Etching one’s name into the Hollywood A-list is no easy task. The skill required to command an audience is staggering; with charisma, looks, and acting ability only being good enough to get you through the front door. As a result, the guys and gals in V.I.P. get a free pass forever, backed by box office sales and the occasional Academy Award. Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert Downey, Jr. are just a few of the names on this prestigious list, and given their continued success with fans and critics, it looks as though the open slots for stardom are slim going into the second half of 2016.
That being said, there’s still hope. Last year saw the ascendance of Tom Hardy and Oscar Isaac to A-list status, riding a wave of revived franchises (Mad Max/Star Wars) and dynamite supporting turns (The Revenant/Ex Machina). Both men spent over a decade in the dregs of indie acclaim, culminating in the much romanticized “breakout role” that separate the professionals from the icons. As such, these success stories are a good sign to the current crop of character actors, many of whom possess the chops to make a go of this whole superstardom shtick. Keep your eyes peeled.
Here are Screen Rant’s 12 Character Actors Who Deserve To Be Stars.
12. Walton Goggins
Walton Goggins has been in the business for over twenty years, getting his start in less-than-stellar fare like The Next Karate Kid (1994) and Switchback (1997). Twiddling his thumbs in Hollywood for a while, it wasn’t until a turn on TV’s The Shield (2002-2008) that viewers first began to take note of the actor’s eye-catching eccentricity. Blessed with zany hair and a cheshire grin, Goggins came to be known as the quintessential loud-mouth, a strength worked to perfection through Justified (2010-2015) and improving movie roles in Predators (2010) and Lincoln (2012).
But it wasn’t until a link-up with Quentin Tarantino that the Alabama native became a bona fide big screen presence. Performances in Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) were revelatory; particularly the latter picture, where Goggins stole the show from seasoned vets like Samuel L. Jackson and Kurt Russell. Allowed to dismantle his uncouth exterior as the story progressed, the star-making turn showcased a flattering similarity to Easy Rider-era Jack Nicholson. He may not be the next J.J. Gittes, but Goggins most certainly has a great thing going.
WHAT’S NEXT: The HBO comedy Vice Principals, co-starring Danny McBride.
11. Nate Parker
A steadfast supporting player with a face that radiates decency, Nate Parker first broke out in films like The Great Debaters (2007) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008). Appearing opposite Academy Award winners Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker would prove a daunting task for any performer, yet the former athlete passed these tests with high-flying colors. This presence would also lend its service to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), Beyond The Lights (2014), and Non-Stop (2014).
Similar to Goggins, however, Parker’s burgeoning stardom has largely been built on a single stirring performance — that of slave-era rebel Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation (2016). Retooling the infamous bigotry of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, Parker writes, directs, and stars in the picture that’s been collecting rave reviews on the indie circuit. So much so, in fact, that the passion project sold for $17.5 million at Sundance, the largest deal in festival history. A bold success for the multi-talented actor — and a terrific starting point for the rest of his promising career — the buzz surrounding the film (and, in turn, Parker) will only get louder when the film gets a wide release in October.
10. Adam Driver
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) was a coming out party for its lead trio: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. The film’s lead villain, however, has still managed to avoid instant stardom, despite plastering his unique face front-and-center for much of the final act. We’re talking about Adam Driver, of course, the gangly baritone behind Kylo Ren, Star Wars’ heir apparent to the “most disappointing family member” award. By painting the estranged Solo as a torn little boy in Sith clothing, the San Diego actor is poised to become a major puzzle piece in the next two installments.
In the meantime, Driver has taken over the indie-stry with a barrage of acclaimed entries: Frances Ha (2012), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), While We’re Young (2014), and HBO’s Girls (2012-2016). Each project finds the performer nailing the perfect ration of stuttered charisma; sort of a younger, less frightening Liam Neeson for the mumblecore crowd. As such, with rising stock and an oddity that sticks out in a crowd, this Driver is on the fast track to the successful side of the force.
9. Bobby Cannavale
Everybody remembers Bobby Cannavale in a film. A brash blend of Cuban and Italian descent, the busy supporting actor has that unteachable quality that most casting directors would give their left arm to discover. Landing on the scene in 1996, Cannavale played the macho man in projects like The Bone Collector (1999) and 3 A.M. (2000), before landing an acclaimed role in 2003’s The Station Agent. Since then, the blustering performer has shined in a wide range of parts; from comedy (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) and drama (Blue Jasmine) to family (Danny Collins) and superhero fare (Ant-Man).
