Emma Kiely explores the increasing popularity of the characters who live just outside the spotlight.
Mickey and Minnie, Kate and Leo, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. We love our leading men and women. They carry the film, they’re who the story revolves around and they are meant to be who the audience root for most to succeed.
However, that’s not always the case.
For years in cinema, supporting roles usually served a basic function – as the villain, the comedic relief or the supportive best friend. At first glance, it may seem that the supporting character is more restricted in their function, however, unlike the leading man or woman, the secondary character can go far and beyond their character conventions because they are relied on to a lesser extent by the audience to follow the story. The supporting characters always tend to possess more of a particular trait than the lead – they are funnier, crazier, more eccentric, more interesting.
We may root for the hero but our attention is always on the villain.
Villains are always credited as supporting characters, even though that is the exact opposite of their purpose. The villain is the most crucial element of a hero’s tale apart from the hero themselves. They antagonise, terrify and challenge the hero. In simpler terms – they give the hero something to do and a motive for doing it.
Just think about the best superhero film you’ve ever seen. A lot of you are thinking of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008). But let me ask you this, why that film? It’s hardly because of Christian Bale’s monotoned, stiff leading part? No, it’s the brilliant, chilling and beautiful insanity of Heath Ledger. The same can be said for the icon horror film, The Silence of the lambs (1991). Anthony Hopkins was only on screen for around 12 minutes, and yet, when you think of that film, you don’t immediately think of the brilliant performance by Jodie Foster, you think of Hopkins’ crisp voice and piercing eyes. We may root for the hero but our attention is always on the villain.
“When films confront the issue of mental health, they usually rely on a secondary character to go the full mile with regards to their insanity. A prime example is Angelina Jolie’s role as the clinically insane Lisa in the 1999 drama Girl, Interrupted”
Another aspect that distinguishes the supporting character is that they are not bound to a strict thought process that the audience need to follow to keep up with the narrative. The lead must always maintain a consistent stream of consciousness. This can be restrictive in the dramatics of their character. Whilst the lead can be insane or mentally unstable, they cannot stray too far from a coherent and consistent mentality. This allows the supporting character to take things further and thus results in more eccentric and more emotionally expressive characters.
When films confront the issue of mental health, they usually rely on a secondary character to go the full mile with regards to their insanity. A prime example is Angelina Jolie’s role as the clinically insane Lisa in the 1999 drama Girl, Interrupted which earned her an Academy award. Whilst Winona Ryder’s lead Susanna is also a resident in a mental institution she does not embody the mania, fragility and eccentricity of Lisa and for the entire film. Jolie captivates us with her villainous smile, vulgar hilarity and her heartbreaking mania whilst watching through the fragile yet consistent perspective of Susanna.
Alternatively, the secondary character can also be a source of calmness and guidance. When the lead is in peril and feels the issue is out of their control, they often turn to a wise and usually older friend or relative for advice. In such situations, the supporting character usually delivers a long monologue and says the most profound and touching words in the entire screenplay. A stellar example is that of the incomparable Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (1997), who is the only character able to get into the headspace of Matt Damon’s Will Hunting and strips him back so as to reveal his true character to the audience. It makes for one of the most touching and emotional scenes in cinema history and gave Williams his well-earned Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. A very similar scene can be found at the end of Luca Guadagnino’s stunning 2017 Call Me by Your Name, where Michael Stuhlbarg (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Williams) gives a touching speech to his son on the matter of love.
Stuhlbarg’s soft and melodic voice transcends the heartbreak of the preceding events of the film and informs both Elio and the audience that love, in whatever form it takes, is too precious to be hidden or be ashamed of. Stuhlbarg’s presence throughout the film prior to this scene is nowhere near as prominent as that of Chalamet or Hammer. Despite not receiving an Oscar nomination, the final scene seems to be the most memorable in people’s minds.
“A protagonist makes a plot, but it’s the secondary characters that make it a story.”
A story cannot exist without a protagonist and they are inarguably the most important element to any book, screenplay or tale. However, to fully utilise the magic and wonder of storytelling, supporting characters go that mile further to bring excitement, fear, terror, humour and empathy to the plot. They challenge, offer guidance and sometimes profess love to the protagonist, all to allow them to remain in the realms of the reality for the sake of the coherence of the audience. A protagonist makes a plot, but it’s the secondary characters that make it a story.