This week, I’m playing both Melinda, a foul-mouthed waitress with a bad attitude who works with Fiona (Emmy Rossum) on Showtime’s Shameless (below), and Tressa, protective talent manager and friend of Sam (Pamela Adlon) on FX’s Better Things, and it got me thinking about what it means to be a working character actor.
When most people think of professional actors, they tend to think of romantic leading types. But I wouldn’t trade being a character actor for anything. I studied acting at Carnegie Mellon, and as graduation approached, I noticed that those of us who fell into the “character actor” category were getting different words of wisdom than those who tended to play lead roles. For the leads, there was a lot of pressure to sign with a big agent and start working right away, because it’s all about youth and beauty. But it was almost the opposite for me. My teachers warned me that it would take some time for me to grow into my type, but once I started looking like someone who could have a career and a family, the work would come.
That’s a blessing and a curse, of course. It means I had several years to learn about the business and build a life for myself in L.A. before I started working regularly. I did tons of theater, took improv classes, worked day jobs, and found a community of friends who were all doing the same things. The curse is that those years can be really discouraging. A lot of actors give up or find someone or something that takes them in another direction. I stuck with it out of sheer tenacity, which is a hugely important quality for anyone who wants to make it in this business.
Another great part of being a character actor is the variety. I’ve gotten to work on dramas like Nip/Tuck (as Christian’s mistreated and masochistic patient, Abby Mays) and Major Crimes (as shocked clerk Jan Adamms, who witnesses a courtroom shooting), comedies like Maron (belolow as Tina, the nurse who gives Marc painkillers and thinks they’re getting married) and The Mindy Project (above as Diana, the first successful pregnancy patient in Mindy’s clinic), and shows that live somewhere in the middle, like Shameless and Better Things. In a way, my job is to help shape the world of whatever project I’m working on. Sometimes that means jumping from a project like American Horror Story (where I fell victim to Dylan McDermott in Asylum) to The Thundermans on Nickelodeon (as Mrs. Austin, Hiddenville High’s civics teacher.) That kind of variety keeps you on your toes and is really creatively fulfilling — and as character actors, we owe so much to the casting directors who have the vision to see us in one kind of world and take a chance on fitting us into something completely different.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to play a young Margo Martindale on Person of Interest, and during a break, I watched the crew line up to shake her hand and tell her all the projects they’d worked with her on in the past. I recently got to meet Dale Dickey, who did a small role in Better Things, but is character actor royalty — she’s been in everything, and her work is always stellar. Those kinds of actors are my role models. Most people don’t know their names and might not even realize where they’ve seen them before. Sometimes they get to step into a lead role, and I love that that’s happening more and more. But to make a career of doing consistently excellent work across television, film, theater, and beyond in character roles that help make the final product as good as it can possibly be… That’s the dream.