It’s a shame when a terrifically talented actor is underrated, because it means that not only do they not get the recognition or fame that they should have, but they never get the starring roles that their talent deserves. And the real kicker is that even without these substantial roles, they still manage to stand out as particularly brilliant and yet underrated. If they want a starring role, then they have to disappear into a tiny indie movie that no one will ever see. It’s a real shame. A lot of big movie stars have absolutely no talent or screen presence and get cast in lead roles that they do nothing with every single year, while all of these people are sidelined and ignored. Hopefully, that can all change at some point. In the meantime, here are the 10 most underrated brilliant actors of all time.
10. Timothy Olyphant
Justified star Timothy Olyphant should be a huge movie star in the mold of Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe. He’s a cool guy, he has leading man charm and looks, and he can do both comedy and drama. Dudes love him, women love him – he has appeal all round. Unfortunately, Justified was not the springboard to action movie stardom that it should’ve been. Even when he’s relegated to two dimensional roles like the bad guy in Live Free or Die Hard, Olyphant gives it his all and brings something to the character. In smaller movies like The Girl Next Door, in which he has a supporting role as an asshole, he steals every scene – he’s hilarious! The only leading role he has had in a major Hollywood movie, really, has been the remake of the George A. Romero horror movie The Crazies, which was surprisingly quite good, and the video game movie Hitman, which like all video game movies, was terrible, but they were far from the kind of work that his talents deserve. He’s currently in talks to play an important character in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, so hopefully that will lead to the kind of major movie roles that he so desperately deserves.
9. Lizzy Caplan
Like many great comedy actors, Lizzy Caplan got her start on the short lived dramedy show Freaks and Geeks. She played the role of Jason Segel’s character’s girlfriend and then got what should have been her big break when she played Janis in the seminal high school comedy Mean Girls alongside Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams. Ever since taking a starring role in the Showtime drama series Masters of Sex, she’s been getting more regular work. She played the government agent who recruited Seth Rogen and James Franco to kill Kim Jong-un in the controversial action comedy The Interview. She played Joseph Gordon Levitt’s love interest in the R-rated Christmas comedy The Night Before. She was one of the stars of the first Cloverfield movie. She joined the Now You See Me franchise following the second one. She played herself in a cameo appearance in The Disaster Artist. She had a small role in Hot Tub Time Machine. She co-starred with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in the World War II spy thriller Allied. She’s been in a lot of stuff and she’s always great, but where are all the leading roles and three dimensional characters for this lovable and talented actress?
8. Josh Brolin
It seems like Josh Brolin is finally starting to get the recognition that he deserves, although it has taken far too long, and the nuances of his talents have yet to be discovered by a mainstream audience. Now, he’s known for playing both Thanos and Cable in hugely successful Marvel movies that were released just a month apart. But he’s always been great, even going back to when he was a kid in The Goonies. No Country For Old Men was a fantastic modern day western movie crossed with a neo noir by the Coen brothers, in which Brolin played the deeply engaging lead role. His role as the younger version of Agent K in Men in Black 3 was underrated, too, because it doesn’t feel like you’re watching Josh Brolin replace Tommy Lee Jones – it feels like you’re genuinely watching the younger Agent K on an adventure with present day Agent J. It’s fantastic, and deserves a lot more recognition. He’s also not afraid to play the bad guy. Okay, Thanos and Cable are bad guys. But Dan White in Milk is a real bad guy. He even played George W. Bush in a satirical biopic directed by Oliver Stone. He was also the best thing about Paul Thomas Anderson’s disappointing stoner comedy Inherent Vice. Josh Brolin is a fantastic actor.
7. Michael Keaton
Michael Keaton has been having somewhat of a comeback in the last few years, since he was nominated for an Oscar for his incredible performance another actor who used to be a big movie star and is now washed up and caught in an existential crisis in Birdman. He then went on to star in Spotlight, the story of the journalists who brought attention to the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, and The Founder, a biopic about the business mogul responsible for McDonald’s. But he is still underrated, because the weight of his talent is not fully recognized by a wide enough audience. This was a guy who became a huge star in the ‘80s for comedic roles like Mr. Mom, but then went on to become so much more. Few actors can pull off roles as diverse as Michael Keaton. He has played everyone from a drug addicted realtor to the Caped Crusader. He has played Betelgeuse and Dogberry and the Vulture. His comic delivery in the Bed Bath & Beyond scene in The Other Guys, as he deadpans not understanding his own TLC references and gets his police notes mixed up with his Bed Bath & Beyond notes, is so spot on. He’s one of the most talented actors of all time and hardly anybody realizes it!
6. Rose Byrne
Even after all these years of delivering stellar performances across a whole spectrum of genres, Rose Byrne continues to be marginalized into supporting roles. She was hilarious in her supporting roles in Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids and Spy and The Internship and I Give It a Year, and yet she has yet to be given a leading role in any of these movies. It was a wise move by the makers of the Neighbors movies to let the wife character get involved in all the hijinks. Most comedy movie producers would naively think that women aren’t funny and delegate them to the nagging wife role as a sounding board for the wacky, funny, Kevin James-esque husband. But Nicholas Stoller, the director of both Neighbors movies, gave Rose Byrne a chance to shine with her comic talents. And she’s not just a comedic performer either – she was in horror movies like Insidious and 28 Weeks Later, big budget blockbusters like the X-Men franchise, serious dramas like The Place Beyond the Pines and This Is Where I Leave You. And still, no leading roles. What gives?! She’s one of the best actresses working today, with such diverse talents – she needs bigger roles!
