There’s nothing wrong with my face – I got character

There’s something very special about a great character actor.  I don’t mean the Steve Buscemis or Phillip Seymour Hoffmans of this world, ugly film stars who coast along on mere talent and charisma, I mean the people playing third henchman in a DTV knock-off of Heat starring Andrew McCarthy in a rabbit mask (this is an actual film I once saw on a coach in Indonesia, and the guy who played Mr Pig was pretty good).  I’m talking about Martin Kove, who parlayed appearing in the credits of Cagney and Lacey into an IMDB page listing 175 films including “War Wolves”, “Savage” and “Ballistica” – all in 2009.

So here is MostlyFilm’s tribute to the grunts in the trenches of cinema.



Wait, that’s not De Niro?

One of the things interesting character actors can do in small parts is evoke a world beyond the version of the film the leads live in. When Elias Koteas (or, as I always involuntarily subvocalize the moment he appears on screen, ELIAS MOTHERFUCKING KOTEAS!) turns up in a big Hollywood film, it can feel like a guest appearance by Canada. But not the cosy screen Canada of John Candy and Michael J Fox – the weird-ass, bone-cold, emotionally perpendicular movie Canada of Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg. It was in Egoyan’s Exotica and The Adjuster that Koteas first really displayed what I think of as his definitive on-screen persona (although I may be unfairly traducing his earlier, funnier work in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Look Who’s Talking Too), but it was Cronenberg’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash that provided what must be his defining role, as a weirdo car-crash-sex-cult leader.

And so; in James Gray’s Two Lovers, even with Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow playing two emotional basket cases set on mutually assured destruction, it’s Koteas as Paltrow’s rich old squeeze who really makes muscle shrink from skin.  And while he continues to pay the bills by fruitlessly not quite fitting in to films like A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas 3D, he can still provide the most telling moment in Scorsese’s Shutter Island,  just by looking a bit like Robert de Niro (it is quite dark in this scene). Except then you realize it’s not Robert de Niro, It’s ELIAS MOTHERFUCKING KOTEAS.



Burt Kwouk
Why would anyone associate him with Kato?

I was going to cheat in the writing of this piece but now I can’t.

See, ten years ago I was introduced to the great Burt Kwouk by Michael Dillon, owner of Gerry’s Club on Dean St where Burt was then a regular.

I interviewed him for my then favourite publication, Michael Weldon’s groundbreaking Psychotronic Video, a magazine that privileged the likes of Kwouk and, say, Susan Tyrell over your more obvious Hollywood stars.

It took two sessions, each well over an hour, to cover his lengthy career. Sitting in the corner of a great club, drinking red wine, listening to him tell me (for example) about how he grew up on the same Shanghai street as JG Ballard, at the same time, but they never met until he ended up acting in Spielberg’s film of Empire of the Sun – it sure didn’t feel like work.

Since we were sitting in the corner of a bar, people felt free to come up and address him as “Kato”, something he took in good part but which obviously irked him.

Talking about his role in the great, then-forgotten, since-reissued Deep End, where he played a Leicester Square hot dog seller, he said he made more money from selling hot dogs to punters between takes than he earned for the night’s acting work.

Leaving at the end of the second interview session, his parting words were “Make love to Burt Kwouk and half an hour later you’ll want more!” – a line I think sounds like something his mate Spike Milligan came up with.

Like I say I wanted to cheat in writing this piece but I can’t find my copy of Psychotronic Video #37 & Michael Weldon isn’t responding to my emails. So instead I will just say, Burt Kwouk OBE, thank you for some excellent conversation and a diverting career.



Signed to our own Ron Swanson, you know

When Preston Sturges sold his screenplay for The Great McGinty for just $10 he imposed the condition that he could make his directorial debut with the film, and in doing so he became Hollywood’s first writer-director. He also set off on a filmmaking spree that has few equals – over the next four years he directed eight features, and most of them could stake a convincing claim as being the funniest ever produced. He wrote and directed verbose, sly comedies about luckless men and fast-talking dames, but despite all of the great and glamorous stars Sturges worked with in his career, there’s one face I associate with his films above all others.

William Demarest was a vaudeville-trained character actor who became the key component in Sturges’ regular troupe of players. A former boxer, Demarest had a tough, stocky demeanour that set him in stark contrast against the often loose-limbed characters who surrounded him, and his gruff attitude made him Sturges’ go-to man for cranky but goodhearted types. In The Lady Eve he plays Henry Fonda’s right-hand man Muggsy, who instantly smells a rat when Barbara Stanwyck gets her claws into his employer (Demarest’s rat-smelling face was peerless), while in Hail the Conquering Hero he is perfectly cast as the overly protective father who finds out his daughter has been impregnated by an anonymous soldier. Sturges managed to eke plenty of laughs from simply focusing on Demarest’s frustrated grimace during slapstick moments, but the actor also had a deadpan delivery that was perfect for the director’s famously sharp dialogue.

