Thursday, March 7, 2013

In Character: Peter Stormare

Whenever I see Peter Stormare, I am instinctually reminded of his violence. Or, rather, the violence many of his characters bestow. But, like all great character actors, there is far more hidden beneath the surface. As my favorite Stormare roles will prove, the actor is capable of far more than physical ferociousness. There’s humor, depth, and, occasionally, tenderness. Still, noting all that, there’s always something hidden behind those slightly crossed eyes. There’s a danger lurking, even in his sensitivity. For that reason (and a handful of others) Peter Stormare will always remain endlessly watchable.

Five Essential Roles
The Big Lebowski (1998)
For the purposes of this column, I typically dedicate a few paragraphs to the six performances I think best highlight a character actor’s talent. But I feel as though this brief passage from The Big Lebowski will be enough said:

Nihilist: “We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing. And tomorrow we come back and we cut off your chonson.”
The Dude: “Excuse me?”
Nihilist: “I said we’ll cut off your johnson!”
Nihilist 2: “Just think about that, Lebowski.”
Nihilist: “Yeah, your wiggly penis, Lebowski.”

Chocolat (2000)
Serge Muscat
Similarly to Delroy Lindo’s contribution to Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules, there’s nothing for me to like about Hallström’s Chocolat. With the exception of Stormare’s abusive alcoholic and Alfred Molina’s dickhead mayor, Chocolat (and its needlessly overt sentiment) simply isn’t a film for me.

But while I step away from my distaste, I am thankful that Hallström included a character of such honest angst as Serge. Other than the dreaded sauce, we have no specific idea of what drives Serge’s rage. He seems to love his innocent wife, Josephine (Lena Olin), but isn’t the slightest bit hesitant to beat her senseless in a fit of drunken fury. Basically, there’s an overall mystery to Stormare’s work here; a fear that Serge can snap at an instant, void of motivation and reason. Serge is welcome bit of resentment in a movie that annoyingly boasts anything but.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Delicate sensibility isn’t something one often equates to a Lars von Trier film (or, for that matter, a Peter Stormare performance). But that is precisely the character trait that Stormare’s Jeff is equipped with in Dancer in the Dark. He’s one of the very few people who actually cares for the well being of lost, innocent, and helpless factory worker Selma (Björk). And Jeff, it should be noted, is seemingly the only person who invests any sort of romantic interest in Selma. The result lends itself to what must be the most compassionate performance of Stormare’s career. There’s something about Jeff’s tenacity that toes the line of creepiness, but eventually reveals his truly earnest intentions. It’s a tricky role, and Stormare plays (and sings, and dances) it to perfection.

Prison Break (2005-2006)
John Abruzzi
The first season of Prison Break proved to be the perfect forum for Stormare to flex all of his acting capabilities. Abruzzi is the Don of an Italian-American mob syndicate, who happens to be serving a life sentence in prison. And when we meet him, we know right away that we should fear him. It’s in Stormare’s cold glare (which he mastered long ago), his baritone voice, his steady movements. The man walks a prison yard like a hawk eyeing its prey, and when a fresh fish approaches Abruzzi and offers a snitch in exchange for cash money, Abruzzi isn’t too swayed by the proposition. What follows is a vicious assault, with Stormare demonstrating the peak of his intensity.

As the series developed, Stormare was given free reign to play desperate, angry, motivated, and completely listless – all to exceptional degrees of effectiveness. I lost touch with Prison Break midway through season two, which is, not so coincidentally, when Stormare started appearing a lot less often.

Small Town Murder Songs (2010)
Movies like Small Town Murder Songs are one of the main benefits of writing my In Character column. Every once in a while, I watch a film solely because the actor I’m covering has merited quiet but steady praise for their performance. Up until last week, I had never heard of the cold crime thriller, Small Town Murder Songs, but in my research, I discovered that Stormare’s work in the film was considered by many to be some of the best acting he’s ever done. And after watching the film recently, I can proudly agree.

The movie tells the story of how a small Canadian town is shaken when an unidentified young woman is found dead in a field. Timid police officer Walter is assigned to the case, and it soon becomes his obsession to solve it. While the plot description may not be that far removed from a typical episode of Law and Order, Stormare’s layered performance completely anchors the film in truth. We get the sense through skillful flashback and subtle dialogue that Walter has a very violent past. And director Ed Gass-Donnelly knows exactly how to capitalize on that buried vengeance. In casting Stormare, Gass-Donnelly makes a tediously long, unbroken shot of a husband and wife enjoying dinner, into a scene laced with sweaty tension. We know it won’t take much for Walter to snap, and watching Stormare silently battle all that’s going on within him is, indeed, as good as Stormare can get.

The Best of the Best
Fargo (1996)
Gaear Grimsrud
Gaear Grimsrud is the kind of character that never leaves you. No matter what Peter Stormare does with the rest of his career, he will always be Fargo’s blond haired psychopath. As is the case for most people, Fargo was the first time I ever witnessed Stormare’s cold stare, and it’s something I’ve simply never forgotten.

