Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In Character: Kevin Pollak

Kevin Pollak’s got that perfect character actor thing. Or, more accurately, things. He’s around (with nearly 100 film and television roles to his credit), he’s noticeable (with that short stature, goofy smile and distinctive voice), and he’s multi talented, seamlessly swapping from heavy comedy to serious drama with each passing role. Easily one of the best character actors currently in the game.

Five Essential Roles
A Few Good Men (1992)
Lt. Sam Weinberg
Playing a character whose sole duty is to have “no responsibilities whatsoever,” Pollak gives his Sam Weinberg an expected heart in the brief time he has on screen.

Acting as third counsel to Tom Cruise’s cocky Lt. Kaffee and Demi Moore’s stern Lt. Galloway, Weinberg does what most research lawyers do in a high profile case: sit quietly on his side of the courtroom and do whatever lead counsel says. But there are two scenes in particular in Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script that gives Weinberg a chance to shine. One comes in the form of an unexpected outburst in which Weinberg confides in Kaffee and Galloway just how much he loathes their clients.  The second, much more heartfelt moment is when he tells a belligerent Kaffee how truly fine a lawyer he considers Kaffee to be. Funny, tender at appropriately lacerating. A remarkable performance.

The Usual Suspects (1995)
Todd Hockney
Todd Hockney, without a doubt, the one guy who didn't give a fuck about anybody. Pollak has two distinct personas as an actor: the straight-laced dramatist, and the off-the-wall humorist. Hockney is a reserved member of the latter group, for which I am forever grateful.

Everything that comes out of this guy’s mouth is fucking gold. “I can put you in Queens on the night of the highjacking,” a cop insinuates. “Really,” Hockney muses, “I live in Queens. Whatta got a team of monkeys workin’ around the clock on this one?” Or even the way he tells his cohorts that he’s “hot and fuckin’ bored,” while waiting for Mr. Kobayashi. He nails every line he’s given.

Hockney is very close to being my favorite Pollak performance. I love everything about it.

Casino (1995)
Phillip Green
Call me crazy, but my favorite performance in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (aside from James Woods’s string of never-ending fuckups that is Lester Diamond) is Pollak’s Phillip Green. Green is the only real innocent character in the entire film. He’s middle aged, Jewish, with an honest face and virtually no sense of what is happening behind the scenes of the casino he’s apparently in charge of. He’s the ultimate lackey.

Really, who doesn’t love Pollak’s reaction to Robert De Niro flipping out that his muffin has fewer blueberries than Pollak’s? Priceless.

The Whole Nine Yards (2000)
Janni Gogolak
Back to the out and out comedy, Janni Gogolak was, for me, arguably the most significant performance of Pollak’s career. Up until this film, I had no idea the guy could do this level of comedy, with voices and flawless impersonations to boot.

Mind you, The Whole Nine Yards is nothing more than an admitted silly slapstick comedy, but Pollak has a complete blast with it. Janni is a character so off the rails (with this actions, his voice, his way of thinking), that we cannot help but laugh. He reminds me of Benicio Del Toro’s performance in The Usual Suspects, oddly enough. We can’t understand a goddamn thing he says, but we can't stop laughing as a result.

Red State (2011)
I never got around to writing a full review of Kevin Smith’s Red State, but I was adamant on Twitter and in my Halloween Movie Marathon write-up about how impressed I was with a film I virtually expected nothing from.

Many things contributed to this, but seeing Pollak pop up (if ever so briefly) as a Special Agent with the ATF, immediately gave me hope. When I saw him in the film, my first thought was that, because he’s in it, maybe Red State wasn’t going to be that bad. Granted, Pollak is… taken out of the equation about as quickly as he’s brought in, but if an actor has the ability to change your perception of a film instantaneously, then that’s saying something.

Best of the Best
Deterrence (2000)
President Walter Emerson
It’s a real shame that Kevin Pollak’s best performance is tucked away in a film that was never given the proper push it deserved. No matter, in Rod Lurie’s political thriller, Pollak plays a fictional leader of the free world who assumed office only because he was Vice President when the President died. Now it’s campaign time, and Emerson and a few members of his staff are forced to sit out a wicked snowstorm in a Colorado diner.

Shortly after he arrives at the diner, which is occupied by two employees and a handful of townies, news breaks that the (fictional) leader of Iraq has invaded Kuwait. If the Iraqi leader does not retreat from Kuwait, Emerson explains via a live television broadcast from the diner, Emerson will order a nuclear bomb to be dropped on Baghdad.

Deterrence, as a film, definitely has its flaws. But what it does contain is a flawless lead performance from Pollak. By all accounts, Emerson acts very hastily in his threat to drop the nuke. Why? We never really know, which helps add layers and hidden dimensions to the character. The screenplay is to thank for this, but Pollak is responsible for pulling it off. It’s odd, having rewatched Deterrence recently, I’m not entirely sure that I like President Emerson (other than his nuclear threat, he presents himself as an ordinary, likeable guy). So while I may not agree with Emerson’s politics, you can bet your ass I respect the hell out of the guy playing him.

Other Notable Roles
Willow (1988)
Grumpy Old Men (1993)
Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
That Thing You Do! (1996)
Buffalo ’66 (1998)
She’s All That (1999)
The Aristocrats (2005)
Hostage (2005)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Erland Josephson
Richard Jenkins
William Fichtner
Guy Pearce
Shea Whigham
Viola Davis
Gary Oldman
David Morse
Michael Shannon
Emily Mortimer
John Hawkes
Jeffrey Wright
Elias Koteas
David Strathairn


  1. Hockney is definitely my favourite Pollak performance. He has so many great lines in that film - "Sure you brought enough guys?" "Yeah, I was just about to tell you to shut up!". The whole cast is great in that film, though. Love Pollak. Great choice.

  2. @Andy Buckle Thanks man. He's so good as Hockney - lest we forget: "Uhhhh fuck your father in the shower then have a snack."

  3. It's amazing how many of those characteristic actors are in "Casino". I love the part when he sees Ace on TV and goes "oh no. Don't juggle Ace!". Great article!

  4. Great choice! I perfectly remember him from a lot of movies I saw growing up, but lately it seems like he has dissapperead or taken very small parts, which is a shame!

  5. @Sati. I love that scene too! His performance just works so well with the narration.

    "But it was really Andy Stone who was running the show, not the Chairman of the Fuckin' Board, Philip Green."

  6. @Diana Completely agree - you're right, and that is a big shame. He's fully capable of playing a lead, I just wish he'd get more shots.

  7. I do love Kevin Pollak. Dude is cool.

    At least you didn't count his performance in The Whole Ten Yards. What an awful piece of shit that was and he really didn't get any good material to be funny.

  8. @thevoid99 The Whole Nine Yards is silly, but it's fun. The Whole Ten Yards is a goddamn embarrassment to everyone involved. Utter crap.

  9. I agree that Pollak is a talented actor. The sheer range of roles he has portrayed prove that. Thanks for reminding me he was in Willow. Live that film. However, although his performance is fine, his new film Columbus Circle which he wrote and co-stars in us appalling. And when I say bad I mean really embarrassingly bad. Which is a shame as it is a small blot on an otherwise stellar career.

  10. @Dan Damn man, I haven't even HEARD of that movie, let alone seen it. Rough stuff. Have to remember to dodge that one. At any rate, glad to hear you dig Pollak.

  11. Pollak was best in Casino. He was everywhere in the '90s and now I rarely see him in major movies.

  12. Pollak is what this In Character series is all about. Solid work and a great range but never really taking the lead. Deterrence sounds interesting but I'm surprised some of those Hockney lines didn't make him a star!

  13. Damn he is such a good character actor that I forgot he was in half these films. He blends in to the background so much that he almost seems like a universal everyman.

  14. @Movies on my Mind And that is a real shame. I think he's focusing more on his comedy now, which is cool, because he's hilarious. But I too wish he was getting as good of roles as he was in the '90s.

  15. @Pete Oh he's excellent in Deterrence, but yeah, Hockney should've propelled him to the next level. LOVE that performance.

  16. @3guys1movie And that's what it's all about: blending in, but leaving your mark. Glad to hear you enjoy his work!

  17. Pollak has been keeping busy with his chat show (look it up - Kevin Pollak's Chat Show is on Hulu and he landed some killer interviews during the show's 2+ run). I do want to add that he's fantastic in Barry Levinson's Avalon, which is definitely overlooked. I also really enjoyed him in Indian Summer, a great little dramedy I like to watch over and over.

    Deterrence is awesome!

    Nice picks, Alex!

    1. I actually have listened to a few episodes of that show, and they are all excellent. Haven't seen Avalon, have to check that out soon. Deterrence for the win!

  18. Look for "Mother Ghost", he gives a great performance while sitting in a chair for 95 percent of his screen time.