More so than range, Cannavale has mastered the art of adhering a brash persona to particular content. Most of the men he plays, whether of hoodlum (Boardwalk Empire) or humble (Vinyl) origins, provoke something primal within the viewer — a sincerity that can’t be feigned, no matter how good an actor is. In this regard, Cannavale’s scenery chewing is a throwback to ’70s guys like James Caan and Bruce Dern. He’s got the chops; let’s see if he’s got the legs to make it stick.
8. Pedro Pascal
Pedro Pascal’s television resume reads like a roll call of the millennium’s most memorable shows: NYPD Blue (2001), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), CSI (2012) and Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2009). But even with this steady stream of parts, it wasn’t until an extended turn on Game of Thrones (2014) that the Chilean actor truly became a cult phenomenon. Playing Prince Oberyn Martell, a.k.a. The Red Viper, Pascal created a homicidal badass equal parts Alexander The Great and Ricardo Montalban’s smooth-talking Khan from Star Trek. The character added a jolt of energy to the show’s fourth season, and paved the way for Pascal’s role in Narcos, a Netflix project currently making the rounds of critical acclaim.
As DEA agent Javier Peña, the talented performer struck just the right balance of desperation, dapperness and dogged determination. Miles away from the egomania of Martell, it proved Pascal was far more than a one trick pony, and earned him further adoration from fans everywhere. Moving ahead, with the entertainment world as his oyster, charismatic chameleon Pascal is poised to make the jump from TV star to feature film favorite.
7. Andre Holland
When The Knick premiered in 2014, fans instantly gravitated towards the melancholic Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland). A carefully composed character, the medical assistant faced racism of both overt and subtle nature, while coping with the reckless methods of boss/cocaine addict Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen). Holland, a performer who has spoken on several occasions regarding the lack of quality minority roles, had finally nabbed a juicy part, and critics took notice with praise and multiple award nominations. The show’s writing was layered in its narrative structure, but it was Holland who truly elevated Edwards to the realm of scene-stealing highlight.
Draped in droopy features and piercing brown eyes, the Alabama native sports an earnestness to his words, all of which drip from the vocals of what sound like a twentysomething Morgan Freeman. Sure, the comparison is a bit outlandish, but Holland’s textured turns in 42 (2013) and Selma (2014) aren’t far off in their portrayals of decency. The talent is there, but as the actor himself noted, Hollywood roles will have to make some marked improvements moving forward.
6. Joel Edgerton
Joel Edgerton is a guy who’s been acting for two decades, including a turn as Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels (right?!), but nearly all of his highlights have been compressed to the last handful of years. The Australian actor has actually put together one of the best supporting resumes in recent memory, with Warrior (2011), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), The Great Gatsby (2013), and Exodus: Kings And Gods (2014) leading the way. Whether critically acclaimed or universally shoulder shrugged, critics and fans have been quick to single Edgerton out as a consistent high point in each respective project.
Sharing many a similarity with Warrior co-star Tom Hardy, the physically imposing Edgerton can play most any role under the sun, whether it be the irredeemable bad guy or the conflicted softie in strapped attire. And given his 2015 success in both Black Mass and directorial debut The Gift, it seems as though the 41 year old utility actor is finally coming into his own as a bankable name. That kind of thing happens when you steal the show from guys like Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Corey Stoll (who himself would probably be number thirteen on this list).
5. David Oyelowo
David Oyelowo is really good at making potentially flat characters pop off the screen. Playing it safe is typically a weakness when it comes to the biopic, but this Oxford native is actually at his best when tackling history’s most complex men. Performances in The Butler (2013) and Selma (2014) are finely tuned mechanisms, churning out emotion and nuanced study in equal measure; especially with regards to the latter film. As Martin Luther King, Jr., Oyelowo disappears into his work, nailing the essence of the famed preacher without losing sight of the humanity, the flawed nature that endeared him to us in the first place.
Granted, it sounds like a lot. And in many ways, it is, but the dedicated actor makes it flow pretty smoothly, whether playing friends (Lincoln) or foes (A Most Violent Year) of the story’s protagonist. Slightly more muddled characters are given equal footing from Oyelowo, as has been noted by his award winning turn in the HBO film Nightingale (2014), supplying not only a change of pace but the crucial litmus test of range that every guy on this list must adhere to. Expect Oyelowo to be around for a while.
4. Michael Peña
Combine the comedic timing of Cheech Marin and the dramatic chops of Edward James Olmos, and you’ve got Michael Peña. Another guy who’s been around for a while, the Chicago native first rose to prominence through bit parts in Crash (2004), Million Dollar Baby (2004), and World Trade Center (2006). Notable from the start was his ability to create emotional connection, a common decency that goes a long way in building trust with the audience. This trust, as it were, would go on to carry him through comedies (Observe And Report, 30 Minutes or Less) and drama (The Lincoln Lawyer, Fury) alike, sharpening his tools as a professional scene-stealer.
By the time 2012’s End of Watch launched him to the status of co-lead, Peña had all but solidified his spot as a supporting player par excellence. Given this impressive range, along with 2015 entries Ant-Man and The Martian, it seem high time he be thrown a few more leads, so he can stop stealing other people’s movies and focus on his own. Either way, dude is the Swiss Army Knife of character actors.
3. Ben Mendelsohn
For most people, Ben Mendelsohn is the guy who was brutally murdered by Bane (via neck snap? Face crushing? We’re not really sure, honestly) in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). As the final breath for arms dealer John Daggett, the Australian actor showcased exactly why he’s come to be known as one of the best villains in the business: morose delivery, sleazy demeanor, and a devout enjoyment in his villainous deeds. Mendelsohn is fully committed to his craft, and the hard work he’s provided has been returned with acclaimed roles in Animal Kingdom (2010), Starred Up (2013), and Mississippi Grind (2015). At his best when playing the sordid loser, Mendelsohn often evokes the persona of Dustin Hoffman, albeit, with a lot more grit thrown into the mix for good measure.
Things are looking good for the actor heading into his third decade on camera. Basking in the praise and Emmy nominations of TV thriller Bloodline, Mendelsohn is also set to portray the ominous villain in December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Leading man status may have since passed the forty-seven year old by, but there’s no reason to think he couldn’t attain Gary Oldman status by the time all is said and done.
2. Paul Dano
Love & Mercy was a buried gem in 2015, led by the brilliant performance of Paul Dano as Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson. Forced to convey happiness, manic depression, and creative genius into a coherent character, the role proved a perfect vehicle for the actor to excel and show off his chops as a unique talent. Not many others could have pulled it off, but then again, few could hold their own against Daniel Day-Lewis either, a feat that Dano achieves twice in 2007’s modern classic There Will Be Blood. An actor since he was sixteen, the New York native is at his best when playing weaklings and outsiders, able to infuse them with a profound sense of sadness that goes far beyond cliché.
From stealing the show in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) to his harrowing performance in Prisoners (2013), Dano is the dude to call when things are at risk for being dull. He isn’t your typical leading man type, but there’s an undeniable draw to his craft, one that seems to improve with each subsequent outing. As long as filmmakers have the gall to try something different, Paul Dano will be leading the way, one outcast at a time.
1. Michael Shannon
There was hesitancy to include Michael Shannon on this list, on the possibility he’s already made it to the big time. But, after weighing the facts, and erring on the side of caution, this red hot character actor makes the cut. Shannon has been doing the movie thing longer than most, and can be spotted as far back as Groundhog Day (1993), proving he’s had more than a few years to hone his idiosyncratic craft. A brief appearance here, a supporting turn there, all building up to Revolutionary Road (2008), the all-star drama that nabbed Shannon an Oscar nod for Supporting Actor.
After that, it was off to the races with acclaimed projects Take Shelter (2011), The Iceman (2013), and Midnight Special (2016), amidst scenery-chewing roles in Premium Rush (2011) and 99 Holmes (2015). Unconventional looking to say the least, the haunting actor utilizes his eyes like few other performers, and the poker face he consistently wields never ceases to amaze. He even stole the show in Man of Steel (2013) — if that’s not a testament to A-list talent, we don’t know what is.
WHAT’S NEXT: Salt And Fire, a disaster drama co-starring Gael García Bernal.
Which underrated character actors do you feel belong on the A-List? Let us know in the comments.