I Am The Purely Expository Character In A Hollywood Movie

My place is ever to the left of the protagonist, always feigning varietals of worry or concern, my weapon the wooden, knowing glance...

Tom Stern
Tom Stern
Oct 6 · 3 min read
Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

You might not know me by name, but I guarantee you know my work.

“Don’t you remember? We can’t go back! Frankie The Knuckle said he’d kill us!”

“You can’t give up now! Ever since you were a child, the only thing you’ve ever wanted was to break that land speed record.”

“Sure, you’re just a farmer/sailor/athlete/student/aspiring artist, but your mother/father/grandmother/aunt/oldest sibling didn’t overcome all that adversity raising you just to see you run away when things get tough…”

Sound familiar? These are but a scant few of the purely functional lines of dialogue I have used to advance more storylines and alert audiences to more character arcs than any other device in the history of drama. The best friend, the wise grandparent, the fretful single parent, the underachiever turned mentor, the observant stranger stationed in the same platoon, the unexpected acquaintance made two steps into the journey… I am the purely expository character in a Hollywood movie and I have embedded myself so deeply and unassumingly in storytelling that I have become a pillar of the collective consciousness without anyone ever taking notice of me at all.

But I step now from the shadows of backstory to ask if perhaps a bit of recognition might not be too much to ask?

Take note, American Theatre Wing and Broadway League, of just a scant few of my classic stage performances as the Chorus in Oedipus Rex, Horatio in Hamlet, and the Stage Manager in Our Town.

I submit to you, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, just a minor sampling of my countless TV roles including Rod Serling’s “character” in The Twilight Zone, Mr. Belding on Saved By The Bell, Vincent D’Onofrio in the last scene of every episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Penn Badgley’s incessant, overwrought voiceover in You.

My film work is so vast and voluminous, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that I fear my range might overwhelm you. The selfsame artisan who delivered the tour de invisible performance as the reporter in Citizen Kane also all but disappeared in Die Hard as the tubby police officer. Some of my more recent film work includes turns as Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Willem Dafoe’s Vulko in Aquaman, Sarah Paulson’s Dr. Ellie Staple in Glass, and every single character in Bohemian Rhapsody.

I actually already consider myself a Grammy winner as part of the cast of every Best Musical Theatre Album winner ever because those lyrics are like 98% exposition if we’re being honest here. Nevertheless, I would appreciate it if the Recording Academy would send me the actual award for my albeit currently empty shelf.

Look, I’m not naïve. People want flash, spark, razzle-dazzle and that’s undeniably the furthest thing possible from my entire career. My place is ever to the left of the protagonist, my emotional state always feigning varietals of worry or concern, my weapon the wooden, knowing glance that suggests the main character is forgetting something so obvious that I’ll have to remind them of it with words and actions bereft of subtext.

“After all that you’ve been through, you can’t stop now. Those outcast children need you!”

“You’ll prove those doctors wrong, Lil’ Timmy! Just like your recently deceased mother always said you would!”

“It’s like your precocious daughter said, our hearts constrict — which means they close, sure, but it means they open, too…”

At the risk of immodesty, I put forth that these and other transactional statements and utilitarian quips enable even the most novice viewer to feel clever and savvy when the credits roll. So even if you struggle to discern the artistry in my craft, surely you can acknowledge my impact upon the almighty box office.

In summation, Academy members: this awards season, vote for the static character in the background of the two-shot! And who knows? Maybe I could actually get into the conversation about a leading role every once in a while? Or even just a close-up and some actual conflict to ground my performance? I don’t even mind starting with an indie or two…


Medium humor. Large laughs.

Thanks to Alex Baia

Tom Stern

Written by

Tom Stern

Author of novels My Vanishing Twin and Sutterfeld, You Are Not A Hero. Words in McSweeney’s, LA Review of Books, Memoir Mixtapes… https://tomsternwrites.net/



Medium humor. Large laughs.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade