Quentin Tarantino’s films are a compendium of historical cinematic influences, which have been whittled down into a comically savage movie-verse. It’s populated by memorable (and off-beat) characters, who frequently engage in fierce discourse about subjects like pop culture and ethics through extended dialogue. No surprise, actors keep coming back to play in Tarantino’s sandbox, again and again.

“10 Memorable Quentin Tarantino Movie Scenes” honors the filmmaker’s highest achievements in writing and/or directing. In this new feature, we shine a light on the people who keep popping up in Tarantino’s movies – playing an eclectic mix of profound criminals and survivalists – in honor of this week’s Django Unchained, which features appearances from several of these same folk, as it were.

[For future reference: the following includes both titles which were written (but not directed) by Tarantino and full-fledged auteur projects alike.]

christopher walken romance fiction 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Christopher Walken often has the screen presence of an alien visitor, disguised as a human who does not fully comprehend what constitutes normal behavior.

It’s no surprise, then, that he’s twice waltzed into a Tarantino picture, spouted bizarre dialogue without blinking an eye and left the room, cooler than ever. Walken’s interrogation of the late Dennis Hopper in True Romance (which was directed by the late Tony Scott, based on Tarantino’s script) is one such example, resulting in an exchange as intense and electrifying as it is confounding and just plain weird.

Of course, it’s Walken brief appearance in Pulp Fiction that truly takes the cake in the weirdness department. A poignant passing-the-torch (or pocket watch, in this case) between the former and a young Butch (Bruce Willis, as an adult) quickly – and unexpectedly – morphs into Tarantino’s goofiest speech to date. And Walken never bats an eye during his delivery.

brad pitt romance basterds 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

True Romance features a Brad Pitt on the edge of stardom, but his role as pothead Floyd was an excellent demonstration of his abilities as a handsome character actor who excels in the oddball department. In but a few minutes of screen-time, Pitt establishes the “proper” demeanor for movie stoners to come (producer Judd Apatow has cited Floyd as inspiration for Pineapple Express) and briefly popularized the notion of a Honey Bear Honey bottle-turned bong.

Pitt eventually returned to the Tarantino-verse sixteen years later in Inglourious Basterds, being upgraded to leading man status in the process. Oddly enough, by the film’s conclusion, his Lt. Aldo Raine remains as much an enigma as Floyd -what with his mysterious neck scar and Apache scalping methods – but just as unforgettable. Even if he does make for the least convincing Italian this side of Nicolas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

michael madsen reservoir dogs kill bill 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Tarantino’s known for being an ‘excitable boy’ when it comes to announcing projects, so it comes as little surprise that his proposed Vegas Brothers spinoff – starring John Travolta and Michael Madsen – is doubtful to ever see the light of day.

It’s of trivial concern, though, seeing how Madsen as Victor Vega (a.k.a. Mr. Blonde) in Reservoir Dogs already has his place cemented in Tarantino infamy. The actor’s performance hits all the right notes, creating the portrait of a sadistic, yet hip, criminal both terrifying and cool – a crook who relishes in the nastier side of his business.

Interestingly, Madsen as Budd “Brother of Bill” in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is a striking departure from Mr. Blonde. The latter isn’t exactly a reformed baddie, yet resides in self-imposed exile – toiling away at a unsatisfying job – and performs his dirty work driven by a desire for retribution (not from pleasure). In another life, he could’ve even been a good man.

zoe bell kill bill death proof 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell is one Tarantino collaborator whose face you may not recognize, but her contributions to his filmography cannot be under-valued. Bell performed many of The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) deft-deying maneuvers in both Kill Bill films; she later handled the rough n’ tumble scenes involving the characters Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) in Inglourious Basterds.

Tarantino salutes his go-to female stunt double in his half of Grindhouse (the Death Proof segment), casting Bell in the role of… tenacious stuntwoman Zoe Bell. Well, meta-casting aside, it offers the talented lady a chance to rattle off some Tarantino talk and illustrate her daredevil skills in action – without having her face hidden, that is.

Bell cameos in Django Unchained, though you might have some trouble picking her out (hint: she’s got most of her face covered, even when the camera lingers momentarily on her).

tim roth reservoir dogs pulp fiction 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Tim Roth has the distinction of playing the closest thing to law-abiding protagonists featured in Tarantino’s film oeuvre: undercover cop Freddy Newandyke a.k.a. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in Reservoir Dogs and hapless bellhop Ted throughout all segments of Four Rooms – including, Tarantino’s The Man from Hollywood. If there’s one lesson that Roth’s characters are constantly learning, it’s that surviving as a good guy ain’t easy in QT’s quirky, brutal, jungleland of law-breakers (and just plain crazy people).

Roth joined the ranks of Tarantino’s small-time crooks in Pulp Fiction; though even there, his cafe-robbing Ringo/Pumpkin quickly gets in over his head. Fortunately, he happened to catch up with a certain hitman (more on him later) who was in a transitional period – and chose to “purchase” Ringo’s life in the hope that he’ll pursue a different career, rather than blow him away on the spot.

In summary: life’s never boring, when you’re Tim Roth in a Tarantino movie.

christoph waltz basterds django 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Okay, so Christoph Waltz has yet to satisfactorily prove that he can play something other than eccentric villains and/or foreigners in Hollywood movies, but he does it so well in Tarantino’s films that it’s difficult to complain (too much).

