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9 Criminally Underused Actors

By  · Published on May 8th, 2014

Roadside Attractions

Sometimes Hollywood charms us and hypnotizes us with its magic. And sometimes it’s so damned capricious with talent that you want to start a national shin-kicking campaign to change the tide. Between celebrities built up and then thrust into obscurity, and talents that never quite see the light of fame, Hollywood is a wasteland of actors who could give the current who’s who a run for their dramatic money.

The lucky few get that extra ten minutes of fame that turns them into a split-second repeat whirlwind a la Mickey Rourke, but most live the life of a character actor with the occasional reminder role, or the television guest star who makes Kevin Bacon’s Hollywood web seem a little smaller.

Here are nine of the many, the ones that have had me grumbling about their trajectories in recent months:

Joe Morton

Few actors offer the depth and powerful gravitas of Joe Morton. This is the man who has played everything from a mute alien exploring race in ’80s Brooklyn with Brother From Another Planet, to the man who messed up the world as Miles Dyson in Terminator 2. He’s a hero no one ever recognizes, an actor who even saved the day in Executive Decision while being strapped to a gurney.

He’s a talent so underutilized that his small, scene-stealing performances as one of the magnetic villains of Scandal is a breath of fresh air. But it’s also more on his continuum of supporting work that keeps his Papa Pope power in painfully small doses, like the following spoiler-filled rant that makes ridiculousness sound deeply real.

Amy Acker

Joss Whedon gave Acker her first big break in Angel, but it wasn’t until he was about to kill her that her talents became crystal clear. Suddenly Winifred Burkle was Ilyria, a massively powerful demon caught in the body of an awkward bookworm and the actress’ range was unleashed. Whedon gave her another stellar character in Dollhouse, yet Acker was still relegated to guest work and painfully wasteful television sap like Dear Santa.

Now there’s the dangerous tendril of hope. She’s breathed new life into Person of Interest as Root, and now Acker has some starring indie film gigs including actor Scott Foley’s feature directorial debut. Whether this amplifies her career remains to be seen. It’s not like Whedon can make her a sensation in Avengers 2; Acker was already wasted as a love interest for Agent Coulson – a loss if there ever was one.


James Spader

Speaking of Avengers 2, Spader may seem like a strange pick, seeing as how he’s got a hit show and a large part in one of the most buzzed about superhero sequels, but let’s backtrack. Since delighting the masses with Secretary, he’s starred in two forgotten action flicks, a B-movie about aliens, a forgotten thriller, and Robert Rodriguez’s kiddie film, Shorts. His small role in Lincoln is the lone breath of fresh air, as well as the lingering memories of his Alan Shore and Robert California.

Now he’s acting in a show so poorly executed that his smiles in character seem more like smiles of the real man flabbergasted at the production around him. He keeps working, but hardly to the caliber his talent warrants.

Ray Wise

Then there’s Ray Wise, who’s been in about five kabillion projects – some good, many bad, but few that harness his chilling magnetism with the power Frost and Lynch did in Twin Peaks. He’s everywhere without being able to really stretch anywhere. He’s television’s consummate character actor dealing out charm and creepiness, but revisiting his time as Leland Palmer is a reminder that he should, at the very least, get one Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that allows him to stretch his muscles center-stage.

If James Franco’s soap opera forays are random quirks in a larger, successful career, Wise’s new turn on The Young and the Restless should be as well.


Janet McTeer

For a woman with two Oscar nominations, Janet McTeer’s career is relatively modest. She’s appeared in a selection of films and television programs, stole scenes from the incomparable Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs, played a killer Mary McCarthy in Hannah Arendt (if only small international features got spinoffs, too…), and forayed into the wild mind of Terry Gilliam for Tideland. But she’s generally cast in ensemble affairs and supporting roles, working almost every year, but without the crescendo that turns her from recognized talent to in-demand actress.

That honor lies mainly in her stage work, where she’s received multiple accolades including a Tony award.


Lee Pace

Film hasn’t embraced Lee Pace the same way television has. He was the lead of the killed-too-quickly Pushing Daisies, and he’s about to star in the television series Halt and Catch Fire. Cinematically, he’s the man in ensembles like The Hobbit and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, and the scene-stealer who made some of us actually wish for a Twilight spin-off when he played the Revolutionary War vampire Garrett in Breaking Dawn Pt 2.

The now 8-year-old turn in The Fall remains his career high-point, his one stellar starring film role that acts as the continual reminder that he could kick charismatic and skilled ass, if given the chance to thrive, and not waste time in gigs like Marmaduke.


Taraji P. Henson

There is generally one way Taraji P. Henson gets big film work: to help lead a film full of black characters – playing Mama to the Karate Kid, digging into a little Hustle & Flow, or the misfortune known as Think Like a Man. Otherwise, it’s generally supporting work limiting her options. Her co-starring role on Person of Interest seemed like a move in the right direction, but she was doomed in a long-planned story arc that plotted her demise. No Good Deed could be a change for the better: she stars opposite Idris Elba in the story of woman terrorized when she tries to help out a smooth-talking stranger – no ensemble, Henson center-stage.

Instead of dishing on a role, it seems appropriate to share the thrilling, vengeful aftermath of her final moments on Person of Interest, which not only pushed plot forward, but neatly reflected fan upset in an exaggerated, fictional sort of way.

Eric Roberts

Mickey Rourke did a rather cool thing during his brief return to the spotlight: he championed Pope of Greenwich Village co-star and once rising talent Eric Roberts, stating: “I wish there would be one goddamn filmmaker in this room who would let him fly.” Sadly, no one listened, and instead he just pops up here, there, and everywhere, mostly in bit gigs way below his talent level.

He’s got a resume that puts even Ray Wise’s to shame. He has sixteen finished projects slated for this year alone, plus more than sixty other gigs listed on IMDb that are in the works, from pre-production projects to those already completed. If only frequency meant quality.


Ellen Muth

How? is a question that follows Ellen Muth. How did she charm so many with her black wit in Dead Like Me, and disappear for years, save for one Dead follow-up and short films until a few forgotten features in 2012, and a quick stop on Hannibal last year? It’s not the trajectory you expect from someone who won accolades for her early film work and Satellite and Saturn nominations for her show.

If the above are any indication, television work doesn’t mean film work is on the way, but at least Hannibal has reminded the world that she’s still around and still acting.

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