At Oscars, keep your eyes peeled for “That Guy”
Movie stars are the lifeblood of Hollywood.
The town revolves around movies, and movies revolve around stars. They’re the ones making the rounds on the late night talk shows to promote the film, the ones with their picture in Us Weekly lying on the beach in St. Thomas or coming out of a Starbucks in Santa Monica.
But in Hollywood, the land of the star turn, the harsh reality is that not everyone can stand out.
Along with the stars, there’s another Hollywood creature, less celebrated but equally important to the film’s success: the character actors who will round out the supporting cast. Character actors are the session musicians or utility infielders of the cinema. They live on the edge of notoriety. Their faces are familiar but you can’t quite place them. They play the villain’s main henchman, the police captain, the married buddy to the leading man’s carefree bachelor. They’re the actor who, the second they walk on-screen, you think to yourself, Hey, it’s…That Guy.
That Guy is the foundation of Hollywood. Without him, there could be no movies. No matter how compelling the star, they can’t be the absolute focal point of every scene and still make a good film. That Guy isn’t exactly anonymous. He’s usually a talented actor, as proven by the fact that he’s been chosen to work on so many good and/or successful movies with other talented actors. He plays small parts in big movies and medium-sized parts in small, independent movies. Sometimes That Guy is instantly recognizable from one particular breakout role, even if you can’t immediately recall his name. More than half the time, he plays a soldier, a cop or some sort of federal agent alongside the star’s police chief, colonel or general. His character is identified in the closing credits by his rank and last name. He’s probably not going to get killed, but he’s not going to be the hero, either. He’s purely a facilitator.
Awards shows like Sunday’s Oscars are a prime time for spotting That Guy. He can be seen on the red carpet, usually crossing in the background as Ryan Seacrest interviews Leo DiCaprio or Sandra Bullock. He can also be seen inside the ceremony, over the nominee’s shoulder as the cameras zoom in when his category is up. He also appears in the celebration shots, clapping the winner on the shoulder as the name-brand actor prepares to head to the stage for his acceptance speech. It’s the life of a supporting actor: always part of the team.
That Guy generally falls into one of two categories. There are famous That Guys, and non-famous That Guys. Famous That Guys are actors who have had some level of commercial success, to the point where the casual movie fan recognizes him — usually from a particular project — but may or may not know his name. Actors such as William H. Macy, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, James Woods or Steve Buscemi fall into the famous That Guy category. Sometimes That Guy becomes a star in spite of himself. I’m thinking here of the likes of Paul Giamatti, John C. Reilly or Philip Seymour Hoffman. They imbue even their minor characters with such personality that it’s impossible not to recognize them. Their nondescript malleability is a brand in itself.
Ben Affleck should have stayed a That Guy but was propelled into stardom, probably to the detriment of his career if not his bank account. His early work in School Ties, Dazed and Confused, Mallrats and Chasing Amy had him marked as a classic That Guy, a handsome lug who could fill any number of slots in a cast. Then he and Matt Damon wrote Good Will Hunting, and everyone in Hollywood decided Ben should be a leading man (there’s a reason Damon played the math-whiz star while Affleck took on the best friend role). One of the defining characteristics of That Guy is that any starring work he gets rarely matches up to his prior work. What of Affleck’s work in the late ’90s and early 2000s is as good as or better than Chasing Amy? Was Armageddon really the best use of his talents? Sometimes an actor is just waiting to burst out in a starring role. Tom Cruise in The Outsiders was never That Guy. Risky Business was the step up he was waiting for. Affleck has never really had a Risky Business, a moment like Damon had in Good Will Hunting or Saving Private Ryan that made you sit up and say, “Wow, this guy should be a star.”
The non-famous That Guy has often achieved critical acclaim but has never broken out in a successful star vehicle of his own. The non-movie buff knows they’ve seen him somewhere before but can’t place where. This category includes the likes of J.T. Walsh, David Morse, Kevin Pollak, J.K. Simmons, Bruce Davison and Bob Balaban.
The late J.T. Walsh may be the greatest That Guy actor of all time. He played Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson in A Few Good Men, for which Jack Nicholson dedicated his 1998 Oscar for As Good As It Gets following Walsh’s death. He also appeared in films including The Negotiator, Good Morning Vietnam, Misery, Backdraft, Outbreak, Executive Decision, Sling Blade and Pleasantville. In true That Guy fashion, he played a startling number of cops and military officers. In addition to Markinson, Walsh portrayed Gen. H. Norman Schwartzkopf in Crime of the Century, State Trooper Douglas in Misery, DEA Agent Hal Maguire in Tequila Sunrise and Sgt. Major Dickerson in Good Morning Vietnam. He also played a warden in one episode of The X-Files.
