Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Character: Barry Pepper

Tormented. Conflicted. Those are my words for Barry Pepper. When I look at the best of his work, I see men who are tormented by their circumstances, conflicted by the actions around them. Conflicted by war, by fame, by justice, and jealousy. Conflicted about themselves, about why they’ve done what they’ve done, and how they can atone. Barry Pepper hit strong in the late ‘90s-early 2000s, but, sadly, has taken a step back as of late. I frankly don’t feel he’s given enough roles that fully encapsulate his skill, but the six performances below are perfect exceptions. Some tormented men are to follow.

Five Essential Roles
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Pvt. Jackson
Every war film needs a hero. Someone the audience can confide in. Saving Private Ryan is filled with many such heroes, few of whom are more memorable than Pepper’s Pvt. Jackson. Most of Pepper’s dialogue in the film is limited to poised delivery of biblical scriptures, but there’s an overall intensity to the way he executes his tasks that I am undeniably drawn to.

Whether he’s opening a path for his fellow soldiers on Normandy beach, executing a fellow sniper from 400 yards away, or picking off unsuspecting Germans from a bell tower, everything Jackson does is done for the greater good. There’s no boasting about his achievements, no ceaseless bloodlust in his motivation – he’s a good old boy fighting for his country. As Jackson, Pepper manages to stand out among the ensemble in this film. That itself is saying something.

61* (2001)
Roger Maris
A few weeks ago, I posted my Top 10 HBO Films list, and my good friend Dan had an interesting comment about Billy Crystal’s 61*. He said that whenever he envisions Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, Thomas Jane and Berry Pepper are synonymous with the real men.

That’s the power of Pepper’s work here. He plays Maris as a conflicted man torn between talent and fame. Maris was a hell of a ball player, and as he got closer to breaking Babe Ruth’s single-season homerun record, the spotlight fell on him in an unflattering way. So he shut down. He smoked too much, isolated himself, and, most notably, let his game suffer when it couldn’t afford to. Barry Pepper is key at conveying torment within the men he plays, and Roger Maris was a deeply troubled man. A great, nuanced performance.

3: The Dale Earnhardt Story (2004)
Dale Earnhardt
I’m not a NASCAR guy. It’s a sport that simply does not appeal to me. In fact, researching this post is the only reason I gave this ESPN-produced Dale Earnhardt biopic a shot. I mention my distaste for NASCAR because it plays a crucial role in my affection for Pepper’s work here. The actor is so strong as Earnhardt, so youthfully conflicted and professionally confident, that I could not take my eyes off him. It’s a performance that proves that although we may not be interested in what a film is about, we can certainly appreciate how it is conveyed.

The Dale Earnhardt Story received a very small release, and has all but vanished from cinematic discussion. That’s a shame. Not only does it contain one of the few lead performances by Pepper, but a grand one at that. The film depicts Earnhardt as a cool fighter. Battling his old man in his youth, battling wives who don’t understand his plight, battling competitors on the track, and so on. For fans of Pepper’s work, his portrayal of Earnhardt is simply a must.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Mike Norton
I’m still not sure how I feel about Mike Norton. As a Texas border patrolman, Norton is brash and impulsive – resorting to violence too quickly as a means of detaining illegal aliens. As a husband, he’s neglectful and abusive. But as a man, I think he’s confused, distraught but possibly, maybe, good.

Early in the film, Norton kills a man he mistakenly thinks is trying to harm him. Instead of reporting it, Norton buries the body and hopes that’s that. But the man’s best friend, Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), kidnaps Norton and demands an unusual form of justice that forces them to travel at great lengths. Essentially, the film is a road movie of sorts: two people who despise one another are forced to travel the land and achieve a greater good. Along their journey, Perkins continually breaks Norton down. He breaks down his entitlement, his self worth, his self respect – he breaks Norton down until he is a shell of a man, begging for forgiveness. Mike Norton’s journey is brutal and long, but because Pepper plays him so well, by the end, I respect him far more than I thought I would.

True Grit (2010)
“Lucky” Ned Pepper
“Lucky” Ned Pepper is one of my favorite types of roles for a character actor. He’s the guy we hear so much about before actually meeting him. So when he arrives late in the film, he has the tough feat of living up to our expectations.

I remember not knowing who Ned Pepper was the first time I saw this Coen brothers remake. I stared at his filthy face and crooked teeth, I listened to his raspy southern draw, and I had no clue. Then it clicked. Once I realized I was watching Barry Pepper, my appreciation for the character (and the man playing him) grew exponentially. I’m always intrigued by actors who take on a role despite little running time and the fact that they will be clouded in heavy makeup. These things don’t matter to Pepper. He works to work, and if his Ned Pepper is any indication, he can claim his worth in a matter of minutes.

The Best of the Best
25th Hour (2002)
Francis Xavier Slaughtery
Francis Xavier Slaughtery is a true alpha male. Never hesitant to brag about how much money he has, or how many women he beds, Francis uses a mask of expensive clothes, slick hair, and an intimidating demeanor to fuel his elitist life. On the surface, he appears to have few problems, but looming just underneath is a vast contempt for his best friend, Monty (Edward Norton). Francis is pissed at Monty. Pissed that he threw his life away dealing drugs. Pissed that Monty’s hot girlfriend still latches onto him. There’s anger in Francis, and as the film develops, his frustration boils hauntingly.

Looking back, I suppose I’m most drawn to Francis’ hypocrisies. He tells one friend that he’ll never speak to Monty again, then, minutes later, promises Monty that he’ll be there when Monty is released from prison. Francis promises to be fully involved in Monty’s last night of freedom, but spends the majority of the time trying to pick up a bartender. He’s angry but compassionate, lost but certain. Francis Xavier Slaughtery is a brute of a man willing to do and say anything for a friend. He’s not perfect, but very few of us are.

Other Notable Roles
As Robert Kennedy in The Kennedys
Enemy of the State (1998)
The Green Mile (1999)
Knockaround Guys (2001)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Ripley Underground (2005)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Unknown (2006)
Casino Jack (2010)
The Kennedys (2011)
Broken City (2013)

Listen to my 25th Hour Commentary podcast!


  1. I really liked Pepper in 25th Hour. I'm personally surprised he doesn't have more roles to his name.

    1. I love him in that film. And I'm very surprised that he doesn't have more roles as well.

  2. So underrated. Every time I see him supporting someone else, I think this guy needs/deserves leading roles.

    1. Definitely. He can certainly carry a film. Wish he got more roles.

  3. I love his performance in 61* as he made me learn a lot about Roger Maris and how under-appreciated he was to the world of baseball. As much as I hate the New York Yankees, I still wanted to root for them and Pepper's performance made me love the Maris character. And I still think Roger Maris holds the record for most home runs in the season. Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa. Fuck them. They're just a bunch of steroid-using cheaters.

    1. Hell yeah, fuck the cheaters. Pepper really is incredible in 61* - it's one of the best portrayals of an athlete I've ever seen.

  4. Very underrated actor, one of the best supporting actors around. I agree with you guys, he should have more roles and IMO it should be lead roles. He can carry a film like Alex said.

    @Void99 - Totally agree, he was awesome in 61. God damn cheaters..

    OT but I am going to give Only God Forgives a look on demand this evening, anyone else?

    1. Definitely deserves more lead roles. A truly great actor.

      I'm watching Only God Forgives tonight, so fucking pumped. It looks like my kind of movie.

  5. two words: battlefield earth

  6. Sounds like a very challenging project, but a fun one all the same. So we just let you know the movie we want to review, and then review it for you?

  7. Pepper is phenomenal in 25th Hour, and I love his brief performances in Saving Private Ryan and True Grit. I haven't seen Three Burials or his TV work yet, though.

    While he hasn't had any good roles lately, I'm intrigued by Kill the Messenger, which will feature him, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jeremy Renner and Rosemarie DeWitt. A comeback, perhaps?

    1. Dude, I hadn't even heard of Kill the Messenger. That sounds pretty damn good. A comeback would be GREAT for him, so I say bring it on. Definitely keeping my eye out for that one now.

  8. Hey, you took my suggestion! Thanks my friend (might not be entirely because of me, but I'll take it), Pepper is one of my favorites and I agree with all the roles I've seen on the list. Quiet power personified, the very definition of a character actor. Even though the filmmakers ruin his Bobby Kennedy by giving him a ridiculous prosthetic nose (I really do not understand why, he looks enough like him to fill the role), there is still a wonderful performance by him as Kennedy. Such a powerful death scene, conveyed the tragedy of the moment to a 'T'. Thanks again, it's great to see other fans of the guy comment.

    1. Hell yeah man, Pepper was a GREAT call on your part. Thanks again for the recommendation.

      I'm going to be honest with you, I gave up on The Kennedy's after two episodes. Great cast, but it was doing nothing for me. Might have to go revisit it given your praise of that scene.

      My pleasure about doing the post, I really do love this guy.

  9. I don't know why The Snow Walker is never on lists of his great films. It's my favorite.

  10. Barry Pepper is a good actor. To underrated. He also very attractive.

    1. So underrated. Haven't seen him in much lately though. Wish he was in more!

  11. I can’t believe he hasn’t had more roles. Such a great talent. I wish another big name director would give him a chance in 2021. Someone like Quentin Tarantino would put Barry back in the spotlight where he belongs!

    1. I completely agree! I'm not sure where the roles went here, honestly. He had such a strong start in the late '90s/early '00s. I wish we saw more of him for sure.