Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Character: Elias Koteas

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

I honestly never realized how much of a psycho Elias Koteas is.  Or rather, his penchant for playing them in movies.  His fondness for playing crazy, however, isn’t why I consider him one of the best actors currently working in film.  His effortless ability to play the everyman is what makes him so great.  If he’s a police sergeant hunting a serial killer, he’s a police sergeant hunting a serial killer.  If he’s a remorseful Army captain, then he’s a remorseful Army captain.  If he’s a sex-crazed, car-crashing nut, then he’s a sex-crazed, car-crashing nut. 

My point is, no matter the role, I never question the effectiveness of an Elias Koteas performance.  He can mold himself seamlessly into whatever character needs molding. He’s a master manipulator of his profession, one that I will see in anything, no matter the material.

Five Essentials
Crash (1996)
Vaughan
When we first meet Vaughan in Crash, David Cronenberg’s sex-and-car-crashes quasi masterpiece (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’ 2005 race film), he is staging a reenactment of the car accident that killed James Dean.

One inch that way or this way, and Vaughan will be dead.  The two cars involved reverse to a suitable distance before taking off and colliding at the exact speed, at the exact same angle, Dean’s car did.  Once the dust settles, a bloodied, scarred Vaughan slowly emerges from his vehicle, pleasantly pleased by the success of the event.

It’s a hell of a way to introduce a character, one that will keep you on edge whenever Vaughan is onscreen.  Thankfully for us, Koteas is in Crash plenty.  It’s a manic performance of natural charm and lunacy.  Ferocious and unforgettable.

Fallen (1998)
Edgar Reese
If you’ve seen Fallen, the very mediocre, Denzel Washington-starring supernatural thriller, then you don’t forget the hysterically possessed death row inmate who opens the film.  

Tap dancing through his final walk, offering to blow the guard that’s strapping him into the gas chamber, and finally singing “Time Is On My Side” as he breathes in the fatal gas.  It’s a sensational three minutes, one that I assume director Gregory Hoblit let Koteas to go off the fucking rail with and push it as far as he wanted.  No complaints here.

Zodiac (2007)
Sgt. Jack Mulanax
When I first saw Zodiac, I suppose I was too stuck in dumbfounded amazement to remember that Elias Koteas was in the movie.  By the time he showed up as a police detective from Vallejo, it was like finding that last Christmas present stuck behind the tree; the hits just kept on comin’.

Zodiac is, more or less, spilt up into two distinct segments, and it’s in the latter portion that Koteas hits his stride.   In dealing with the obsessive Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), Koteas exudes a sort of fatherly acceptance, like letting an 8-year-old watch another 10 minutes of television before bed.  The kid isn’t hurting anyone, he’s just goddamned annoying.

There’s a short scene in this film where Mulanax lets Graysmith examine some old police records.  In the records room, Mulanax asks Graysmith if he smokes.

“Once,” Gyllenhaal timidly confesses.  “In high school.”

If you watch Koteas’ face closely, it’s as if he doesn’t know what to think of Gyllenhaal’s response.  Is he kidding, or is he really that innocent?  It’s a quick moment of amusing tenderness, one that, in lesser hands, would fall dismally flat.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Monsieur Gateau
Frankly, I’m not a big fan of David Fincher’s fantasy epic.  In fact, I’d go so far as to call it Fincher’s weakest film since Alien 3.  What I am a fan of, however, are the bit roles in the film, including Elle Fanning as a young Daisy, Tilda Swinton as a partner of fleeting trysts, Julia Ormond as Cate Blanchett’s grown daughter, Jared Harris as a boat captain, and, namely, Elias Koteas as Monsieur Gateau.

Koteas’ brief segment that opens the film would act perfectly as its own five-minute short.  The story is simply that whimsical: a blind clockmaker, loses his son to World War I and as a result, creates a massive clock that runs backwards, an innocent gesture that may bring America’s fallen sons back to live full lives.  After unveiling his clock, no one hears from Monsieur Gateau, also known as Mr. Cake, again.

