The best character actors are not always the biggest box office name, but often provide the most memorable performance. They cast their spell and leave you mesmerized by their depth, and often their character’s eccentricity. They are fascinating, moody, multi-layered, dangerous, and unique.
In recent years, some of the best include Steve Buscemi, JK Simmons, Danny Trejo, Olivia Octavia, Harry Dean Stanton, Tilda Swinton, Paul Giamatti, the list goes on. These actors possess a certain magic that draws us to them, like a moth to light, granting us license to recognize their character’s extremes, which might be in us all.
Our profile subject this week is Shea Whigham, one of the greatest character actors of them all, who shows the full scope of his talent in his role as the terrifyingly eccentric lawyer G Gordon Liddy in the Watergate series ‘Gaslit’, currently streaming on Starz. He’s an actor who has worked his way up the rungs of Hollywood and established himself squarely at the top of his game with enigmatic performances that make us sit back, sometimes aghast, marveling at his commitment.
“It doesn’t annoy me,” he told us of the ‘character actor’ label. “The people that I really responded to when I was young were John Cazale, Robert De Niro, Gary Oldman. They left an indelible impression on me. So I’ll take it.
“To me, it’s much more interesting to be able to go in there on someone like Liddy, and be fearful and scared, when I don’t even know if I’m able to get it, and then to maybe tap into something. Because when I work, I’m not a planner. I do all the research, but then once you start working, you’ve got to let all that go.”
Here we highlight five of Shea’s performances that are up there with the very best, in what is just a taster for what is becoming a stellar body of work.
G Gordon Liddy in Gaslit (2022)
Made for the small screen but with all the star power (Julia Roberts, Sean Penn) and quality of a great Hollywood movie, Shea’s electrifying portrayal of G Gordon Liddy, President Richard Nixon’s psychotic Watergate fixer, is as committed and frighteningly realistic as they come. He holds your attention like a car crash, and just when you feel he surely can’t get any darker, he surprises you and delivers, over and over again. His performance in the Starz limited series will be a deserved contender when awards season comes around, he’s made it a role of a lifetime.
Eli Thompson in Boardwalk Empire (2010 – 2014)
One of HBO’s most beloved dramas, set at the dawn of prohibition, Shea appeared throughout the series as Elias ‘Eli’ Thompson, the younger brother to Steve Buscemi’s notorious gangster Enoch. Eli shed light on a different side of the era’s corruption, helping the bootlegging business through his position as sheriff of Atlantic County. At the time of its run, Shea described Eli as being “the Everest” of his career so far. But luckily for us, it turned out to be just the foothill as he continues to blaze a trail with a multitude of memorable performances
Joel Theriot in True Detective (2014)
In season one of the critically acclaimed series ‘True Detective’, Shea teamed up with director Cary Joji Fukunaga, and stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, to play Joel Theriot, a preacher leading the Friends of Christ congregation in rural Louisiana. His commitment and believability was such that, following his roof-raising sermon scenes, the extras were lining up to ask him where they could next see him preach.
Gary Ruzack in Beirut (2018)
In this 2018 political espionage thriller directed by Brad Anderson, Shea once again shines as CIA agent Gary Ruzack, who works on a dangerous hostage situation during the Lebanese Civil War. Beirut is an old fashioned thriller that isn’t afraid to take itself seriously, and Shea’s performance is deft and understated, and always has you feeling as if you’re walking in his life-weary patinaed shoes.
Detective Burke in Joker (2019)
The 2019 ‘Joker’ movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, so is up there with Shea’s most high-profile roles. He plays Detective Burke, who is tasked along with his partner Detective Garrity (played by another master character actor, Bill Camp) with investigating the murders of three Wayne Enterprises executives who were killed on a subway train. As ever, Shea is a strong presence alongside an impressive cast which also includes Robert De Niro, Francis Conroy, Zazie Beetz, and Marc Maron.