20 Supporting Actors Who Stole the Movie Spotlight (PHOTOS)

Not every actor can be a leading man, but they can still reap the benefits of playing a great supporting role. In fact, many have found not being the center of the movie liberating, actually helping them steal films from right under other actors' noses. 

Here are 20 of the most riveting performances by supporting actors who walked away with movies in which they were supposed to be second — or even fifth — banana.


Image via Marvel Studios

  • Christoph Waltz


    Image via Universal

    German actor Christoph Waltz is a first-class scenery chewer who plays his characters big and somehow gets away with it. Case in point is his role in Inglourious Basterds. He holds the audience in absolute suspense as the breezily arrogant and cruel Nazi "Jew Hunter," whether terrifying a French farmer into admitting he's hiding Jews, eating an apple strudel or choking someone to death. 

  • Christopher Walken in 'Pulp Fiction'


    Image via Miramax

    When Christopher Walken walks on camera, with his pale skin and hair, buggy eyes, and distinctive New York accent, you know you're in for an off-kilter treat. His cameo in Pulp Fiction, as a Vietnam War vet who tells the son of his troop mate a touching—and disgusting—story comes exactly at a point in the movie where a break in the tension is sorely needed. There's no one better to deliver it than Walken.

  • Bradley Cooper in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'


    Image © Elliot/Splash News/Corbis

    What Guardians of the Galaxy sorely needed was Bradley Cooper's voice, channeling Joe Pesci on crack, as the unforgettable, rowdy, genetically engineered Rocket Raccoon. "Ain't no thing like me 'cept me," Rocket says. Yup.  

  • Denzel Washington in 'Glory'


    Image via TriStar Pictures

    Glory is told from the point of view of the white commanding officer of a black Union Army regiment. But Denzel Washington runs away with the movie as a defiant slave-turned-soldier Silas Trip. The scene in which Trip is flogged for going AWOL—and old scars from his slave days are revealed—is one of the finest moments in film history. No wonder Washington won an Oscar for the role.

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  • Edward Norton in 'Birdman'


    Image via Fox Searchlight Pictures

    Edward Norton is one of the most gifted yet underrated actors in Hollywood, as shown by his work in Birdman. His character is fascinating: an arrogant young theater actor who later admits that his life offstage is a fake, and the only place he feels authentic is onstage. It's riveting stuff.

  • Javier Bardem in 'No Country For Old Men'


    Image via Paramount Vantage

    Moviegoers are probably still feeling the heebie jeebies, years after watching No Country For Old Men. Javier Bardem will go down in history as playing one of the most chilling characters ever put on film. Anton Chigurh kills dispassionately, with a cow stun gun, no less, and in the film, he is literally unstoppable. Bardem's bowl haircut and the jawline of an undertaker seal the deal.

  • Mark Ruffalo in 'The Avengers'


    Image via Marvel Studios

    There are a lot of showy performances in The Avengers, but one who doesn't have to try that hard is Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, aka the Hulk. The reason Ruffalo's performance was such a standout: Banner's struggle was distinctly real, and fans of the soft-spoken actor who always exudes calm and common sense didn't want to see him hurt. 

  • Cuba Gooding Jr. in 'Jerry Maguire'


    Image via TriStar Pictures

    Yeah, his portrayal of a football player who is full of himself in Jerry Maguire is over the top, but it won him an Oscar, and it's no more over-the-top than Tom Cruise's overly earnest portrayal of his agent.

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  • Heath Ledger in 'The Dark Knight'


    Image via Warner Bros.

    The Dark Knight is a fine movie, but let's be honest: It's the first half, with Heath Ledger wilding out as The Joker, that's the most vibrant and interesting. Ledger captivated the camera in his role as the worst kind of criminal, who "just likes to watch the world burn." The result is a riveting, unhinged performance that reaches out of the movie screen and grabs you.

  • Alec Baldwin in 'The Departed'


    Image via Warner Bros.