Demarest worked regularly and unspectacularly from the silent era up to the dawn of television, which is where he spent much of his final two decades. He was a modest, reliable actor, who rarely looked to draw attention to himself, although he did receive an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in The Jolson Story in 1947. Some may consider that the high-water mark of William Demarest’s career, but when the actor’s name comes up, most will immediately think of characters named Skeeters, Kockenlocker and Heppelfinger, and the man who brought a vital grumpiness to some of cinema’s finest comedies.




The English Christophe Lambert, for about a week

Of his 62 movies, I will always remember Bruce Payne for three performances in 1986.

He brought a chill of danger to two of my favourite musicals of the decade – as the sinister snooker manager  in Alan Clark’s Billy the Kid and the Green Baize vampire, which I have written about on this site before, and as the demented fascist Flikker in Absolute Beginners which I will write about in the future

Later that year he played an IT security consultant in the BBC drama Smart Money.   This being 1986, he played an IT security consultant who drove a Ferrari (with remote-controlled central locking which was pretty close to sci-fi at the time), and read Japanese “only when it’s about money”.   Smart Money is one of those films that I saw at the time and have never forgotten – IMDB tells me it was directed by Bernard Rose, who went on to make proper films like Candyman and Ivansxtc.

Bruce Payne didn’t.

He played the villain in Passenger 57, had a 1990 series as a detective in Hong Kong then, well, look for yourself :

2007      Messages

2007      Never Mind (aka Never Say Never Mind )

2006      Brothel  (not yet released)

2005      Dungeons & Dragons II: Wrath of the Dragon God

2005      Paranoia 1.0

2003      Newton’s Law

2003      Hellborn [aka Asylum of the Damned]

2002      The Apocalypse

2002      Riders [aka Steal ]

2001      Ripper: Letter from Hell

2000      Dungeons & Dragons I

2000      Highlander: Endgame

1999      Britannic

1999      Warlock III: The End of Innocence

1999      Cleopatra

1997      Sweepers

1997      Ravager

1997      Face the Evil II

1997      Lowball

1996      Kounterfeit

1995      Aurora: Operation Intercept

1995      One Man’s Justice [aka One Tough Bastard]

1994      The Cisco Kid

1993      Full Eclipse

1993      H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon

There’s a list for you.   Even his IMDB bio implies he’s a poor man’s Julian Sands, and a man has to be pretty poor to need such a thing, but every time I’ve seen him for a few scenes he’s always good;  scary when he needs to be, elegant, funny.   Up to 1990 his career and, say, Clive Owen’s were on about the same track, but Payne never made a Croupier, never went from  a face to a name.



“Yes! The King of the Mexicans!” That is what I say whenever Danny Trejo pops up in something and, as his IMDB entry shows, Danny Trejo pops up more often than David Beckham at the Olympics, so I get to say it a lot. Nobody on earth, not even in Mexico, looks more like a Mexican than the great Danny Trejo. Well, not a real Mexican, a film Mexican. The kind that is made out of sun-toughened leather and stitched together with the nervous ganglia of his enemies. According to the internet, Danny Trejo was once a child but no, that can’t be true. Clearly he first appeared in a small Mexican town one scorching hot day, tattooed, lined and seemingly really really annoyed about something and nobody knew where he’d come from but they knew why he was there: to be the most Mexican person who had ever lived.

His finest hour, for me, is in Desperado. Antonio Banderas is being a bit smouldering and Steve Buscemi is stretching himself by being a fast-talking weasel when down the road strides the King of the Mexicans, and he seems intent on interrupting them. With knives! Never has a man seemed more set on something. Look at that grimace! Clearly Banderas and Buscemi have caused him some pretty serious offence. Perhaps they laughed at his leather waistcoat. Two minutes later, the King of the Mexicans has deposited throwing knives in an assortment of bodies and shown a remarkable lack of athleticism. By the end he is clearly completely spent; he can barely raise his arm to throw the last knife. But throw it he does because he is the King of the Mexicans. He has dispensed, well, not justice exactly. Lots of knives though.

The best television programme around at the moment is, of course, Breaking Bad, and being the quality product it is, it knows the value of the King of the Mexicans. Things had got pretty hard-boiled indeed towards the end of season two; there were some very mean hombres talking tough through gritted teeth and lighting matches with their stubble (not really but they could if they wanted). So, how to raise the level even further? Surely you’ve topped out. Yes! The King of the Mexicans! What a man.

And he isn’t even fucking Mexican!

4 thoughts on “There’s nothing wrong with my face – I got character

  1. See also Cracked’s similar feature about James Cromwell and other Hey It’s That Guys. Respect is, of course, due Danny “Machete don’t text” Trejo – but Bruce Payne will never, ever, ever be forgiven for “Dungeons and Dragons.” Ever.


    1. Actually, there has been some discussion on the talkboard about another piece for character actresses. Do come back if you would like to write one of the sections – contributions would, I am sure, be welcome.

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