It all began when Joe Daly found himself thinking of Brion James.  You know, the bug-eyed replicant in Blade Runner who gets kind of nervous when he takes tests.  This led to Daly’s stellar list of the ten greatest character actors of all time, which led me to add five of my own in commentary – including Chris Cooper, John Hawkes, Mark Strong, Clancy Brown, and Brian Cox, in case you’re curious.  It would seem, though, that neither of us found ourselves thinking of women in these sorts of roles.  At first I reasoned, “It’s because there aren’t any!  All the good supporting character-centered roles are written for men!”  Then I had a vision of Joan Cusack in Say Anything pausing in the chaos of her young single-mom-hood to remember how she used to be fun.  Then I couldn’t stop thinking of great female character actors in more substantial roles than this little blip in the Cameron Crowe classic.  So, without further ado, here are ten great female character actors for your consideration:


Helena Bonham Carter

Though she may have gotten her start in prim British period pieces like Merchant Ivory’s A Room with a View, Carter has since become the woman you cast when only disheveled and/or crazy will do.  Her role as Marla Singer in Fight Club marks Carter’s turning point to awesomely whackado, but her Bellatrix Lestrange of the Harry Potter franchise seals the deal.




Juliette Lewis

Sometime around Kalifornia, Juliette Lewis was dating Brad Pitt and Brad Pitt was still magic.  That’s the power of this woman who has regularly twisted a Helena Bonham Carter variety of crazy into bizarre and seductive.  Strange Days.  Natural Born Killers.  From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.  Just the fact that her character elicits an annoyed, “put your titty away,” from Pitt’s Early Grayce in Kalifornia is enough for me to include her on this list.  I find occasion to quote that line at least every other day.  Mostly while watching Game of Thrones.




Joan Cusack

Probably even people who hate her brother (I’m looking at you, Joe Daly) love Joan Cusack.  How could you not?   Most of the time she’s hilarious, in that quirky, understated way of hers.  Drinking from the fountain in a neck brace in Sixteen Candles.  Interpretive finger dancing to Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” in School of Rock.  Any movie that can find a way to include Joan Cusack is usually a little better for it.       



Lili Taylor

Another Say Anything alum, you’ve probably seen Lili Taylor in more films than you think you have.  You’ll find her in Ransom, High Fidelity, The Haunting, Mystic Pizza, and Four Rooms, for example.  But she plays a particularly good homely and heartbreaking introvert in the likes of Dogfight or the little-known indie A Slipping-Down Life.           




Frances McDormand

Like Taylor and many other character actors, I tend to forget just how many terrific movies I’ve seen the versatile Frances McDormand in.  But she’s always spot on whether she’s gasping at babies from between her fingers in Raising Arizona or chopping up soy cutlets in Almost Famous.  Of course, her endearing Marge Gunderson of Fargo is her pièce de résistance.




Catherine O’Hara

A sure sign of being a tried and true character actor is the racking up of as many voice credits as acting credits (a la Joan Cusack), and O’Hara is no exception.  I think she’s lent her distinctive voice to half of the animated films in my kids’ DVD library.  Character actors ooze personality.  That’s why.  And O’Hara oozes a little more than most.  I just love O’Hara.   And though she makes a great harried mom in Home Alone, she is even more splendid in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind.  I think she’s the only reason I’ve seen those films ….



Jennifer Coolidge

Okay, so Jennifer Coolidge nearly always plays the same dim-witted word-slurring bombshell character and, like Catherine O’Hara, nearly always plays them in Christopher Guest vehicles like Waiting for Guffman, but I’m giving Coolidge props for being a character in and of herself, one that never fails to amuse me.  Plus, she’s Stifler’s mom.



Kathy Bates

So she played the self-esteem sapped southern housewife winding herself in Saran Wrap to somehow become more appealing to her man in Fried Green Tomatoes, but I always prefer Kathy Bates in her spitfire and/or ball-busting roles like Annie in Misery or Molly Brown in Titanic.