    As police Captain Ellerby, Alec Baldwin is a chain-smoking, crotch-grabbing motormouth. He has some of the best lines in the movie and creates brief bouts of levity in an otherwise dark take on corruption.

  • John Leguizamo in 'Carlito's Way'


    Image via Universal Pictures

    He's been a dwarf, a drag queen, and a sloth. John Leguizamo is a top tier character actor. Among the many movies he's stolen is Carlito's Way, in which he played a two-bit thug trying to be a big man. When he's humiliated by Al Pacino's Carlito, he vows revenge and gets it, at just the right time, delivering a now classic line: "Hey remember me? Benny Blanco from the Bronx?"

  • Jared Leto in 'Dallas Buyers Club'


    Image via Voltage Films

    Sure, Matthew McConaughey transformed himself for the lead role as an AIDS patient and meds dealer in Dallas Buyers Club, but as his unexpected ally, Rayon, Jared Leto turns in a sensitive, haunted performance as delicate as his features. He won an Oscar for his role. 

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  • Brad Pitt in 'Fight Club'


    Image via Fox 2000 Pictures

    The nihilistic film Fight Club is chock-full of strong performances, including those of Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter. But as Norton's imaginary id, Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt is a force of nature—or testosterone gone wild. It remains the signature role of his early career.

  • Joe Pesci in 'Goodfellas'


    Image via Warner Bros.

    Goodfellas is one of those movies that makes you stop clicking the remote when you're channel surfing, even if you've seen it a million times. A big part of the reason is Joe Pesci's portrayal of volatile mafioso Tommy, who wields his power like a bloody knife—or a piano wire. You feel guilty for enjoying Tommy's bravura, but you can't look away. No wonder this is the role that made Pesci a household name.

  • John Turturro in 'The Big Lebowski'


    Image via Gramercy Pictures

    The Jesus is one gifted—and flamboyant—bowler, complete with hair net and strangely curling tongue. And John Turturro, one of Hollywood's finest character actors, plays him to the hilt in The Big Lebowski. The character has even crossed into pop culture as a popular Halloween costume.  

  • Hugo Weaving in the 'Matrix' trilogy


    Image via Warner Bros.

    Before Huge Weaving stole The Fellowship of the Ring as the Elf King with the perfect diction, he stole the Matrix trilogy as the similarly verbally gifted Mr. Smith, he of machine-made pronounciation and deadpan violence. One of the all-time great scene-stealing performances.

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  • Benicio del Toro in 'Traffic'


    Image via USA Films

    Traffic is full of characters we're supposed to care about, including a surburban teen who spirals into drug use and a cop in search of revenge for his fallen partner, but there's really only one we love: Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez, as played by Benicio del Toro in the movie's sole Oscar-winning performance. Del Toro's hangdog features and immense talent make his portrayal one that is full of humanity.

  • Stephan James in 'Selma'


    Image via Paramount Pictures

    There are a lot of performances to love in Selma but Stephan James' stands out for its left-fieldness. Playing young civil rights activist and future Congressman John Lewis, the previously unknown James was a firebrand onscreen. 

  • Sam Worthington in 'Terminator Salvation'


    Image via Warner Bros.

    Terminator Salvation was supposed to be Christian Bale's star turn, but his onscreen too-serious portrayal of John Connor killed the vibe. Instead, moviegoers found themselves noticing newcomer Sam Worthington's sensitive portrayal of Marcus Wright, a strong-but-silent cyborg with more humanity than, ahem, others.     

  • Morgan Freeman in 'The Shawshank Redemption'


    Image via Columbia Pictures

    Morgan Freeman has been tapped to play God, sages, mentors, and great men like Nelson Mandela, but an early favorite is his role as Red in The Shawshank Redemption. His portrayal of a reformed jailbird who helps a broken man keep hope alive behind bars made him the beloved film's heart.   

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