I saw Disney’s TRON: Legacy last week and had a very middling reaction toward the science fiction spectacular. It is without question a visually stunning roller coaster, but lacks compelling characters to navigate its rather unfulfilling narrative, except for one minor player. Michael Sheen always brings class and complexity to his work, making him a filmmaker’s dream candidate for just about any role one can create.
Though he’s wonderful as a lead actor in films like Frost/Nixon and The Damn United, he excels at taking small roles and doing big things with them. That’s why Tim Burton used him in Alice In Wonderland as the White Rabbit and why Joseph Kosinski cast him as the eccentric club guru Castor in TRON. He was my favorite part of the movie; undeniably charismatic and infinitely watchable, but he’s not the first supporting player to steal a film’s glory. Take a look at a few other cases of small roles with a big impact:
Lambert Wilson in The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
The Matrix was a massive hit not just because it was a mind-bending, genre-defying blockbuster for the new millennium, but also because it was a fun ride. In the bloated sequel everyone – from Keanu Reeves to the Wachowski’s – was wound up and super-serious about the material, leaving precious little breathing room. Enter the Merovingian, an eccentric, aristocratic asshole holding The Keymaker in captivity. Lambert Wilson’s blase portrayal of this pompous program was the gust of fresh air that Reloaded desperately needed and was the best of all the additions to the franchise.
Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road (2008)
Shannon’s contribution to this saddening film is colossal. His character says the things that we, the audience, want to say to Frank and April Wheeler when their marriage begins to unravel. He is the voice of reason in a society caught up in consumerism and upward mobility, pleading with the couple to follow their hearts instead of their wants. He maximizes his screen time with a raw, uninhibited performance that overshadows the films prestigious stars.
Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused (1993)
I bet you can’t name more than five people who appeared in this classic comedy. Whether you can or can’t, I’m positive that one of those people would be McConaughey, who steals every moment of the movie with pitch-perfect delivery of his hilarious lines. Oozing charm and a delightful disregard for authority, he followed a long line of cinematic rebels that includes James Dean (Rebel Without A Cause), Marlon Brando (The Wild One) and Sean Penn (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) and is as cool as any of them.
Sean Connery in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Though some may disagree, I find this rendition of Robin Hood to be one of the most enjoyable. Director Kevin Reynolds assembled an all-star cast and created some memorable action sequences to tell the age-old story of the man who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but Connery ends the film on a high note with a rousing cameo as Richard the Lionheart while giving a nod to his own cinematic past (he played the adventurous archer in 1976’s Robin and Marian).
Jackie Earle Haley in Shutter Island (2010)
Every bit the twisted mind-bender it was supposed to be, Shutter Island’s best moment was an informative standoff between Haley and star Leonardo DiCaprio. The former child actor sells the primal terror that the patients experience almost as well as director Martin Scorsese, but does so in less than ten minutes. In that time he reveals the entire plot of the movie – backstory, conclusion and all – but sandwiches it so well between layers of emotion you’re not entirely sure he knows what he’s talking about. It’s masterful exposition and a riveting sequence thanks to Haley’s tremendous talent.
Peter O’Toole in Ratatouille (2007)
O’Toole personified every chef’s worst nightmare as an imposing food critic in this heartwarming animated comedy. With just the power of his voice, he gave Anton Ego the presence of a Roman gladiator and the attitude of Ebenezer Scrooge. His character's enlightenment doubles as the moral of the story; not an easy task for someone taking on a minor role in a film of this size, but O’Toole makes it look easy and fun.
Matt Damon in EuroTrip (2004)
This by-the-books teen comedy isn’t all that great, but is fun enough to warrant repeat viewings. The ace up its sleeve is Damon’s tattooed bandleader Donny, who ridicules protagonist Scottie by sleeping with his girlfriend and then singing about it. The comedy is born from the absurdity of seeing the generally dramatic Damon in full frat-boy mode. Silly? Yes, but it’s a welcome surprise that never gets stale, even if the film itself has.
Bill Murray in Zombieland (2009)
Had Murray’s brief appearance in this surprise hit never happened the trajectory of its awesomeness wouldn’t have changed. Looking at the film in hindsight, however, I find myself counting down the minutes and seconds until Bill chimes in. The timing of his cameo within the narrative is perfect and his self-deprecating humor plays so well off of the film’s central characters it’s practically a comedy short all on its own.
Elijah Wood in Sin City (2005)
In a film populated by creepy characters, Wood is exceptionally crazy as Kevin the cannibal. Without any words he managed to scare the pants off of most moviegoers with one of the weirdest characters in modern movie history (next to Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka and Mad Hatter, of course). His performance recalls the work of Max Schreck and other silent film stars while providing Mickey Rourke’s Marv with a polar-opposite nemesis who’s equally as deadly.
Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino’s landmark neo-noir features many great monologues and cameos, but none is quite as affecting as Walken’s. He delivers little Butch’s entire genealogy in less than ten minutes, but laces it with so much detail you feel as though you were in the trenches of Hanoi with him. His comical delivery makes it go down smooth and turns a somber moment into one of the funniest in the film. [Click here to view]
In the vein of Field of Dreams Astronaut Farmer is about building the seemingly impossible. Thankfully in this case it’s simply a rocket in the barn not a ballpark in a cornfield where ghosts of baseball heroes past can play the game. That is a bit far-fetched. Instead we meet Charles Farmer (Thornton) a man who was once on track to be an astronaut but was forced to leave NASA to save his family farm. He still wants to go into space however and so sets out to build a rocket inside his barn. By the time the movie starts the rocket is pretty much put together so we aren’t burdened with how he gets his supplies. All Charles needs now is 10 000 pounds of fuel which shoots up a big red flag with the government--a government that now considers Charles a threat--while the media look at him as a big story. But no matter the odds nothing can deter Charles from his dream to break through the atmosphere and orbit the earth. It’s refreshing to see Thornton as a loving father who wants to inspire his kids rather than make them go get him another beer. Of course Charles Farmer isn’t all sweetness and light—he’s an obvious eccentric whose obsession to launch into space effects the entire family—and it’s definitely a role right up Thornton’s alley. Virginia Madsen does an admirable job as the loving and supportive wife who nonetheless puts her foot down when things get out of hand while Bruce Dern plays the grizzled but equally supportive father-in-law. There’s also a supportive lawyer played by Tim Blake Nelson. In fact besides the big evil NASA chief (J.K. Simmons) and two bungling FBI agents (Mark Polish and Jon Gries) everyone supports Charles in his crazy dream. How could he fail? From the writing-directing team of Michael and Mark Polish (Northfork) Astronaut Farmer is pure old-school—an unassuming throwback to those feel-good movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. In fact Thornton told Hollywood.com he considers this his “Jimmy Stewart” movie. While the Polish brothers based Charles Farmer on their own eccentric father and obviously harbor their own boyhood dreams of being an astronaut the guys still follow a nice and simple formula finding some good actors to carry it out and adding cool visual effects when they can. Yes the more cynical moviegoer may look at Astronaut Farmer as completely improbable and trite. But those willing to be taken back to a simpler time--when movies were about walking out triumphant--should find watching Astronaut Farmer a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.