5. Linda Cardellini
Perhaps Linda Cardellini would be as big of a star as she deserves to be if Freaks and Geeks had been on the air for as long as it deserved to be. She starred in the show as its lead character Lindsay Weir, who had complex emotions and real, relatable problems. The character of Lindsay spoke to teenage girls across the world. All of a sudden, they could finally see themselves properly represented on the small screen. And that was all down a fantastic performance in the role by the very underrated Linda Cardellini. Cardellini has since played the role of ‘the wife’ in Daddy’s Home, the role of ‘the wife’ in Daddy’s Home 2, and the role of ‘the wife’ in Avengers: Age of Ultron. She will continue to play ‘the wife’ for as long as Hawkeye lasts in the MCU. Why must Linda Cardellini be relegated to these boring, two dimensional roles? This is Lindsay Weir! She should be playing funny, real, relatable, three dimensional women in movies – both comedies and dramas – every single year! She shouldn’t be playing ‘the wife’ to some male actor’s character. Somebody should be playing ‘the husband’ to her character. It’s all wrong!
4. Danny McBride
Why is the whole world not in love with Danny McBride? He’s one of the funniest people who ever lived! In every movie he’s in, no matter how small the role is, he always brings it. He never phones it in. And he always steals the scene. The Heartbreak Kid is not a great movie, but every scene that McBride appears in – whether he’s complaining about parcheesi or stuffing a red pepper up Ben Stiller’s nostril – he steals. He was hilarious as the psychotic explosives expert in Tropic Thunder and as Rod’s aggressive, green tea drinking friend in Hot Rod and as James Franco’s weed supplier in Pineapple Express. His TV shows Eastbound and Down and Vice Principals are two of the most consistently hilarious shows ever to air on HBO, and yet they were never the huge ratings hits that they deserved to be. The Foot Fist Way, the indie comedy that McBride made with his college buddies that became his big break, and his lead character Fred Simmons are so funny. It should’ve been a cult hit in the Napoleon Dynamite mold that made this guy a huge star, but all it did was guarantee him some clout in the comedy world and steady work as a supporting player. What does he have to do?!
3. Gary Oldman
Even though he just won an Oscar for his role as Winston Churchill in the movie Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman is still, for whatever reason, criminally underrated. He has played so many iconic roles over the course of his career. He played Lee Harvey Oswald’s chilling calmness to perfection in Oliver Stone’s JFK. He’s played musical geniuses from Sid Vicious to Beethoven. He played the comic book role of Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, in which he was overshadowed by the less nuanced and intriguing performances of Christian Bale and Tom Hardy. He’s fantastic at playing villains, too, like in True Romance or Leon. He brought the literary icon Count Dracula to life for Francis Ford Coppola, and played another literary icon, George Smiley, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And interestingly, his terrifying portrayal of the villain Ivan Korshunov in Air Force One earned him the nickname “Scary Gary” on the set, but according to director Wolfgang Peterson, he would later called the shooting experience “Air Force Fun,” because as soon as he would call cut, Oldman would come out of character and immediately be the nicest, silliest guy ever. That’s the mark of a truly gifted actor.
2. Edward Norton
There should be no question that Edward Norton is one of the finest actors working today, and yet he still struggles for mainstream recognition. He tends to star in cult classic movies, like Fight Club and American History X. He had a strong start with his debut in Primal Fear, which earned him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Not bad for the guy’s first ever movie appearance. That was an early sign that this was a great actor, although sadly, circumstances seem to work against his fame. The Illusionist is a great movie, but it was overshadowed by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, which was basically the same movie and did better at the box office. The one time he did get to star in a big budget blockbuster was The Incredible Hulk, and we all know how that turned out. What should’ve been Norton’s big break as a movie star only served to give Mark Ruffalo that same opportunity. Most recently, Norton made a splash alongside Michael Keaton in the fiercely original Birdman. He’s had terrific roles in the quirky Wes Anderson comedy movies Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. He even got the chance to show off his comedy chops in the Seth Rogen animated comedy Sausage Party.
1. Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti is one of the finest actors of our time, and yet a lot of moviegoers don’t even know who he is! That’s probably because the movies that he stars in, like American Splendor or Sideways, tend to be brilliant, yet small and quirky – and also because the supporting roles that he plays in larger movies tend to be right alongside the more memorable icons. He played Andy Kaufman’s close friend Bob Zmuda alongside Jim Carrey in the acclaimed biopic Man on the Moon. He played James J. Braddock’s manager in Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man. He played N.W.A. producer Jerry Heller in the beloved Straight Outta Compton. He’s great in all of these roles, but the audience tends to focus more on Kaufman and Braddock and N.W.A., unfortunately. But Giamatti never phones it in. He even brings passion and gravitas to roles like the scientist in San Andreas or the bad guy in Shoot ‘Em Up. Giamatti’s co-leading role as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades in the Showtime drama series Billions is a great addition to his résumé, too. Hopefully, he will eventually come to have the recognition that he deserves from a mainstream audience – better late than never, right?