An actor may toil away as a character actor, blending into an ensemble and then emerge as a lead. It’s a long shot but it does happen. And if an actor works long enough, former stars may be today’s character actors. Women don’t seem to get a shot at longevity as much as some male actors do simply due to how many roles are available. Even as trends in entertainment are heading toward more female-driven shows, female actors tend to find the road a little more bumpy and truncated.
Still, there are a ton of amazing ladies out there, turning out great performances across many genres on both the small and big screens. These talented female character actors deserve recognition, by name! What’s the name of that actress you’ve seen everywhere? Look through the list below and find out! From Margo Martindale, Kim Dickens, Niecy Nash, and Linda Hunt, get ready to learn all about the women behind the supporting female characters who make top TV series and good movies as great as they are.
She’s Appeared in Four Nicole Kidman Films and Three with Meryl Streep
She’s played the secretary, the neighbor, the mother, the grandmother, the secret agent, and the accomplice. The east Texan usually maintains her everyman center but it’s the way she handles each role that is the real treat. Career highlights: The Millers, The Americans, Masters of Sex, August: Osage County, New Girl,Smash, Person of Interest,Justified, Hung, Orphan, Dexter, The Riches, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Medium, Million Dollar Baby, The Hours, Marvin’s Room, Dead Man Walking
“Some things just take time,” Martindale said when she accepted the 2011 Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her work on Justified.
This gem of an actor has always been a standout in both TV and film. It’s the subtle levels that Martindale finds in the characters she plays. She’s also an excellent ensemble player and gives other actors something to work with. Her Claudia on The Americans versus her performance in August: Osage County is an excellent idea of her wide range as a performer.
There’s a Certain Harry Dean Stanton to Her Approach
Unmistakable from many eras, she was the farm housewife in Rain Man who had to let Charlie Babbitt and Raymond in just in time to watch Wopner. She was the obsessed teacher in Donnie Darko. She is always game for a TV or film role that makes use of her never-ending talent. Career highlights: The Mindy Project, The Millers, Bad Words, As I Lay Dying, The Secret Life of the American Teenager,Sordid Lives, The Office, Grey’s Anatomy, Justified, Dexter, American Dad!,King of the Hill, Jericho,No Country For Old Men
With 182 credits to her name as an actor, Grant has created a huge catalog to pull from with each role. She always approaches the work from a very accessible place and audiences always remember her.
This Is Not Ana Gasteyer
Never afraid to be dorky, vulnerable, or strong, this actress usually plays the second banana but you never forget her. She’s got excellent comedy chops and has played superbly against many comedic actors. Career highlights: Happyish, Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation, Transparent, This Is Where I Leave You, American Dad!,Bob’s Burgers, The Secrete Life of Walter Mitty, We’re the Millers, Robot Chicken, Children’s Hospital, The Newsroom, Girls, Our Idiot Brother, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Hahn has emerged from her years as a rather formidable comic and dramatic actor. She can play the quirky mom for a sketch on Kroll Show, the cutthroat political strategist on Parks and Recreation, or the thoughtful rabbi on Transparent and feel like a completely different person each time.
With her whispery voice, she’s played both dramatic and comedy roles with masterful grace. She’s been the sister, the hilarious stage actress who told John Cusack, “Don’t speak!” and gave Edward Scissorhands an Avon Lady makeover, with disastrous results. Career highlights: The Blacklist, In Treatment, Synecdoche, New York, Dan in Real Life, Law & Order, I Am Sam, The Birdcage, Bullets Over Broadway, Edward Scissorhands, Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Parenthood, Footloose
The news that Oscar-winner Wiest had fallen on hard financial times due to lack of work was a serious remark on the choices out there for female actors. Even with a storied career, Wiest, like many actresses, has found the choices few and far between for women of a certain age. Considering that most writers’ rooms are predominantly filled with dudes, the trend may continue unabated. In any case, it’s disturbing as Wiest is a mighty force and should be working more.
A Household Saint and Mystic
From all of her songs about Joe in Say Anything to her incredible turn as Valerie Jean Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol, she’s played just about every type of role imaginable. She’s been a favorite of indie, network, cable, and big screen audiences. Every project is better for having her in it. Career highlights: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Gotham, Hemlock Grove, Almost Human, The Conjuring, Blood Ties,State of Mind, The Haunting, Six Feet Under, High Fidelity, Anne Frank: The Whole Story, Live From Baghdad, Public Enemies, A Slipping Down Life, I Shot Andy Warhol, Dogfight, Mystic Pizza, Say Anything
By all rights, she should be a leading actress, but in this world of vapid, one-dimensional thinking, Taylor has made opportunities for herself by making each role extraordinary. That’s very good news for audiences and Taylor fans because she’s superb.