Walsh was weasely internal affairs investigator Terence Niebaum in The Negotiator, in which he shared the screen with another top-notch That Guy, David Morse. Morse had a successful television career, appearing as Dr. Jack Morrison on St. Elsewhere from 1982–1988. But he’s also had a glorious film career as That Guy, filling roles such as Detective Jackson in 1987’s Downpayment on Murder (which I must see, since it has possibly the greatest movie title of all time), fisherman Rick Steiner in 1992’s Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster and Jim Deer Jackson in the 1994 remake of The Getaway starring Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger (a film that may be to cinema what the Exxon Valdez was to the Alaskan shoreline. Roger Ebert called it, “a particularly nasty and mean-spirited action picture, with the dramatic depth of an arcade game.”). In the mid-90s, Morse played Maj. Tom Baxter in The Rock and Adam Beck in The Negotiator, two of the best That Guy films ever made. He has continued to play cops and military men, from Detective Frank Nugent in 16 Blocks to Col. Reed in The Hurt Locker and George Washington in HBO’s John Adams.
Walsh and Morse make up part of a That Guy Hall of Fame that includes the likes of Pollak, John Spencer and John C. McGinley. McGinley is another perfect That Guy, popping up in ensemble casts for all kinds of hits. He was Dr. Cox on Scrubs, and also appeared in The Rock, Office Space, Nixon, Se7en, Point Break, Wall Street and Platoon. Spencer was already known from his role as Tommy Mullaney on L.A. Law, and would go on to be Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing. But he was never a leading man, and he earns honorary That Guy status for using his sense of grizzled authority to play FBI Director James Womack in The Rock and Chief Al Travis in The Negotiator.
Pollak has played the neighbor, the friend or the coworker so often that he may as well have “average white guy” stamped across his forehead. He makes the list mainly on the strength of two epic That Guy roles in A Few Good Men and The Usual Suspects. His Lt. Sam Weinberg in Men seems to exist only to act as a straight man for Tom Cruise’s Lt. Caffey. Yet he oddly gets singled out by Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup as Jessup is yelling at Caffey from the witness stand during the famous “You can’t handle the truth!” monologue: “Who’s going to do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?” The poor guy is just sitting there!
The entire cast of Nixon takes a supplemental spot in the That Guy Hall of Fame. Anthony Hopkins as Nixon is too big a star to meet the criteria. But the rest of the cast is a veritable That Guy (and Girl) haven, from Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, Ed Harris as Howard Hunt, Walsh as John Ehrlichman, and James Woods as John Haldeman to lesser characters played by McGinley, Paul Sorvino, Mary Steenburgen, Annabeth Gish and Dan Hedaya. Personally, I think Hedaya looked more like Nixon, but he would have to wait for his chance to play Tricky Dick until 1999’s Dick, starring Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams.
Not every movie is filled with That Guy roles. Ocean’s Eleven was the antithesis of a That Guy movie. The casting was designed to be conspicuous. If you didn’t recognize each of the actors the second they appeared onscreen, the producers weren’t doing their jobs. Other than the Chinese acrobat, the only real That Guys were conceivably Scott Cahn and Casey Affleck. And maybe Elliott Gould, but only broken down along generational lines. My mother certainly knew who Elliott Gould was.
Don’t mistake a star’s cameo role for a That Guy moment. Think Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (“What’s my name? Fuck you, that’s my name.”), Ben Stiller in Happy Gilmore (“You can trouble me for a warm glass of shut the hell up.”) or Dennis Hopper in True Romance. And Christopher Walken in the same film, for that matter. The scene the two share in Hopper’s trailer is one of the best in a stylish but disjointed movie. Hopper’s look of subtle understanding when he realizes he’s been marked for death is a masterpiece of understatement from an actor for whom subtlety was not always a strong suit.
Getting the types of roles to achieve That Girl status is different for actresses. Actors can generally get richer parts as they age, while actresses over 30 are often reduced to playing mothers, girlfriends, nominal bosses, etc. Famous That Girls are usually name-brand actresses whose star has cooled, but they can still bring a meaty and interesting perspective to a role. Allen, Joan Cusack, Mira Sorvino and Marisa Tomei come to mind. But they’ll never match the That Girl status of Edie McClurg. With her chipper, high-pitched coo, she’s played the nosy neighbor on a string of sit-coms. But she’ll always be remembered as the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“They all think he’s a righteous dude.”) and the car rental clerk who gets berated by Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (“You’re fucked.”).
There’s a heroic quality to That Guy, a willingness to put quality work ahead of having their name on the marquee. America is filled with That Guy, diligently going to work because the work needs to get done. Most character actors could probably spend their days getting leading roles in movies that would play on TNT at 2 a.m. But they soldier on (often literally) to provide the backbones of solid films.
Hooray for Hollywood indeed.