Monsieur Gateau is a simple, delicate role, but by far my favorite of the film.  Fincher, as well as any other director, is capable and willing to let Koteas play down a part, to the point of being nearly unnoticeable.  It’s roles like Monsieur Gateau that demonstrate Koteas’ uncanny ability to blend.

Shutter Island (2010)
Andrew Laeddis
Here we are, back to batshit crazy Koteas.  There are plenty of nutso characters in Martin Scorsese’s warped head trip, and with the exception of Emily Mortimer’s Rachel (an actress I plan on highlighting in this column very soon), Koteas’ Andrew Laeddis takes the cake.

Koteas shows up briefly in a hallucinatory scene as the pyromaniac responsible for the death of Teddy Daniels’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) wife.  Smoky and scarred, Koteas plays Laeddis as a remorseless snake, slithering in and out of view, chewing on every word.

For me, Koteas’ moment is the most memorable scene of Scorsese’s otherwise underwhelming film.  Dirty, disfigured and disturbing; perfect Koteasian bliss.

Best of the Best
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Capitan Staros
Some pretty flashy, popular roles occupy my favorite film performances of the ‘90s.  Tom Hanks, Philadelphia; Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas, Daniel Day-Lewis, In the Name of the Father, Edward Norton, American History X; Denzel Washington, The Hurricane.  A performance many people may not be aware of, however, is Elias Koteas in The Thin Red Line.

Koteas’ portrayal of the anguished Capitan Staros is, in no uncertain terms, a flawless tour de force of screen acting.  You can literally take any single moment that Koteas is onscreen and label it as masterful. 

Like most of the cast in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, Koteas didn’t have it easy.  Malick famously changed Koteas’ character from Jewish to Greek just days before the movie started shooting.  Koteas’ undoubted frustration and anguish carries over flawlessly onto the screen.  His Staros is an emotionally wounded protector, a fatherly figure that, when we first meet him, is disrespected by his men and belittled by his superiors.

Then something happens.

There’s a quiet, tender scene the night before the film’s laborious centerpiece battle in which Staros sits alone in a tent, praying determinately.

“Are you here?” he whispers.

The candle next to him flickers.

“Let me not betray you… let me not betray my men.”

There’s something about that moment that moves me to tears everytime I watch the film.  The Thin Red Line isn’t a hard film to watch because of its physical violence, it’s a hard film to watch because of its emotional intensity.  Not since The Deer Hunter has a film captured the true hell of war.  And not since Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter has a performance in a war film been as subtly harrowing as Elias Koteas’.

I haven’t even mentioned the epic verbal battle between Koteas and Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall, an exchange that could merit an essay-length post itself (kind of like this one).  I’ve discussed this before, but there’s a seemingly hidden moment at the end of that scene, in which a stunned Koteas puts his radio down and quickly, instinctively blurts out a phrase in Greek.  That, too, is something I find strangely moving. 

Capitan Staros is one of my favorite movie characters of contemporary cinema. The character is beautifully written, expertly staged, and, most importantly, perfectly acted.

Other Notable Roles
Let Me In
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The Prophecy (1995)
Gattaca (1997)
Apt Pupil (1998)
The Sopranos – “The Strong, Silent Type” (2002)
Shooter (2007)
Two Lovers (2008)
Let Me In (2010)

29 comments:

  1. I mainly remember Koteas for The Thin Red Line. In a movie full of great performances, he stood out the most for me. (Well, him and James Caviezel.)

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  2. Yeah Caviezel kills it in that flick too. But Koteas... damn.

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  3. What a great actor. I loved him in so many of these films, but THE THIN RED LINE has to take the cake. He is magnificent. Congrats on him tweeting you, too!

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  4. Thanks man. I'm riding high off this one right now.