She Learned to Never Help a Guy Get a Couch Into His Van
She was the actual person down in the hole and the one Buffalo Bill remarks to his dog Precious, “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” Career highlights: Interstellar, Ray Donovan, Labor Day,Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Grey’s Anatomy, Weeds, Crossing Jordan, Melinda and Melinda, In Her Shoes, Series 7,Six Feet Under, Silence of the Lambs
Smith was 24 when she, as Catherine Lamb, was at the bottom of that hole in Silence of the Lambs and it was her first big break. Since then, she’s brought realness, focus, and honesty to a plethora of roles.
She Was Brat Pack Adjacent
She survived the ’80s along with Rob Lowe and Molly Ringwald. In a long enough career, she went from playing the best friend to the grandmother but she is always excellent on screen. Career highlights: The Affair,American Horror Story: Freakshow, Under the Dome, Philomena, Hawaii Five-0, Hatfields & McCoys, Torchwood, Mildred Pierce, Grey’s Anatomy, ER, St. Elmo’s Fire
Don’t write her off as a grandma just yet. Winningham will show up and jerk a knot in your perception just as she did on American Horror Story: Freakshow. She has played it all from small day-player roles to holding it down with the main cast on the big screen.
Not Your Mama’s Weed Dealer
She’s one of those actors you see everywhere but can’t quite place where you know her from. That’s because she’s got ninja-level chameleon skills. She’s been both a weed maven and a scared mother going hand to hand with Russian secret agent Phillip Jennings on The Americans. Career highlights: The Americans, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, One Life to Live, Weeds, Savages, The Taking of Pelham 123
Patano gets a lot of offers to play various roles and she has brought her own power to every character. She has the ability to make a mother real, a judge scary, and a badass, watchable
Another climber, this actress has pursued meaty roles in top shows and popular films. She brings a quiet, studied approach to each role and has kept pace with some big names both in TV and in film. She played Rhonda Boney in Gone Girl. Career highlights: House of Cards, Fear the Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, Gone Girl, Treme, Deadwood, Friday Night Lights, The Blind Side,Lost
Dickens’s hard work paid off with the lead role in the Walking Dead spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, but it took a lot of years to get there. Choosing strong material has propelled Dickens in the right direction. Look for a lot more from this actress.
She May Resemble Edna Mode but the Animated Character Was Not Based on Her
If you’re a regular watcher of NCIS, you’ll find her there as Henrietta “Hetty” Lange. If you’ve been following her long career, you’ve seen her play some of the most interesting roles out there. Her diminutive stature is misleading because when she appears onscreen, her presence is mighty. Her voice is unmistakably hers and she has an impressive body of voice-acting work. Career highlights: NCIS: Los Angeles, God of War: Ascension, God of War: Ghost of Sparta, God of War III, Nip/Tick, The Unit, Without a Trace, The American Experience, Stranger Than Fiction, Carnivàle, Auschwitz: The Nazisand the ‘Final Solution,’The Practice, Kindergarten Cop, She-Devil, Dune, Popeye
Hunt has always defied type, making each role inherently hers. She blew audiences away playing Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian male, opposite Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously and was the first actor to win an Oscar for playing a role of the opposite sex.
She Was Also a Background Singer Which Won Her the Role of a Country-Western Singer
With her Tulsa accent, she started back in the day and could teach a master class in the evolution of TV and film comedy. She’s also aged very well. Work will do that for you. She’s seemingly played every role they have ever made for women on TV and in film. She’s been the sassy girlfriend, the star, the fallen star, the sister, the counselor, the lawyer, the sister wife, the caretaker, the life taker, and the b*tch in charge. If only you could place her name. Career highlights: Getting On; The New Normal; Californication; Suburgatory; Smashed; Big Love; Shrek Forever After;Julie & Julia; King of the Hill; Pushing Daisies; The West Wing; Further Tales of the City; Being John Malkovich;Sweet Home Alabama; It’s Complicated; My First Mister;Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman
Place got her start on network TV back in the ’70s. Her first big break was starring alongside Louise Lasser in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, thanks to her background as a back up singer. She was a natural comedian, perfecting the straight man from the start of her career. She wrote three episodes of M*A*S*H with Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, one of which was nominated for an Emmy for comedy writing.
The Worthy Adversary
She’s played the addict and the cop, the mother and the boss. She’s known for strong, bold characters on top shows and shows no signs of slowing down. Career highlights: Scandal, The Assault, Treme, CSI: Miami, ER, The Corner,NewsRadio
Alexander has had a long and stellar career, playing the broken Maya Pope on Scandal and the tough-as-nails LaDonna Batiste-Williams on Treme. Alexander constantly proves that she always got the right moves.
The Authority Figure
She’s played women in charge and women who are vulnerable, instantly adding merit to any role. Career highlights: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, Veep, The Good Wife, Grimm, Law & Order, Rescue Me, The Practice
Burton’s Ellis Grey was heartbreaking on Grey’s Anatomy and her Vice President Sally Langston plays the right with honesty on Scandal. She’s also called up on her comedy chops on Veep. Burton is a go to for show runners everywhere.