Amanda Plummer

“Everybody be cool.  This is a robbery!”  Amanda Plummer will always be Honey Bunny to me, but outside of attempting to hold up a diner with Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction Plummer has added her off-beat vibe to many a character.  Lydia in The Fisher King.  Nettie in Needful Things.  Rachael in The Prophecy.  Plus she’s Captain Von Trapp’s daughter, so how could she not be fabulous?



Parker Posey

No one, no one can do smarty-pants gum-smacking snark as well as this woman.  Not even Janeane Garofalo.  But that’s not all she can do.  She can facilitate humiliating freshmen hazing rituals while pacing in knee-high socks and seersucker shorts in Dazed and Confused or take a murderous turn in a Jackie-O pillbox hat in House of Yes or master the Dewey Decimal System in Party Girl.  She is my hero.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

40 responses to “The Ten Greatest Character Actresses of All Time”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    What a list!

    I just saw Juliette Lewis a few nights ago as trailer trash in some pretty good but pretty Lifetime type movie, and my wife and I were both awestruck by her performance. She is wonderful. Clearly works very hard to get it right. Strange Days will have to go in my Netflix queue.

    Parker Posey. Thank you, Jesus.

  2. Dana says:

    And don’t forget Parker’s turn in Waiting for Guffman. Her hilarious DQ waitress is one of my absolute favorites.
    Great list Cynthia! And unlike Daly’s list I actually have seen all these women in action.
    These are all relatively young women. There must be some in the over 60’s set that … OOH what the hell is her name, Maggie Smith! She’s so good in Downton Abbey and the Potter movies. Bitchy, but with such a twinkle in her eye.

  3. Becky Palapala says:

    Dave Grohl and Parker Posey are the only celebrity crushes I share with my husband.

    Joan Cusack. YES.

    Amanda Plummer will always be Mike Myers’ would-be axe murderer to me. Pretty sure that was just honey bunny off her meds.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      And, wait…

      You don’t like Christopher Guest films?



    • Gloria says:

      Amanda Plummer has always blown my mind. From Honey Bunny, to So I Married An Axe Murderer to The Fisher King to Freeway…there’s never a time that I see her (slightly unhinged, inevitably) character on screen that I don’t get really excited and know it’s going to be an enjoyable performance. I can actually say that about all of these ladies – but especially Carter, Taylor, and Plummer.

  4. Laura Bogart says:

    Wonderful list! I always love to see Joan Cusak get her due.

  5. Jorge says:

    Love me some Parker Posey =D

  6. Gloria says:

    Hell YES to this whole list. Amanda Plummer – Jesus, what a talent. And of course Helena Bonham Carter is the queen of them all. Have you seen the preview for Dark Shadows yet? I love that lady.

    • I don’t think I’ve seen the preview yet, but I’ve seen the sneak-peak promotional pics. So excited. Though I was also excited about Alice in Wonderland, and that turned out to be shite.

  7. Matt says:

    Great, great list!

    After reading this, I tried to come up with my own list, but you know what? They’re all either TV or do most of their work there. Molly Parker. Gretchen Mol. Rosemary Dewitt. Allison Janney. Alfre Woodard. Maybe your statement that the meatier roles are written for men is more uncomfortably true than I’d thought.

    Juliette Lewis once stated on Loveline that she did time in a mental hospital in the mid-90s. Seems she doesn’t just play crazy, she’s actually rented space there.

    • Have you made it to Gretchen Moll’s “little winky” comment yet in Boardwalk Empire? That’s going to haunt me forever. Actually, many, many things about her character are going to haunt me forever. She’s a terrific actor … as is everyone on your list. I’m slowly making the move to television viewer. That’s probably thanks to you, I do believe, going on about Mad Men! It’s all your fault!

  8. James D. Irwin says:

    I love Joan Cusack. I wasn’t aware of how many people dislike John. He’s okay, I guess. Joan is incredible though.

    Frances McDormand annoys me, but I think it’s purely because of Almost Famous. She seems like a nice lady, and she was supposed to be annoying in Almost Famous.