Fargo is filled with many memorable characters, most of which are remembered for the ways in which they speak in the film. The fact that Stormare says exactly 80 words in the film (for reference, Steve Buscemi utters 203 words… in his first scene), really, well, speaks to his ability to execute emotional expression. For example, watching Gaear Grimsrud speeding down an isolated road, flicking his cigarette out of the window as he pursues people he aims to kill, it’s impossible to not be entertained. Or horrified. Or both.

Gaear Grimsrud is a complicated, star-making performance that seems tailored to Stormare’s talents. Many are quick to point out the scene in which Fargo is best known for, but fail to acknowledge the skill of the people playing the scene. And what fine skill it is.

Other Notable Roles
In The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Awakenings (1990)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Playing God (1997)
Armageddon (1998)
Mercury Rising (1998)
8MM (1999)
Minority Report (2002)
Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003)
Birth (2004)
Constantine (2005)
Unknown (2006)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Entourage (2009)
Get the Gringo (2012)
The Last Stand (2013)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Ralph Fiennes
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
Delroy Lindo
William H. Macy
Margo Martindale
Christopher McDonald
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Jason Patric
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Tilda Swinton
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. I do love Peter Stormare. He's just awesome. He was one of the few things in Armageddon (along w/ Steve Buscemi) that I liked in an otherwise piece-of-shit film. My favorite role from him is the Nihilist from The Big Lebowski. They don't believe in anything yet they eat pancakes at night with Aimee Mann as Nihilist 4.

    1. I almost added Stomare's work in Armageddon for that exact reason. Movie sucks, but a few of the people in it are pretty entertaining.

      The Nihilist is such a perfect character for him. Those fucking outfits and accents... hilarious.

  2. He's one of the scariest actors ever. That scene when Buscemi insults him in Fargo and Stormare gives him the coldest and most-telling stare ever. Shivers. Sadly, that and his role in Lebowski are the only films of his I've seen. You featuring him and bestowing him with such praise is very encouraging for me.

    1. Soooo scary, isn't he? Hey man, you've seen two films that feature two excellent Stormare performances, so you are well on your way. Small Town Murder Songs was a really groovy little thriller. I highly recommend that one if you can get ahold of it.

  3. Great post and I've also only seen the two Coen performances (and unfortunately Armageddon). I know you're a big fan of Girls and because of the recent and much discussed cameo from Patrick Wilson I was wondering if you were considering doing him for an In Character column.

    1. Thanks man. I do love Patrick Wilson, definitely going to put him in the mix for an In Character. Thought he was perfect in Girls.

  4. No matter what he does with his career, I'll never be able to look at that face without thinking "Gaear Grimsrud." Possibly the best freaking cinematic psychopath ever.

    1. No. Kidding. So damn good. I recently showed that movie to my girlfriend, and she absolutely loved his character. Or, well, "loved" his psychosis.

    2. "Loved" is a funny word there ;-) ... but that's awesome. I'm glad your introduced your girlfriend to Fargo. Probably my favorite movie of all time.

    3. I never knew that! Or, as Marge would say, "Oohh yaaah?"

    4. If I had to pick a favorite, yeah. It's hilarious, in a dark way, deals with serious themes, and has a lot of heart. Appeals to my sick side, my serious side, and my sentimental side simultaneously, I guess. And it's all woven together so seamlessly and brilliantly. Can't say that about too many movies.

    5. No you certainly cannot. It really is a perfect film. No doubt.

  5. I was always drawn to Peter Stormare- he is quite creepy, but he grabs your attention from the get-go. My favorite part of his is Prison Break!

    1. Glad you're a fan of his. I thought he was the best part of Prison Break, no doubt.

      Thanks for stopping by D, hope your job is going well!

  6. Awesome addition to the series! I really like Stormare and I agree his best and most remembered work is in Fargo, him and Buscemi were such a fantastic and unforgettable duo.

    1. Thanks! They played so well off one another. I watched the special features last night, and Stormare said he was initially put off by the script, because there was no dialogue, but then realized he could have a blast with the dude's psychosis. I dig it.

  7. Yup, Fargo is the first film that came to mind when I saw his picture. Didn't know that he was in Entourage and Prison Break... interesting. Will also have to keep an eye out for Small Town Murder Songs. Great work as always in this series, Alex!

    1. Thanks Eric! Small Town Murder Songs was a great little surprise. Had never heard of it, but was pleasantly entertained. Still, Fargo is tops. Always.

  8. Yes! Gaear Grimsrud topped the list! I love that performance. Never heard of Small Town Murder Songs, but it looks interesting.

    1. Gaear is a perfect madman, isn't he? I recommend STMS if you can find it. Short and mean, in the best way possible.

  9. Although I LOVE Chocolat (and The Cider House Rules) I need to say Peter Stormare work in Fargo is his best.
    When I first watched Fargo I liked William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi but Gaear Grimsrud is one of those characters that stays in your mind the most. My grandma watched the film with my and said that these three actors should all be nominated for best supporting actor in that year. Hard to disagree.
    A also like him in 22 Jump Street.

    1. He's so good at immediately evoking fear in Fargo. It truly is a career-defining role. Absolutely love him in that film.