How to Make the Most of a Small Role

While some actors jump straight into lead roles, most actors start out their careers with small parts. You’ve all heard the phrase “There are no small parts, only small actors.” I agree, and I believe that a small part done well, can launch or re-start a career. Let’s look at a few examples from this year’s Oscar race.


Moonlight, the achingly beautiful narrative about a young man growing up in Miami, features two supporting nominees. Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a father figure for the lead, who takes the young boy under his wing. Although Ali only appears in the first third of the film, his absence looms in the last two segments. That is in part because Ali makes the most of his few scenes by delivering an honest and detailed performance that captures the complexity of a man who sells drugs while taking care of a boy whose mother is addicted to those same drugs.


Playing that mother, Naomie Harris, another Oscar nominee, makes an indelible impression on the film. Her performance provides the throughline of the film as three actors portray her son at different ages. Her performances covers 20 years but Harris had just three days to to tell Paula’s story. She met actor Trevante Rhodes for the first time just minutes before their emotional third act scene. Harris relied on her training to create her performance with minimal prep time. In just a few days on set, she put in a performance that captured a flawed woman’s relationship with her son over two decades.


Michael Shannon is no stranger to small but vital roles, he was previously nominated in this category for his work in Revolutionary Road. As a Texas detective prepared to break the rules when justice is denied. Shannon’s performance is the highlight of Nocturnal Animals. He doesn’t appear until much later in the film as a part of the story within a story at the heart of Nocturnal Animals, but Shannon’s performance provides an askew moral compass for Jake Gyllenhaal’s lead.

Small parts are vital and provide the backbone of a great film. Make the most of them.

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