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  5. This new series is very interesting, it's like discovering a chocolate chip muffin in a sea of blueberry muffins- you can't see it at first, but when you take it and taste it, you tell yourself, how come I missed it?
    Anyway, you make us rediscover new actors! I must admit, I am not very familiar with his work- I mean, I remember him from Zodiac and Benjamin Button, I know his face,but that's all!Great job!

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  6. Similar to Aziza, I recognize the face of Koteas, yet didn't know his name.

    He looks like the brother of Canadian actor Don McKellar ( :

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  7. @Aziza and Chris, thanks so much for the kind words. Have either of you seen The Thin Red Line? It is flawless, and Koteas is flawless in it.

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  8. I "borrowed" Thin Red Line from my dad a while back and still haven't watched it. I need to check it out.

    Koteas has a great presence. Since it's close to Halloween, what do you think of The Haunting in Connecticut?

    Great, now I have "Time is on my Side" stuck in my head...

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  9. @Robert, dude, you MUST watched The Thin Red Line. then let it sit for a day, then watch it again. A masterpiece. I had no interest in seeing The Haunting in Connecticut... is it worth it?

    @PTurner, I was so close to going all nostalgic and making that one of the five essentials. Love him in TMNT!

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  10. I'll add TRL to my priority watch list after Halloween ends. It's silly, one of those movies I have sitting around and I just can't get up to watching it.

    I was actually surprised at Haunting in Connecticut. I really didn't have much of an interest in it initially but I caught it on TV or something and it was pretty creepy. I remember Koteas being pretty good in it too.

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  11. Hmmm may have to check it out then.

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  12. What a great character actor!!!

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  13. I remember we discussed Koteas recently. Love him in The Thin Red Line, but I too forgot he was in Zodiac. Another film I remember him in is Ararat - a pretty good flick. Top actor, always convincing.

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  14. Nice post. He is one of those actors that you do not realize was in so many good films till you see a list like this.

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  15. He is pretty damn good in the TV-series OZ as well. You need to check that one out if you haven't!

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  16. @JoelB OZ was such a good show, but I think you're confusing him with Christopher Meloni. Easy to do, they look a lot alike.

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  17. Love these write-ups on excellent character actors. Keep them coming! Elias Koteas is another person that helps out any movie.

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  18. @Ty Thanks man! Couldn't agree more... LOVE Koteas.

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  19. This is one of my favorite actors of all time. He is so underrated. Thanks for writing this article. It was a good read.

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    1. Thank YOU for reading and comment, and, of course, for being such a Koteas fan. Love this guy.

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  20. His portrayal of Captain Staros was sublime. A perfect role in a near perfect movie that was sadly overshadowed by Saving Private Ryan.

    Thanks!!

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    1. Yes, I completely agree on all fronts. Thank YOU so much for reading!

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  21. Elias has been one of my favorite actors ever since i first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid. I remember he was so cool as Casey Jones that i not only wanted to be him for every Halloween after that, but i also wanted to wear that costume to school. As i got older i kept noticing him in other movies as well and he was always great every time no mater how small his roles got. Did you ever watch a movie called Hit Me that he did in 1996? It's one of the few movies he is the star of. It also stars William H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall. It's pretty hard to find, but it's worth it. I tracked the dvd down a few years ago on Ebay for cheap.

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    1. Hit Me - I'm all over it. I think this was my second In Character post, and honestly, I started the column much in part so I could discuss the talents of Elias Koteas. Funny story: about an hour after I posted this, Koteas tweeted me his thanks for the post. I didn't think it was him (the account wasn't verified), but we got into a Twitter conversation and it most definitely was him. Such a cool guy. No idea how he found the post. Bummer that he just deleted his account.

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    2. That's awesome. He always seems like such a nice and humble guy in interviews and such, so it's cool to hear that he took time to comment on this and actually talk to you. Not a lot of actors would do that.

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    3. Oh for sure. Made me like him even more. A very humble guy.

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  22. One of the best that guy actors around. As in, "Hey, it's that guy! Awesome!"

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    1. Love Koteas. I'll seek out anything he's in, just because he's in it.

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