What is a character actor? The term has the potential to be confusing for two reasons. First: there are conflicting definitions for ‘character actor.’ Second: all actors are technically playing characters whenever they appear on screen, so it would be natural to assume that all actors are character actors. In this post we will clear up any confusion over the label, provide a comprehensive definition, and explore the role of character actors in film.

What does a character actor mean?

Character actor meaning

Depending on where you look, there's more than just one character actor definition. There is disagreement, even within the film industry, about exactly what the term means or if it should be used at all. We’ll provide our own definition, then examine the different definitions out there in circulation. If you encounter any other unfamiliar terms, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a great resource for looking them up.


What is a character actor?

A character actor is a film or television performer who specializes in portraying unique, offbeat, colorful characters in supporting roles. The term can be applied to actors who excel in one specific type of character or those who transform themselves for each role and take on a wide range of character types.

Character actor meaning

  • Supporting roles
  • Less star-power and name-recognition than leading actors
  • Extreme variance in character types OR one specific persona

Hollywood character actors

Conflicting character actor meanings

The character actor label can mean different things to different people and can even imply slightly different attributes simultaneously. Even in our comprehensive definition, the term can still apply to two distinct types of actors. It applies to those with a clear screen-persona across multiple films. This means they have a specific character type that they are associated with such as a gangster, detective, crazy person, etc. 

Check out our rundown of the best gangster films to see a whole bunch of these actors in action. 

The other interpretation of “character actor” applies to chameleon actors who may be unrecognizable from one role to the next. In other words, they become the character. One thing both of these actor types have in common is that they both find the majority of their work in supporting roles rather than lead roles. But other definitions do not distinguish between leading and supporting roles when determining a character actor. 

Some definitions suggest that physical appeal and body type are key attributes of a character actor. J.K. Simmons, a wonderful character actor himself, jokingly said that you can tell which actors are character actors because they are less attractive than the big stars. For more information on this label, refer to the video below.

What does a character actor mean?

Not all performers who could be categorized as character actors are equally accepting of the label. Modern actors like Margot Martindale, who played “character actress Margot Martindale” on Bojack Horseman, is one actor who is fine with the label but wouldn’t call herself a ‘character actor.’ While some performers welcome the term, other modern actors reject the label.

Ann Dowd, frequently labeled a character actor, is one individual who finds the term reductive to her work and aspirations. She, along with others, suggests that the label can inform the decisions made by casting directors. Which, in turn, determines which kinds of roles are made available to those labeled as character actors.

Hollywood character actors

The role of character actors in cinema

A good way to tell if someone might be a character actor is if you recognize them from a bunch of films without knowing their name. Even the best character actors, by definition, have less star-power and receive less recognition than the leads whose performances they bolster.

But don’t let that make you think these actors are any less talented just because they sometimes garner less attention and accolades. 

There are plenty of great, smaller parts that go to character actors, such as memorable antagonist characters. Many of the best villain roles double as character actor roles.

Actors like Michael Shannon, Viola Davis, and Gary Oldman have lately led projects in starring roles. Before that, they were stealing scenes and whole films with memorable character actor roles that often outshined the bigger names involved. The best character actors often find themselves in smaller roles that are more demanding and complicated than lead roles all the same. 

Luckily the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress Oscar categories sometimes shine a spotlight on the best character actors. Joaquin Phoenix is another leading actor with a bevy of supporting actor roles under his belt. In the interview below, Phoenix discusses how he disregards the traditional rules of acting in favor of his own approach.

Joaquin Phoenix interviewed by Salon

The best character actors take on challenging parts and give them life, while bolstering the performances of the leading actors. Character actors hold less box-office draw due to their names being less recognizable, which means they are, more often than not, paid less than actors with more star-power.

Because the roles are smaller, they often come with a smaller time commitment as well, meaning a prolific supporting actor can appear in more projects each calendar year than a leading actor who may be tied up with a single project for an entire year.

One thing is for certain, without talented actors in supporting roles, movies would be a lot less interesting.


Best Supporting Actor Winners Ranked

Character actors might not find themselves in the lead role very often, but just because they don’t get the chance to star as the protagonist, doesn’t mean they aren’t given the chance to tear up the screen as memorable characters. The supporting actor category is often where the best supporting actors are given their time to shine. Up next, check out our ranking of the top Best Support Actor Oscar winners of all time.

Up Next: Best Supporting Actors →
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  • Sam Kench is an internationally-awarded screenwriter, independent filmmaker, and film critic. Lover of foreign films; hater of American remakes.

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