Christopher Nolan doesn’t get enough credit for his casting. Sure, most of his movies are headlined by very popular and very talented stars, but if you dig deeper, you see that his films are almost always fully cast to perfection. As I sit mere hours away from watching Nolan’s new film, Interstellar (in 70mm!), I thought it’d be fun to take a look back at the supporting players who helped make his films so good.
10. Mark Boone Junior – Memento and Batman Begins (2000; 2005)
Mark Boone Junior is the kind of actor whose work is perpetually unsung. Despite giving consistently stellar performances in a range of roles (most recently in Sons of Anarchy), Junior has never been given enough praise. I am, however, a great admirer of his work, including his performances in Nolan’s films – first as a sleazy motel worker in Memento, and later as an oafish crooked cop in Batman Begins. With his unkempt appearance and general disregard for, well, everything, Junior’s characters almost always manage to get a few laughs.
9. Daniel Sunjata – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
as Captain Jones
Shortly after Bane takes control of Gotham, an unassuming Special Forces team infiltrates the city, and confidence is briefly restored. The team is led by Captain Jones, and, as played by the consistently underrated Daniel Sunjata, the audience takes solace in the fact that Jones is going to make a difference. Sunjata has a presence that makes him instantly likeable, but a physique that proves he knows how to handle himself. So, in short, when Captain Jones and his men show up, we know they’re going to take a stand. Instead, seconds into his first dust-up, Jones is gunned down. The music suddenly cuts out, Jones lays helpless, and hope is, once again, completely lost.
8. Larry Holden – Memento (2000)
In the world of Memento, no one is clean. This is a film about moral gray lines and the lengths to which people go to cross them. Jimmy is a guy we hear about more than we see. But when we finally meet him, his sleazeball persona makes us acutely aware that this guy is no good. It also says something of Holden’s acting abilities that his Jimmy is pretty much physically unrecognizable from Holden’s characters as an injured cop in Insomnia, and a district attorney in Batman Begins. The guy really did his damndest to fall into Jimmy.
7. Eric Roberts – The Dark Knight (2008)
as Sal Maroni
Eric Roberts has been in the game for a long time, peaking early with a string of solid performances in the ‘80s. But as Maroni, you can tell that Roberts is simply thankful to be in a good film again. His performance is a perfect combination of control, understatement and gangster slime. “Look, take it up wit The Joker. He killed your woman. He made you… like thisss.” So good.
6. William Fichtner – The Dark Knight (2008)
as Bank Manager
William Fichtner showing up in a movie – any movie – is never a bad thing. The initial reveal of The Joker in The Dark Knight is one of my all-time favorite character introductions. When The Joker removes his mask to reveal the psychotic clown beneath, we’re immediately afraid, stunned and intrigued. This is thanks to many things, most noticeably Heath Ledger’s performance, and Hans Zimmer and James Newtown Howard’s menacing score. But we can’t discount the sheer terror in Fichtner’s face. His expression makes it clear that we’re in for something completely unpredictable.
5. Tom Berenger – Inception (2010)
as Peter Browning
I just love Christopher Nolan for casting Tom Berenger in Inception. What with his swollen, rotund face, his somewhat slurred speech, and his years of career impotence. Watching him as Browning, you could tell how thankful Berenger was to have a good role again. Plus, he’s responsible for the film’s funniest moment, playfully muttering, “Good looking fellow, I’m sure,” after Saito confuses Browning for Eames’ shape-shifted version of Browning. Priceless.
4. Jonathan Jackson – Insomnia (2002)
as Randy Stetz
Before Insomnia, Jonathan Jackson had found success on the soap opera General Hospital, but for all intents and purposes, Insomnia was his first major film. His big scene in the movie is an extended argument opposite Al Pacino. Randy Stetz is a teenage scumbag, completely unfazed by Pacino’s grizzled cop character. So what does Stetz do when questioned about the death of his girlfriend? He fires insults at one of our finest living actors. And he does it with complete zeal. Let me put it this way: any young actor who can stand toe-to-toe with Al Pacino and fucking crush it deserves to be praised.
3. Rebecca Hall – The Prestige (2006)
as Sarah Borden
Rebecca Hall is the heart of The Prestige. Her Sarah is such a kind and understanding presence, but one that is ultimately left heartbroken and stranded by her husband, Alfred (Christian Bale). During first viewing, we’re not entirely sure why Sarah feels randomly slighted by her husband. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that Sarah’s full torment is known. The Prestige was Hall’s first big movie, and she so eloquently captured the emotional decay of her character.
2. Maura Tierney – Insomnia (2002)
as Rachel Clement
The most poignant scene of Nolan’s career is a conversation between a dog-tired cop and a timid hotel owner in Insomnia. Late in the film, a near lifeless Will Dormer (Al Pacino) sits in his hotel room as the owner, Rachel, cleans up a mess he’s made. As she tidies up, Dormer tells her about a crime he committed against a man he knew to be guilty of a horrible assault. Rachel just stares at him; confused, frightened, but never passing judgment. When Dormer is finished, Rachel says that there are only two types of people who live in Alaska: “The ones who were born here, and the ones who are here to escape something else. I wasn’t born here.”
Dormer, barely able to speak, asks Rachel to share her story with him. “Here. Now. In this room. You and me. Please.”
But she doesn’t. Instead, she simply looks at him, with eyes that understand the pain he’s endured. It’s a great little moment between two fractured people. An example from Maura Tierney that emotional expression really can speak volumes.
1. Stephen Tobolowsky – Memento (2000)
as Sammy Jankis
When I covered Stephen Tobolowsky in my In Character column a few months ago, I highlighted his work as Sammy Jankis as the best performance of his career. In researching that post, I learned that in the Memento script, the Sammy character really had no lines, and Nolan asked Tobolowsky to improvise the bulk of his dialogue. That in and of itself is quite a feat, given how natural Sammy feels. In his brief turn as Sammy, Tobolowsky managed to earn some of the best laughs in the film (“Test this, you fuckin’ quack.”), as well as execute Memento’s most devastating moment. One of the gifts Stephen Tobolowsky has as an actor is that he’s always able to make his characters feel real. “Remember Sammy Jankis,” indeed.
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