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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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)
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
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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990)
The Prophecy (1995)
Apt Pupil (1998)
The Sopranos – “The Strong, Silent Type” (2002)
Two Lovers (2008)
Let Me In (2010)