    I always get the impression with HBC, and more with Tim Burton, that they’re like two goth kids at a suburban school who are trying to get attention by being ‘non-conformist.’ She’s good in Fight Club though, and I don’t hate everything Burton does.

    I found it strange that I recognized more people on your list than Joe’s. I’m not sure why. I enjoyed reading them both…

    • I wasn’t aware of that either, Irwin! But JD brought that to light for me. Actually, my Joe hates John Cusack as well. Vehemently so. And Chuck Klosterman wrote a whole thing about the hazards of John Cusack. But no one hates Joan. It’s forbidden.

  9. Seth Pollins says:

    Great list, Cynthia! I love your movie-writing: always sly, funny, and incisive. And I love both Joan and John–really, how can you hate John? Why? And you have some classic character-actors on this list–but really, good call on Catherine O’Hara: who would’ve thought of her!

  10. Joe Daly says:


    Finally I get to comment. Great list. Some versatile, tried-and-true character actresses. The only omission that really concerns me is Judy Greer. Still well within her prime, she’s quietly staking a claim to “Greatest Character Actress of All Time.”


  11. Sean Beaudoin says:

    Debi Mazar, Carla Guigino, Sean Young, Daphne Zuniga, Diane Lane, Emily Mortimer, Gina Gershon, Joey Lauren Adams, Laura Flynn Boyle…wait, who else? Madchen Amick. But seriously, the greatest supporting actress of all time, hands down? Gloria Grahame.

    • Diane Lane! I can’t believe I didn’t think of Diane Lane. I’ve spent half my life, admittedly, wanting to be Diane Lane. Or Cherry Valance, anyway. I even saw Streets of Fire as a kid just because of Diane Lane (also, I bought the album … on vinyl, no less). What a huge oversight ….

  12. Erika Rae says:

    Yes! Great list. Glad to see Parker Posey made your cut!

  13. Over on Joe’s post, I mentioned Mercedes Ruehl and Stockard Channing, two scene-stealing supporters.

    But like many have said, it’s hard to top Parker Posey. Here’s an outtake from Dazed and Confused. Bask in the badassness:


    • Parker Posey looks so much like my little sister in that clip (looks like, not acts like!). Love that she’s smacking gum here and smoking — ha!

      Hey … maybe you saw that there was some retrospective in France a few years ago honoring Parker Posey? Because you’re in France, and nothing happens in France without you knowing about it, right?

  14. Liz Clark says:

    I adore Joan Cusack and Juliette Lewis.

    How about a few of these?

    Diane Keaton in looking for Mr. Goodbar, Julianne Moore in Safe & Far From Heaven, Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs, Helena Bonham Carter in Lady Jane, Natasha Richardson in Handmaid’s Tale, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherry Baby, Charlize Theron in Monster, Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, Sigourney Weaver in Alien, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, and Winona Ryder in Heathers. And, yes, I know that’s more than 10. 🙂

    Questionable: Sissy Spacek in Carrie? Frances McDormand in Fargo? Diane Keaton in Annie Hall? Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis in Thelma and Louise? Faye Dunaway in Chinatown? Anybody for the The Hours?

    • What do you mean, “questionable, Sissy Spacek in Carrie“? Them’s fighting words.

      You see my problem now, though. There are so many phenomenal performances to choose from!

      • Liz Clark says:

        How are they fighting words when she wasn’t on YOUR list? 😉

        • Dude, I am taping off a square on the floor, and I am going to push you out of it. I can only mention ten. You get that? Ten. Wait … this is my Liz Clark and not some random Liz Clark who is suffering my insults and inside jokes, right? If you are a random Liz Clark, my apologies. I you are my Liz Clark, *eye pokes*.

          • Liz Clark says:

            YOUR Liz Clark? What am I? Chattel? Are we married? Eye pokes right back. Plus, you’re just mad you didn’t think of Carrie first…

  15. Liz Clark says:

    I forgot! Chloe Moretz in Kick Ass.

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