Playing a supporting character is a tough gig, as often you are there to simply further the lead’s story. As a result, these characters often do not have an enormous amount of depth or range. Sometimes, however, the writers will create phenomenal supporting characters that prove to be integral to the film, and sometimes these will be the characters that first spring to mind when thinking of the movie. In order for these characters to steal the spotlight from the lead character, however, they will also have to be played by an actor of the highest caliber who is able to bring the role to life. Here are 10 memorable supporting characters from film history.
10. Jeffrey Goines – 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam’s twisting, bizarre neo-noir science fiction film 12 Monkeys stars Bruce Willis journeying through time to discover the cause of a virus that has wiped out most of the world’s population, and it is a wild and enthralling ride that keeps you guessing throughout. The madness of the film is only possible through the supporting character of Jeffrey Goines, who is expertly played by Brad Pitt. Willis’s character, James Cole, first meets Goines after travelling back in time and being admitted to a mental institution. Goines displays fanatical views and goes on epic rants, and he is soon revealed to be the leader of an organization thought to be involved with the virus. It is an electrifying performance from Pitt which adds to the mania of the film, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
9. Hit-Girl – Kick-Ass (2010)
Although titled after the lead character, there is no doubt that the best and most memorable part about 2010’s superhero black comedy Kick-Ass is Chloe Grace Moretz’s Mindy McCready/Hit-Girl character. There is something fantastic about an 11-year-old girl being an incredibly dangerous, mad and effective vigilante superhero with a foul mouth (although this would cause some controversy). Desensitized to violence and emotionally hardened, she is also very funny, stylish and displays a fun loving personality too. She is brilliantly played by Moretz, and this helps to steal the show away from Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass (although he too puts in an excellent performance). The audience took to Hit-Girl so much that there have been many discussions about the possibility of creating her own film, and the character features in her own self-titled comic book series which first published in 2012.
8. Terence Fletcher – Whiplash (2014)
One of the greatest films of late, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is an exhilarating film that follows the fascinating relationship between an ambitious jazz student, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), and his abusive music teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Although it is Andrew that is driving the plot forwards, it is the terrifying and electric teacher that steals the show with some truly excruciating scenes during the tense practices. When struggling to keep tempo, Terence throws a chair at Andrew, slaps him and berates him in front of the entire class, but Andrew is determined to prove himself. Terence later reveals that he pushes so hard so that they might achieve greatness, and J.K. Simmons’ performance is so compelling that you will watch the entire film in fear, even from the comfort of your own home. He picked up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his pulsating performance.
7. Col. Hans Landa – Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The king of supporting roles, Christoph Waltz masters what is a difficult character in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino feared that the character was unplayable). The role is, of course, SS-Standartenfuhrer Hans Landa, or “The Jew Hunter.” He gets the film off to a flying start with an unforgettable monologue as he interrogates Perrier LaPadite. Whilst Brad Pitt puts in a stellar performance as Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine, it is Waltz’s cunning, courteous and murderous character that steals the show. It was such an impressive performance from Waltz that it earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and interestingly he is the only actor to have won an Oscar for playing a character in a Tarantino film. Tarantino has stated that it is one of his best characters, and if he did not find someone as good as Waltz, he would never have made the film.
6. Nick Chevotarevich – The Deer Hunter (1978)
A fantastic actor (check out his 10 best performances) who is famed for his supporting and cameo roles, Christopher Walken is mesmerizing as Nick Chevotarevich in the 1978 classic The Deer Hunter. The film stars Robert De Niro (who is also excellent), and feature a supporting cast of Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. It follows three Russian-American steel workers from Pittsburgh and their experience in the Vietnam War, and is a truly harrowing watch that is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Walken excels in his role as Nick, who suffers a complete psychological breakdown after being forced to play Russian roulette in an iconic and breathless scene. The film picked up five Academy Awards, including Walken winning Best Supporting Actor for his incredible portrayal. The Russian roulette scene is the one which people remember best from this fantastic film.
5. Aaron Stampler – Primal Fear (1996)
What is particularly impressive about Edward Norton stealing the spotlight from Richard Gere in Gregory Hoblit’s 1996 film Primal Fear is the fact that it was his big screen debut. The character of Aaron Stampler was a difficult one to take on and much more complex than the lead, defense attorney Martin Vail, but Norton does a wonderful job of portraying the young altar boy who transforms into a violent sociopath named “Roy” when under stress. The switch between the sweet, stuttering Aaron into the self-assured and evil Roy is chilling and delicately handled, and of course the now-famous ending sends a shiver down the spine and will always be what is best remembered about this terrific crime-thriller. For his impressive debut performance, Norton would pick up an Academy Award nomination and win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.
4. Tommy DeVito – Goodfellas (1990)
Widely heralded as one of the greatest films of all-time, Martin Scorcese’s mob classic Goodfellas features a stunning cast of Robert De Niro, Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. All turn in spectacular performances, but Joe Pesci is entirely captivating and you cannot take your eyes off of him for a second when he is on-screen. His character, Tommy DeVito, is both fascinating and terrifying, and this is portrayed through his complete unpredictability and brutality. This unpredictability is evident with the famous “funny how, funny like I’m a clown?” scene, where the mood suddenly shifts after Tommy tells a funny story and Henry (Liotta) tells him he’s “a funny guy.” This is one of the tensest scenes in cinema history and what many will remember best about Goodfellas, and it certainly helped to earn Pesci an Academy Award for his entirely absorbing portrayal of Tommy DeVito.
3. Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
When you mention the title The Silence of the Lambs, the first image that will spring to mind will be the chilling image of Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It may not seem like it, but Anthony Hopkins’ character is only in about a fifth of the film, which is a testament to his incredible portrayal of the well-spoken psychiatrist cannibal serial killer. There is some controversy surrounding the role of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, as Anthony Hopkins actually picked up an Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal and not Best Supporting Actor. It is clear throughout the film that it is Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) who is the lead, but regardless Hopkins certainly deserved recognition of the highest order. The scenes with Lecter and Starling are completely absorbing and it is these moments, and not the pursuit of Buffalo Bill, that are best remembered.
2. Roger “Verbal” Kint – The Usual Suspects (1995)
Now you may think that Roger “Verbal” Kint is the lead character in Bryan Singer’s 1995 classic The Usual Suspects, but this is not the case. It is actually Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and Gabriel Bryne (Dean Keaton) that have the lead roles, but many would not even be able to picture them in the film due to Spacey’s stunning performance. What is best remembered is the spine-tingling conclusion to the film, as well as the chilling and famous line – “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist…and like that, he’s gone.” Unlike The Silence of the Lambs, the Academy got it right with The Usual Suspects and Spacey was nominated for Best Supporting Actor (which he won, rightfully so). It would not be Spacey’s only astonishing supporting role, with his disturbing performance in David Fincher’s Seven also worth noting.
1. The Joker – The Dark Knight (2008)
No points for guessing this one. Heath Ledger’s famous performance in The Dark Night is one of the most talked about performances of modern film, and it is that much more chilling following his tragic passing six months prior to its release. The Joker has always been one of the more intriguing Gotham villains, and with Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly dark take on the franchise, it proved to be a breathtaking role and performance. Ledger’s twisted and manic face and mannerisms are the lasting image of the film, and although Bale was once again excellent in the lead, it is a truly captivating performance from Ledger that steals the show. The film belongs to The Joker and his disturbed psyche, and only an actor of the highest caliber could tap into this and take the character in a new direction. Ledger won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously and cemented his status as one of the greats.