The 10 Most Undervalued Actors in Movies

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Robot & Frank, out now in New York and expanding to more markets tomorrow and in the coming weeks, is a charming and surprisingly heartfelt robot buddy heist movie; it is also a vehicle for the great Frank Langella, and one which prompts the question, “Can’t Frank Langella just be in everything?” One of the many drawbacks of the star-based, high-dollar climate in Hollywood is that, too often, the only actors that get attention and kudos are the paycheck players. Langella is one of the many fine thespians who don’t get enough credit for the good work that they’re doing — nor do they get cast as often as they should. After the jump, a few more great actors who don’t get the props they deserve.

Frank Langella

There was a moment in the late 1970s when it looked like Langella was going to be an honest-to-goodness marquee idol — his good looks and smoldering intensity in the 1979 film version of Dracula put him in high demand. But Langella wasn’t interested in being a movie star. His primary interest was in the theater, and he spent most of the 1980s on stage — tough the blame him, so the best roles he was being offered were in projects like Masters of the Universe. He’s split his time fairly evenly between Broadway and Hollywood over the past couple of decades, doing remarkable work in both; the man lends authenticity and gravitas to whatever he does, and if his stunning performances in Starting Out in the Evening, Good Night and Good Luck, and Frost/Nixon are any indication, this actor is only getting better as he gets older.

John Hawkes

Wiry character actor Hawkes has been working in films since the late 1980s, making brief but memorable appearances in films like From Dusk Till Dawn, Playing God, Rush Hour, and Miami Vice. He had a larger role in A Perfect Storm, but it wasn’t until he landed a regular gig on Deadwood and Miranda July cast him as her unlikely romantic lead in Me and You and Everybody We Know that people started to put a name to the face. Hawkes showed unexpected power and range with his darker turns in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene, but the real breakthrough may well come this fall, with his starring role (opposite Helen Hunt) in The Sessions, a performance that had everyone whispering “Oscar” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Phylicia Rashad

If you only know Rashad as Claire Huxtable, well… you simply don’t know about Phylicia Rashad. Her work on The Cosby Show placed her firmly among the ranks of our favorite TV moms, but it only hints at her capacity as an actress; her stage performances, as the Witch in Into the Woods, Violet Weston in August: Osage County, Big Mama in 2008’s all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun (the last one, thankfully, was preserved in a made-for-TV movie) show an astonishing range and jaw-dropping skill. If somebody (besides Tyler Perry) is smart enough to get her a good film role, watch out.

Anthony Mackie

The Hurt Locker was a long-awaited breakthrough role for star Jeremy Renner, who parlayed it into showcase roles in The Avengers, the latest Bourne and Mission: Impossible films, and Oscar nominations for both that film and The Town. But where’s the love for Anthony Mackie, the razor-sharp actor who shared the screen with him? Mackie crushed it in Night Catches Us and The Adjustment Bureau, but both of those pictures were sadly underseen; he’s still mostly doing (strong) ensemble work in films like 10 Years and the forthcoming Gangster Squad. The good news: he’s rumored to play a major role in the next Captain America movie, so a taste of Renner-style marquee stardom may be closer than we think.

Michael Shannon

We weren’t invited to see this week’s Premium Rush (always a good sign!), so we haven’t yet had the opportunity to see how Shannon fares as studio-action-movie villain. What we do now is he’s one of the most interesting actors working today, crafting fascinating performances on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and in films like Bug, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. (He’s even great in utterly inexplicable pictures like My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.) He nabbed an Oscar nomination for his work in Revolutionary Road, but was unrecognized for last year’s Take Shelter, to the shock of pretty much everyone who saw that film. He’s got four more movies in the pipeline, though — and his pitch-perfect casting as General Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel may finally be the role that gets him the name recognition he deserves.

Hope Davis

Few actresses have done as much consistently interesting work over the past decade or so as Davis, who made her breakthrough in the utterly charming (and woefully underseen) Next Stop Wonderland and moved on to a steady stream of terrific performances in films like Joe Gould’s Secret, About Schmidt, The Secret Lives of Dentists, American Splendor, The Matador, and Synecdoche, New York. Though an intelligent and versatile actress, she’s been onscreen less and less these days, and it’s not too hard to guess why: she’s closing in on 50, and though aging quite gracefully, we all know that Hollywood doesn’t know what the hell do with actresses when they’re neither an ingénue nor a grandmother. They better figure it out, quick; this great actress is going to waste.

Clarke Peters

No one on this earth should ever have the unfortunate burden of picking the best character from The Wire, but if I had to, gun to my head, I’d probably have to go with Lester Freamon, the quiet, methodical, brilliant detective played with masterful subtlety by the great Clarke Peters. The key to the character, and to Peters’ playing of it, was that Freamon would never show his cards; he hung back, sized things up, and made his moves at the most powerful and opportune moments. It takes skill and restraint to underplay like that — and that’s not even all Peters can do. The character of Da Good Bishop Enoch Rouse, which Peters plays in Spike Lee’s new film Red Hook Summer, couldn’t be further from Freamon: an old school preacher with a flair for the dramatic and a stubborn demeanor that hides some rather shocking secrets. That film’s long sermons put an incredible burden on Peters: if he doesn’t hold our interest, the whole movie flails. He’s more than up to the task. Here’s hoping we see more of him on the big screen, and soon.

Michael Parks

The power of Peters’ performance in those long sermons reminded us of another great performance in last year’s Sundance cause célèbre: character actor Michael Parks, who was utterly riveting (even in a long, patience-testing sermon scene) in Kevin Smith’s Red State. It’s a shame that Smith’s ego-fueled torpedoing of that film’s distribution didn’t get Parks in front of more moviegoers, since it was a brilliant and disturbing piece of work. But he’s made small yet quietly memorable appearances for years now: the star of the short-lived cult series Then Came Bronson popped up in From Dusk Till Dawn, Grindhouse, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Kill Bill, and his dusty authenticity and unique way of chewing on a line always makes an impression.

Elizabeth Banks

Few TV and film utility players are as beloved as Banks, who is spot on as Avery Jessup and turned in terrific supporting performances in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, Hunger Games, and Role Models. But for whatever reason, her starring vehicles keep stalling: she’s terrific in Zack and Miri Make a Porno, W, The Next Three Days, and People Like Us, but none of them made any noise at the box office. Pay attention, Hollywood: this is an actor who is funny, effortlessly projects intelligence, and is almost unreasonably attractive. Can you figure out what to do with her, please?

Regina King

Since her first film appearance, riding shotgun in Ice Cube’s low-rider in Boyz n the Hood, Regina King has always been one of our favorites. She’s flat-out terrific in Jerry Maguire, charming in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, a warm romantic lead in Down to Earth, and utterly fierce in Ray. So why was that her last good movie role? Ah well, cinema’s loss is TV’s gain; like so many of our more interesting actors, King has gone for the acting satisfaction (and, it’s probably safe to assume, steady paycheck) of television with her crisp and satisfying turn as Lydia Adams on TNT’s SouthLAnd.

Those are the actors we think don’t get their due — who would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments!