ND/NF: Character Acting, or the Art of the Eccentric
At the top of his autobiographical show Character Man, now running off-Broadway, Jim Brochu defines the title figure as an actor who exhibits “unusual characteristics or peculiarities.” That could mean a reedy voice, a triple chin, or some ineffable strangeness of bearing that brands him as “other.” We tend to conflate character and supporting roles, but character acting can’t be measured in screen time or plot function. Mostly it serves to add sugar and spice, not stock, to the soup; character actors can be desultory and weird, unshackled as they are from the hero’s innate linearity. This should not be confused with personality acting, the inclination to “play oneself,” nor do tics and shtick a character actor make: Christopher Walken is a personality character actor; Adam Sandler is a personality leading man.
For a profitable survey of character acting, in all the term’s elasticity, consider New Directors/New Films. A number of movies in the series regard eccentricity of mien through social and dramaturgic lenses, examining both how character actors create assumptions by their very presence and how these assumptions demarcate character from conventional performance.
Such slippage is exemplified in Richard Ayoade’s jet-black comedy The Double. Channeling Dostoevsky’s novel through a prism of Gilliam-esque absurdity, Ayoade’s film follows office milquetoast Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) through his daily rounds of shame and rejection, eventually pitting him against a doppelgänger (also played by Eisenberg) who brims with the very confidence Simon lacks. But before we meet the brash James, we’re embedded in Simon’s drab, dismal world, overpopulated with disapproving forces. The first on the scene is his boss, Mr. Papadopoulos (Wallace Shawn), a balding, pugnacious little man who strides through the catacombs of the workplace barking directives (“Put on your coat, son! This isn’t a brothel!”).
Within seconds the Papadopoulos character is firmly established—a fact which owes less to scripting or performance than to precision of casting. Shawn’s nasal bray and choleric demeanor imply perversely cheerful tyranny, but more to the point, our past associations with Shawn paint a piquant picture before he utters his first word. We may come to know him as a mid-level Napoleon from his stature and temperament, but no inferences are necessary because Shawn, a premier personality-character actor, has cornered the mid-level Napoleon market. Thus when he enters the frame we’re seeing a Papadopoulos borne of The Princess Bride’s Vizzini (“Absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable!”), Mr. Hall in Clueless (“Could the suicide attempts please be postponed until next period?”), and even “Wally,” Shawn’s interpretation of himself as a highly strung neurotic in My Dinner With Andre.
This tactic of image appropriation extends to Cathy Moriarty as a brazen, bottle-blonde waitress; James Fox as the enigmatic director known as The General; and two veterans of Ayoade’s Submarine, Sally Hawkins and Paddy Considine, as (respectively) a brittle receptionist and an outlandish TV personality. None of these actors appear onscreen for more than a minute or two (only Eisenberg and love interest Mia Wasikowska have substantial roles), so all are summoned to invoke shorthand versions of personages they've acquainted us with before. This not only helps lighten the screenplay's expositional load, but situates the film in a larger cultural constellation.
Indeed, stereotype forms the basis of Eisenberg’s turn as well. Despite his leading man status, Eisenberg’s gangly stance and diffident manner make him a born character actor. Simon is merely an exaggeration of the standard Eisenberg type: clipped delivery, discomposure, propensity to end each encounter apologetically with scripted behavior (even inanimate objects seem to inspire contrition). Conjuring the mirror image, Eisenberg tweaks his trademark affectations in service of an antithetical creation; his sparrowlike twitches take on hawkish dimensions. And in “playing double,” he joins a tradition of actors juxtaposing familiar and oppositional takes on their personae (see Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy)—roles which harken an entry, or at least a digression, into character work.
Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child proffers a sterling example of the character lead: Jenny Slate’s Donna, a twentysomething would-be comic and aspiring adult. Like Eisenberg, SNL alum Slate is too quirky to conform to a traditional mold. With her penchant for unfiltered pronouncements and gesticulating, she’s more in line with a Patsy Kelly or Pert Kelton than, say, a Carole Lombard. The film tracks her journey through getting dumped, losing her job at Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books, becoming pregnant from a one-night stand, and deciding to have an abortion on Valentine’s Day, with scatological free-association her preferred coping device.
Obvious Child is equal parts a comedy about a young woman struggling on the periphery of show business (akin to last year’s In a World…) and a sensitive study of oddball Brooklynites facing trials in solidarity (Mutual Appreciation, Gayby). Though at times it feels like one of those movies where everyone in Brooklyn knows each other, and where Donna’s support network consists of stock characters (sassy gay friend, feminist pal prone to diatribes), the sitcom glibness is counterpoised by the expertise of the character actors. As Donna's parents, Richard Kind and Polly Draper contribute volumes in their limited time, suggesting credible hereditary ties. If Slate is rubber-faced, then Kind's features are even more pliable; a scene where he charms her with a puppet highlights their shared comic mobility. David Cross, as an acerbic club manager, places her comedy on a continuum with Woody Allen’s—via jokes about therapy, the evils of the West Coast—and with his own: his attire at the end of the scene would give Tobias Fünke pause.
Above all, Obvious Child is a testament to the way character acting can come in even the unlikeliest vessels. The same point is made by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu’s The Japanese Dog, which moves us from the hipster-quipsters of Williamsburg to hardscrabble Romanian villagers, in particular Mr. Costache, an elderly man who has recently lost everything (including, we surmise, his wife) in a flood.
The Japanese Dog
Played by Romanian stalwart Victor Rebengiuc (Medal of Honor), Costache remains a husky oak of a man, taciturn and resentful of charity and advice. Like De Sica’s Umberto D., his days are occupied with the necessary tasks of survival and the quotidian interactions of a decimated community. So purposeful is he that for the bulk of the film, we see little evidence of “acting,” with no extraneous words or gestures. It’s not a typical character role, but it’s marked as such by his age.
Here the very young and very old share many affinities, one of the film’s most delicate observations. Costache and his grandson Koji (Toma Hashimoto) are instantly simpatico, perhaps bonded by their shared outsider status in a world where juveniles and elders are perceived as needy dependents. Likewise, children and seniors tend to fall automatically into character conceptions (or how else to explain the supporting-actor billing of Edmund Gwenn and Tatum O’Neill at the Oscars?)
Rebengiuc undercuts intimations of dotage by creating a minimalist portrait of a man with basic needs and sublimated yearnings. Pride and loneliness are his defining traits, though the latter comes to light only faintly, as in a stolen moment after his family returns to Japan when he activates the titular object, a robotic dog left behind by his grandson as a keepsake. Costache sets it on a table, observes it, then extends his arm protectively as it nears the edge. At last he holds it close, cradling it as he would his beloved “Koji-baby.”
Moments like this make The Japanese Dog more Ozu-like than the saturnine fare one often expects from Romanian cinema; if there’s a political dimension, it’s certainly muted. But formalistically it’s true of its type, with wide shots and dim lighting that preclude revealing close-ups. Rebenguic finds opportunities to let us into Costache’s private world, though, as in an instant at his wife’s grave when, wearing a borrowed jacket whose sleeves are too short, his eyes flicker toward his son and back to the headstone, waiting for his son to step away.
Michael Caine likes to say that movie stars tailor their roles to fit their images, while actors modify their natures to suit the demands of the part. Character actors straddle the gulf, sometimes welded to one personality, sometimes free-floating between a multitude. Regardless, they give films their texture, their flavor. Without them the soup would be unpalatably bland.