with all these features that you can point out and recognize in other people—loving to laugh, working really hard, asking great questions ... also know that being a purple person means being uniquely you in the hopes that kids will recognize that purple people come in every color.

What was it like behind-the-scenes of writing a children’s book with two little girls at home? Were they tough critics?

Shockingly, no. They did not have much interest in the fact that I was writing a children’s book until there were pictures. Then they were like, “Oh now I get it.” But prior to that, when I’d run the ideas by them, they were not as interested. But I did read it to them. They gave me the two thumbs up. Ben has two kids as well, and all our kids are different ages. Once we got the thumbs up from the 5-year-old, the 7-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 11-year-old, we thought, “OK, this is good to go.”

I hope that people, and kids especially, really do apply this as a concept. We would love to see this as a curriculum going into schools if they wanted to use it to ask: What happened today in your life that was purple? What could you do to make tomorrow more purple? Like as a concept of a way of living.

Weirdly, writing a children’s book was a way of getting to the adults. If it’s a children’s book, there is a high probability an adult is going to either be reading it to you or be there while you’re reading it—which means you’re getting two demographics. If we had just written a novel about this kind of concept, we’d never reach the kids. But by writing a kid's book, we also access the adults.

Your new show Central Park looks so incredible. What can you tell us about the show and your character Molly?

I am so excited for the show to come out. I’ve seen it and it is exceptional. It is so, so, so funny and so much fun. I signed on because I got a phone call from my friend Josh Gad, who said, “I’m going to try to put together a cartoon for us to work on.” And I said, “Yes. Goodbye.” And he and Loren Bochard, who created Bob’s Burgers, took basically all of our friends—Leslie Odom Jr., Stanley Tucci, Kathryn Hahn, Tituss Burgess, Daveed Diggs, and myself—and created a family who lives in the middle of Central Park.

I play a teenager named Molly who is very socially awkward but has this incredible, relentlessly creative, vivacious personality going on only inside her head … and it’s a musical! So, she's awkward on the outside but when she sings her songs she really comes to life. And she's a comic book artist, so the cartoon often switches to what she's seeing in her head.

It's so funny and Josh Gad plays this busker who lives in Central Park, who is the narrator. Stanley Tucci plays this older woman named Bitsy who is trying to build a shopping mall in the center of Central Park, and the family’s job is to basically save Central Park. But the music is so incredible. We’ve got two music writers, Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, who write the majority of the music, but we also have guest writers that come in every episode. So Sara Bareilles wrote some music and Cyndi Lauper wrote some music. It is such a fun show.

My husband, who does not like cartoons or musicals, watched the first couple of episodes, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve got something really special in your hands.” And he doesn’t like anything. It made me so happy. I cannot wait until this show comes out, I am so proud of it.

What was it like to reunite with Josh Gad on another musical animated series that isn't Frozen?

Josh and I talk a lot, and we had a lot of behind-the-scenes conversations about how we can work together again, just because we adore each other. And part of it is because we get along socially, and part of it is because we trust each other comedically. He's a creator and writer more so than I am, so I usually leave it up to him and say, "What’s our next project?" We have other things in the pipeline we would love to do together, but [Central Park] was an immediate yes because I trust how he writes. Josh is at every single one of my recording sessions; he is very hands-on with the shows that he does or produces or creates. I trust him as much as I trust my husband, creatively, and that’s saying a lot.

Given your well-documented love of sloths, we do have to throw out a few true or false questions about sloths and put your knowledge to the test …

Oh my gosh. OK, now I'm nervous. Hit me.

True or false: Sloths fart more than humans.

Fart more than humans?

Yes.

I’m going to say it's true.

It’s actually false. Sloths don’t fart at all. They might be the only mammal on the planet that does not fart.

You’re kidding. Another reason to love them. You know, I was trying to think medically about it. I know they only poop once a week and that if you only go poop once a week ... I thought, “Well in order to keep your GI healthy, perhaps you have to have some sort of flow from the top to the bottom during the seven-day waiting period until you release.”

True or false: Sloths are so slow that algae sometimes grows on them.

One hundred percent true. In the wild, they’re always covered in algae and it helps their fur, all those microorganisms. But in zoos, they don’t have it.

Nice. OK, last one. True or false: Sloths poop from trees.

No way. They go down to the ground, and they rub their little tushies on the ground, and then they go back up.

You are correct.

I know a fair amount about sloths but the farting thing was new. My kids will be excited to hear that.

We heard recently that you are a part of the “foster failure” club. What went wrong? Erright?

Well, what I learned from Veronica Mars is you root for and cherish and uplift the underdog always. And my first foster failure was in 2018; I found the most undesirable dog that existed on the planet. She is made of toothpicks, it is impossible for her to gain weight. She has one eye. She looks like a walking piece of garbage. Her name is Barbara. She's 11 years old. And I saw a picture of her online and I said, “Yes. I just want to bring her over. I don’t even need to know anything else about her other than this picture," which was the most hideous picture. I mean it looks like a Rorschach painting or something. It was so awful. I was like, “She’s mine. I’ll take care of her. I’ve got this.” And it turns out she is quite lovely even though she can be pretty annoying. But she is our Barbara Biscuit, and she is one of the most charismatic dogs I have ever met. She piddles wherever she damn well pleases. So that is a bummer, because she is untrainable, but we love her.

That was our first failure. Then last year, we genuinely attempted to just foster a dog named Frank. And about two weeks in, I realized Frank was in love with me—like in a human way. He thought he was my boyfriend.

Oh no …

I just felt like … I didn’t even want a new dog—well I shouldn’t say that, because I always want all the dogs—but we weren’t planning on getting a new dog. But I had to have a conversation with my family and I said, “I think it’s going to be like child separation if I separate him. We have to keep him.” And sure enough, he can’t be more than two feet from me at any time during the day.

Does he still give you “the eyes”?

Oh my gosh. Bedroom eyes all day long. I can’t sit down without him like … not even just sitting comfortably in my lap. He has to have my arm in his mouth or part of my hair in his mouth. He’s trying to get back in my womb or something.

That’s love.

Yeah, I said, “What am I going to do? The guy is in love with me. He can live here.” So there is foster failure number two.

Wow, so it’s Frank and Barbara.

Frank and Barbara. And we also have Lola, a 17-year-old corgi-chow chow mix. Who I have had since she was one-and-a-half, who was also a pound puppy. She is our queen bee.

Before you go, we do this thing on Twitter called #HappyHour, where we ask our followers some get-to-know-you questions. If you could change one rule in any board game, what would it be?

I am obviously going to Catan ... oh I know exactly what I would do. In Catan, I would allow participants to buy a city without buying a settlement first. In Catan, you have to upgrade from a settlement to a city first, which is a waste of cards. If you have the cards for a city, you should be able to buy a city.

What was your favorite book as a child?

My favorite book as a child was Are You My Mother?

Aw, I love that one. I forgot about Are You My Mother?

It’s a good one.