Part of what makes Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years a Slave, so great is its eclectic cast. Throughout the film, familiar faces pop in and out of scenes for brief periods of time, proving that it isn’t the amount of screentime that matters to an actor, but rather, what they do with the time they’re given. From superstars to virtual unknowns, here’s a breakdown of the talented people who help make 12 Years a Slave one of the very best films of the year.
Notable Roles: Funny People, Ugly Betty, Parkland
Best Role: Who can forget Batt’s heartbreaking turn as Mad Men’s Sal? Ever since his untimely departure, I’ve always secretly hoped Sal would make it back to Madison Ave. Sadly, I think Sal is gone baby gone.
Liza J. Bennett
Notable Roles: Royal Pains, Common Law, Person of Interest
Best Role: Bennett is responsible for one of the most gut wrenching moments of 12 Years a Slave, when she tells a traumatized worker that her “children will soon be forgotten.” I’ve never seen Bennett in anything else, but given her work in McQueen’s film, she deserves to be a big, big star.
Marcus Lyle Brown
Notable Roles: Eve’s Bayou, The Shield, Stolen, Treme, Drop Dead Diva, The Host
Best Role: Brown has popped up memorably in a number of things over the years, but I’ll never forget him saying “Yes sir!” to Billy Bob Thornton after Thornton calls him a racial slur in Monster’s Ball. There’s so much patronizing defiance in those two words. It’s actually quite jarring.
Notable Roles: Public Enemies, Lawless, Damages, Lincoln
Best Role: Easy, as Van in Compliance. A dim witted man tricked into doing a very, very bad thing.
Notable Roles: Then She Found Me, Homeland, Being Flynn, The Newsroom
Best Role: I enjoy what Chalk does with his underwritten character, Gary Cooper, on The Newsroom, but his brief arc on a slave ship in 12 Years a Slave was fascinating. From quiet leader to ecstatic “Massa, Massa” house slave, it made for one of the film’s most disheartening moments.
Notable Roles: The Whistleblower, Sherlock, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, War Horse, The Fifth Estate
Best Role: Cumberbatch’s die-hard fans, which have aptly titled themselves “Cumberbitches,” would be better at choosing the actor’s best role, as I haven’t seen them all (including Sherlock). So, as it stands now, I suppose I’m most taken with his beyond-creepy turn in Atonement. He played that part with utter conviction. Props for his flawless American accent in 12 Years a Slave, though. Dude has a killer voice.
Notable Roles: L.I.E., The Girl Next Door, Taking Lives, Little Miss Sunshine, Meek’s Cutoff
Best Role: “I AM A FALSE PROPHET, GOD IS A SUPERSTITION!”
Notable Roles: The Road, No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James…, Winter’s Bone
Best Role: Dillahunt is a master of slimy deception, my favorite incarnation of which was as Francis Wolcott (and/or Jack McCall…) in HBO’s Deadwood.
Notable Roles: Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots, Children of Men, Talk to Me, Redbelt
Best Role: That would be Solomon Northup. Give the man an Oscar. Period.
Notable Roles: Hunger, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, Prometheus, The Counselor
Best Role: Michael Fassbender is the finest actor of his generation. I love him in everything, but his performance in Shame is one of the best film acting performances I have ever seen.
Notable Roles: American Splendor, Cinderella Man, The Illusionist, John Adams, Win Win
Best Role: Tough, tough call. But I suppose I most drawn to his desperation in Sideways.
Notable Roles: Treme, LUV
Best Role: Gotta be as Slim Charles on The Wire. Remember when he took out Cheese? Wow.
Notable Roles: None, other than…
Best Role: Wink in Beasts of the Southern Wild, his only other screen credit. What amazing work that was.
Notable Roles: MADtv, Just Married, Scrubs, The Heat
Best Role: His impersonations on Saturday Night Live are currently some of the best things that show has going for it.
Notable Roles: Passenger 57, Bad Boys, Wild Things, Burn Notice, Conviction
Best Role: Macaulay has been in the game for a long time, and it’s damn near impossible to pick a favorite performance. Though his delivery of the line, “I’m just gonna have the boys here kick the shit out of you,” made for one of Killer Joe’s more darkly humorous moments.
Notable Roles: Interview with the Vampire, Roseanne, Monster’s Ball, The Ladykillers
Best Role: I love McConnell’s work as DJ Jeffy Jeff on HBO’s Treme. This dude is New Orleans.
Notable Roles: In Search of a Midnight Kiss, Monsters, The Off Hours, Argo, Promised Land
Best Role: Another tough call, but I’ll go with McNairy’s in-over-his-head turn in Killing Them Softly. Poor bastard.
Notable Roles: None
Best Role: Perhaps 12 Years a Slave’s biggest shock was the power of mostly unknown actress Lupita Nyong’o. Her devastating work as Patsey is justly earning Oscar talk. That would be one damn well deserved award.
Notable Roles: Half Nelson, The Coolest White Boy Ever
Best Role: If you thought Oduye was great as Eliza (which, of course, she was) then you’ll be floored by her work in Pariah. It’s a perfect performance.
Notable Roles: Deadwood, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Game Change, Mud
Best Role: Paulson is one of those actresses who keeps getting better and better. Her work as Mrs. Epps is the best film performance I’ve seen from her yet, but overall, Lana Winters from American Horror Story: Asylum has to be her finest.
Notable Roles: Se7en, Fight Club, Ocean’s Eleven, Babel, Burn After Reading, The Tree of Life
Best Role: My favorite Brad Pitt performance...? Tough call. I’ll go with his quietly unnerving work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He’s utterly flawless in that film.
Notable Roles: None, other than…
Best Role: Beasts of the Southern Wild, a role that made her the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.
Michael K. Williams
Notable Roles: Gone Baby Gone, The Road, Life During Wartime, Boardwalk Empire
Best Role: “The farmer in the dell/The farmer in the dell/Heigh-ho, the derry-o/The farmer in the dell.”
Notable Roles: Cross Creek, St. Elsewhere, Down in the Delta, Passion Fish, Primal Fear
Best Role: She’s so good in everything, but her stern mother in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn might be her best.