Talented to the Bone
You know this face. You’ve seen it everywhere from Winter’s Bone to True Blood, and she’s got that unmistakable Tennessee accent. She’s made the mold for hard-edged characters. Career highlights: Iron Man 3, Backstrom, Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Bonnie and Clyde, True Blood, My Name is Earl, Breaking Bad
Dickey, with her accent and style, brings an authenticity unmatched by other actors. She isn’t afraid to take a part and really go there.
Another distinguishing voice and presence, this actor brings her subtle Texas accent to chide, school, and bring the beat down whenever the scene calls for it. And it’s heavenly. Career highlights: Sirens, Psych,The Client List, Grey’s Anatomy, Crash, I Am Sam, The Cleveland Show, The PJs, Boston Legal, Waiting to Exhale, Death at a Funeral
Devine brings a self-assured bearing to her roles. With a shift of the voice and the eyes, she can fell the most formidable actors. And she does.
She Was Rocking That Bass Before Kim K OR Meghan Trainor
This funny lady has been on a lot of your favorite TV shows. She’s so stealth, she might just pop up anywhere. Career highlights: Getting On, The Mindy Project, Dancing wth the Stars, Selma, Reno 911!, American Dad!, Horton Hears a Who!, Clean House
From Reno 911! to Getting On, Nash knows how to own a role. She’s got an excellent sense of comic timing and innate compassion that cannot be taught. She was definitely born with it.
The Pioneering Spirit
She started out as Allie Earp in 1993’s Tombstone and has steadily risen through the ranks as a powerful actor, going from the shy beauty to the loud-mouthed, Southie Abby Donovan on Showtime’s Ray Donovan. She was also the foul-mouthed, Al Swearingin-hating/Saul-loving Trixie on Deadwood. Career highlights: Ray Donovan, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Hunger Games,Caprica, Sons of Anarchy, Lost, Deadwood, The Green Mile, Tombstone
Malcomson is from Belfast but can morph into any person, with any accent, as required by the script. She has transitioned from her unforgettable role as Trixie on Deadwood to the fiery, Belfast-born Maureen Ashby on Sons of Anarchy where she finally gets to use her native accent.
She first grabbed audiences with her refreshingly offbeat Zoey Barkow on Nurse Jackie and she brings that endearing charm and uniqueness to each role. She can also play it straight and dramatic, but she’s most funny as the oddball. Career highlights: Birdman, Nurse Jackie, New Girl, Into the Wild, Signs
Wever is like the Mary Lynn Rajskub in a weirder universe. She’s got very subtle, unshakable comedy chops and we’re just waiting for her to show just how deep her talent can reach. Because we know it’s there.
Not Kathy Najimy
She can play the authority figure, the dame, and the comic relief with such dexterity, it’s a joy to behold. She can be found wherever snark resides and oftentimes steals the show. Career highlights: House of Lies, Hot in Cleveland, Scandal, Masters of Sex, Garfunkel and Oates, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Modern Family, How I Met Your Mother
With a surprisingly wide range, Pebdani has played everything from the hilariously twisted Artemis on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to a no-nonsense Flo Packer on Masters of Sex, sexually shaking down a young, hot doctor. As one does.
She’s Your Mom if She Were Over It
She makes each part look effortless, always adding something immeasurable to the ensemble. Career highlights: Girls, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, The Good Wife, Person of Interest, Smash, Freaks and Geeks, In & Out,Spider-Man 3, Men in Black, A Simple Plan
As Hannah Horvath’s long-suffering mother on Girls, Baker brings a realness to the pain of parenting a precocious child. She honed a different set of parenting skills on the Judd Apatow cult series Freaks and Geeks as well. Baker finds room within the roles she’s been given and finds a restful presence and a dark, delicious resentment.
This ubiquitous actress seems to be all over the place and in everything. She plays that Midwestern type who might also be hiding something in her basement. You just can’t tell. Career highlights: RED, Seven Pounds, Pushing Daisies, Big Love, Star Trek Into Darkness, Mad Men
Wasilewski has many sides. She can be your best buddy, nosy neighbor, or guilt-dealing Catholic sister on Mad Men. She’s got a style that can easily slip into any era and can be just as funny as she can be serious.
She Might Hug You, but She Might Just Cut You
This actor bobs and weaves like Muhammad Ali, perfectly fine taking a small role on Broad City and making you remember her flirt it up with Hannibal Buress whether or not you remember the rest of the episode. Then, she blew us all away with her role as Miss Claudette Pelage on Orange Is the New Black. Career highlights: Orange Is the New Black, Broad City, Frances Ha, Blue Bloods, All Good Things, The Good Wife, Choke, Sherrybaby, Third Watch, Law & Order