Have you ever watched a movie and easily identified the main character? And there were other actors who helped to develop the plot? Some of the other actors appeared for a few seconds with a gesture or one liner. And there was usually one who seemed to appear frequently but was not in the forefront. This person is known as the supporting actor.
History of Supporting Roles
While supporting actors were important in theater, they were nonexistent in movies. This was because early films involved real-life situations with actual persons sharing their experiences. So there was no need for supporting actors.
With the passing of time, movies evolved into more complex productions. Producers introduced actors to portray different characters. There was now a full cast of actors to handle various roles. With a larger group of actors in each film, the Academy decided to expand its award list. They included Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress categories in 1937 to recognize accomplished actors who played secondary roles.
While this seemed like a celebratory moment, the Academy did not have clear guidelines to differentiate the different categories. And unfortunately, this remains an issue up to today. Nominating actors in the supporting actor category is usually left to the discretion of filmmakers, studios and other authorities in the industry.
What is a supporting actor?
So who is a supporting actor and what does he or she do? A supporting actor can be defined as an actor who plays the role of the secondary character. He or she backs or assists the lead and tends to play the role of:
- the lead’s best friend e.g. Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book
- the lead’s sidekick e.g. Regina King as If Beale Street Could Talk
- an antagonist e.g. Heath Ledger as The Joker The Dark Knight
Although supporting actors usually play a lesser role, their training is the same as lead actors. Another important point is that an actor may have a supporting role in one movie but a lead role in another. It all depends on how they audition and which role is best suited for them.