Waltz embodies the dark side of German history as Col. Hans Land in Inglourious Basterds. He’s a Nazi able to smile at your face, while calmly explaining how committing genocide against the Jewish population is a reasonable proposition; not to mention, can switch from benign to cold-blooded murderer (and back again) in a matter of seconds. No wonder, Waltz landed an Oscar for his performance.

However, in Django Unchained, Waltz turns about-face and plays Dr. King Schultz: a former dentist-turned bounty hunter who values innocent lives of all creeds and always takes the time to politely explain himself (even after suddenly shooting a fugitive from justice).

He’s arguably the most spiritual Tarantino character to date – like Yoda, with a shotgun.

uma thurman pulp fiction kill bill 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Tarantino-philes aside, many people might not be aware that Beatrix ‘The Bride’ Kiddo is actually the brainchild of both QT and Uma Thurman. The two hit it off working on Pulp Fiction, which set the stage for their reunion on the vintage Kung Fu saga that is Kill Bill

Thurman is an ethereal feminine spirit, captured in human form throughout her appearances in the Tarantino-verse. In Pulp Fiction, her Mia Wallace is sass, spunk, thoughtfulness and do-daring; that she bears a Louise Brooks black bob and dances the Twist like Duchess from The AristoCats, makes her the ideal woman from QT’s cinematic perspective.

Kiddo’s another piece of work altogether. Deadly, driven and fueled by vengeance, she has an emotional and maternal side that makes her one of Tarantino’s most sensitive, hip, players (who also happens to have the highest body count).

No doubt, Thurman deserves to be called QT’s muse.

harvey keitel reservoir pulp dusk dawn 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

If anyone’s the father figure of the Tarantino-verse, it’s easily Harvey Keitel. Throughout the filmmaker’s cinematic art, Keitel has embodied paternal wisdom – be it nurturing and protective (Reservoir Dogs), practical and responsible (Pulp Fiction) or spiritual and courageous – even in the face of an entourage of blood-thirsty vampires (From Dusk Till Dawn, which Tarantino wrote and Robert Rodriguez directed). Of course, the exception to that rule is an uncredited Keitel voicing “OSS Commander Who Agrees to Deal” in Inglourious Basterds.

Keitel’s characters are further linked by an old-fashioned manner and no-nonsense attitude, even when those around him are panicking over sloppy accidents (involving lots of splattered blood and brains) or ready to murder a good guy who’s double-crossed them. Similar to Waltz, Keitel’s been occasionally type-cast in these roles, but again: if the boot fits…

Besides, he’s The Wolf: He can always fix that, should it become a problem.

quentin tarantino reservoir pulp dusk dawn 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Yes, QT often shows up in his own movies. Sometimes, his appearances are blink-and-miss (Inglourious Basterds) – or, rather, essentially background noise (he voices an answering machine in Jackie Brown) – but usually he’s onscreen for a substantial amount of time.

Tarantino traditionally sticks himself into an unimportant supporting role; even his most prominent appearance to date – as perverted murderer and rapist Richard Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn – features him as the foil to make protagonist Seth Gecko (George Clooney) more tolerable.

Indeed, QT’s characters seem to serve the function of making other players seem normal, be it Mr. Brown carrying on about “Like a Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs, slur-happy Jimmie in Pulp Fiction or the twisted director in Four Rooms. Even his slick-haired bartender in Death Proof is a bit odd.

As for Django Unchained, well… let’s just say QT cannot pull off an accent to save his life (but boy, does he know how to make an exit).

samuel jackson pulp jackie django 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

Samuel L. Jackson is the Cary Grant to QT’s Alfred Hitchcock, in the Tarantino-verse. He’s cool, debonair, clever and able to imbue even the most ordinary of lines with gravitas (to say nothing of his sharply-written monologues).

SLJ manages to leave an impression after little more than a fleeting moment onscreen – before an untimely death (see: True Romance and Kill Bill: Vol. 2) – or just by uttering some dramatic voiceover narration, as in Inglourious Basterds. Of course, his leading man turns as philosophizing Jules in Pulp Fiction and get-rich-or-die-trying Ordell in Jackie Brown are the most satisfying showcases of his talents.

However, in Django Unchained, Jackson tackles perhaps his most intriguing (and nuanced) character, in house slave Stephen. Shrewd and sycophantic, he’s obnoxiously loud (due to near-deafness) yet knows how to lurk in the shadows and be quiet when necessary. He’s far more than his “evil Uncle Tom” appearance might suggest.

penn dawson willis tarantino 10 Familiar Faces of the Quentin Tarantino Universe

To round off our list, we have a few stars whose association with the Tarantino-verse isn’t quite so pronounced (or memorable) as others on this list – but, nonetheless, they deserve recognition.

That includes:

  • Michael Parks for his recurring role as Earl McGraw (From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill, Death Proof) and Django Unchained
  • Chris Penn for Reservoir Dogs and True Romance
  • Steve Buscemi for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction
  • Laura Cayouette for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and Django Unchained
  • Eli Roth/Omar Doom for Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds
  • Bruce Willis for Pulp Fiction, an uncredited appearance in Four Rooms and Sin City (yes, we’re cheating by bringing up that film, which Tarantino directed a single scene in)
  • Rosario Dawson for Death Proof and Sin City (see above)

Who’s your favorite familiar face in the QT universe? Would you have bumped up one of our honorable mentions to top 10 status? Let us know in the comments section.

Django Unchained opens in theaters tomorrow (Christmas Day 2012).