Walton Goggins, Hiam Abbass and Hollywood's other best 'character actors'

These acclaimed stars have made careers thriving under the radar

From left, Jane Lynch, Colman Domingo and Poorna Jagannathan have carved successful careers in Hollywood as character actors. AP; EPA; Getty Images
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There was a lot of excitement online this week about the announcement that Walton Goggins would be joining season three of hit television show The White Lotus.

Although he could not be described as a bona fide Hollywood star, the American actor has garnered a legion of fans and won critical acclaim ever since breaking out as redeemed career criminal Boyd Crowder in TV show Justified.

In industry terms, “character actor” is the phrase used to describe stars like Goggins. Character actors work consistently in acclaimed films and shows alongside A-list names, but never break out into leading man or woman status. Most prefer it that way.

Here are some of the best character actors working today …

1. Hiam Abbass

The multilingual Palestinian actress and director has worked solidly in Arab and French cinema since the 1980s, making her debut in the TV movie La nuit miraculeuse.

Her recent role as the complex and layered Marcia Roy, the third wife of media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) in the multi-Emmy-winning Succession brought Abbass to a wider audience.

From her role in the Oscar-nominated 2005 Palestinian film Paradise Now to playing Ramy Youssef’s mother in Ramy, Abbass likes to mix things up. “Don’t stagnate,” she told The Guardian about her approach to work. “Don’t be certain about things, you never know. The road is still so long.”

While she's thrived in

2. Luis Guzman

With an instantly recognisable face and accent, the Puerto Rican actor has parlayed his natural scene-stealing presence into a four-decades-long career that shows no signs of slowing down.

Turns in award-winning films, including Carlito’s Way, Boogie Nights, Out of Sight, Traffic and Magnolia showcase Guzman's dramatic acting chops, but there’s also plenty of comedy on his CV, including his role as Gomez Addams in the recent Netflix hit Wednesday.

“I just really commit to the work,” he told the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. “I’m there to complement the work and complement the people I’m working with.”

3. Jane Lynch

It was her turn as the win-at-all-costs gym teacher Sue Sylvester in the musical comedy show Glee that really put Lynch on the map, despite having been acting for more than 20 years.

A favourite of director Christopher Guest, she has appeared in his mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration.

The five-time Emmy and Golden Globe winner is a small-screen stalwart, with recurring roles in Two and a Half Men, The L Word and Criminal Minds.

More than holding her own opposite Meryl Streep as Dorothy Cousins in 2009’s Julie & Julia, Lynch can now be found as the feisty Sazz Pataki in Only Murders in the Building.

4. Poorna Jagannathan

Although she trained in acting when she was younger, it wasn’t until her early 30s that the American actress of Indian descent moved into the entertainment industry, after an early career in advertising.

Since appearing on Law & Order in 2004, Jagannathan has been a familiar face on the small screen, racking up credits in shows such as House of Cards, The Blacklist, Better Call Saul, Ramy and Big Little Lies.

Introduced to a Gen Z audience as Devi Vishwakumar’s mother Nalini in Mindy Kaling’s Netflix show Never Have I Ever, her turn as the family matriarch was described as a “revelation” by Mashable, which added: “She puts forth one of the best portrayals of Indian-American mothers we’ve seen.”

5. Benedict Wong

The actor got his start in classic British shows Last of the Summer Wine and The Bill, only much later stepping on to the global cinematic stage as the sorcerer Wong in 2016’s Doctor Strange. He went on to reprise the role a further six times in MCU sequels and spin-offs.

Despite having Marvel on his CV, Wong remains committed to putting his preferences first, following up with roles in the Black Mirror episode Hated in the Nation and as Wallace the Necromancer in vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows.

6. Allison Janney

From roles in teen classics 10 Things I Hate About You and Juno to acclaimed hit shows such as the West Wing and Oscar-winning films I, Tonya and American Beauty, Janney has rarely been out of work.

An actress who is only a letter T away from being an Egot winner, she has maintained character-actress status for decades, working consistently but staying under the radar.

The American, who is 1.83m tall, credits her height with her coveted position in Hollywood, telling NPR: “It helped me in certain parts. It’s made me definitely more of a character actress in terms of my love of doing comedy.”

7. Colman Domingo

The American will be familiar to fans of the stylised Gen Z show Euphoria, for which he won an Emmy in 2022 for his role as Ali Muhammed, the AA sponsor and mentor to Rue (Zendaya).

However, theatre – Shakespeare in particular – remains the actor and playwright's first love and he has portrayed Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Lysander in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream among others.

Of his recent Golden Globe nomination for Rustin, Domingo said: “I feel like all the lights are shining on me right now in this industry and they see me for what I’m doing.”

8. Jennifer Coolidge

Depending on who you ask, Coolidge will forever be “Stifler's mom” from the 1999 film American Pie; Elle Woods’s favourite manicurist, Paulette Bonafonte, in Legally Blonde; or soup-loving trophy wife Sherri Ann Cabot in Best in Show.

More recently, she has won accolades for her role as the self-absorbed heiress Tanya McQuoid in The White Lotus.

“She is often classified as a 'character actor', a term that can have a lot of subtext in the entertainment business but almost always means ‘rarely, if ever, the lead’,” said the LA Times. “But Coolidge’s cultural footprint is larger than that, rivalling many performers who are considered leads.”

9. Paterson Joseph

Acting almost seems like a hobby to the English actor, who most recently starred as villainous chocolatier Arthur Slugworth in Wonka.

An award-winning author and the Chancellor of the UK’s Oxford Brookes University, Joseph’s evolution can be charted by fans from his beginnings as Alan Johnson in surreal sitcom Peep Show via Doctor Who to Fleabag.

Roles opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in 2000s The Beach and Charlize Theron in 2005’s Aeon Flux sit easily on his CV, alongside stage roles, including Othello and King Lear with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Updated: January 21, 2024, 4:57 AM