What Does a Supporting Actor Do?
A supporting actor is a person who plays a part in a television show, movie, or stage production. He or she plays a role other than those of the lead characters, and a supporting actor is usually not part of the primary focus of the plot. He or she can "support" the lead actors by taking part in key plot movements or character developments, but the supporting actors should never upstage the leads or become the primary focus instead of the leads. In some productions, these actors are often characters that are outlandish or otherwise notable for certain specific characteristics.
Unlike actors known as extras, a supporting actor can be pivotal to the story and may have a significant amount of time on the screen or stage. It is an important job, and it is often recognized as such by award-granting institutions. Playing a supporting role in a movie can be difficult because the supporting actor must be compelling and interesting without upstaging the lead actors or becoming the primary focus of the plot, so the actor must have great skill and an ability to balance his or her acting with that of the leads.
A person who is a supporting actor in one film or stage production will not necessarily be a supporting actor in other films. The title is production-specific rather than actor-specific, so a particular actor can play a supporting role in one production and the leading role in another. Actors are often chosen for roles based on their merits as performers or based on their physical similarities to the fictional character. While a specific actor may be suitable for a lead role that fits his or her personality and acting ability, he or she may only be suitable for a supporting role in another production because the lead role does not fit that actor's age, appearance, voice, style, and so on.
To become a supporting actor, many performers start by participating in local plays or performances. This is a great way to start building one's acting skills. Some performers may attend schools that teach acting skills, and these institutions may even be degree-granting colleges and universities. The job market for a trained actor is a difficult one, however, and the pay is usually not very good unless the actor is very well-known or experienced. The success of an actor may rely on his or her talents, but also on luck or the ability to make valuable connections within the industry.
I watch a movie like "O Brother, Where Art Thou" and think George Clooney's lead role wouldn't have been nearly as interesting if his sidekicks were so perfectly cast. Both men deserved to be nominated as best supporting actors. I've seen dozens of other movies where the lead actors get their jobs done, but I wait for the supporting characters to come back and steal the movie. Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday did that in the movie "Tombstone". I know I was supposed to be more invested in Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp, but Kilmer created a much more memorable supporting character.
I think the line between a lead actor and a supporting actor can be very thin sometimes. One prominent actor may play the main character in a movie, but another character actor might have a more interesting character overall. It could be argued that a good supporting actor helps the lead actor do a better job by giving him a wall to act against. Without a good villain, for example, the lead actor playing James Bond could easily go over the top.
Whenever award season begins in Hollywood, I tend to take more interest in the supporting role nominations. I find that supporting actors are often more inventive and risk-taking than the leading actors.
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