The Breakthrough of Xander Berkeley

I’m told that the term ‘character actor’ can be almost offensive to some actors.   It implies that they are only there  to support a story, not really take part in it.   Personally I admire character actors.   When you examine the talent of actors considered to be just character actors, and start thinking about the performances they have delivered over their career, you start to find a new respect for what sometimes is considered a glorified extra.

Names like Saul Rubinek, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Xander Berkley may not be household names, but you know their faces.   The fact that they go without the name recognition shouldn’t take away from the fact that these are the actors that show up and deliver the goods time and time again.

If I showed you a picture of Saul Rubinek, you would say, “Oh, that guy”.   If I showed you a picture of Stephen Tobolowsky, you would say, “That’s that’s the guy from (insert dozens of different movie and TV titles here).   If i showed you a picture of Xander Berkley, I guarantee that you would smile and say “I like that guy”.  

Xander Berkley has always brought a certain swagger to his characters.   I’m guessing most will recognize Xander as George from 24, who to this day is my favorite character from the show.   I first remember noticing Xander in Gattica as the doctor who only shared Ethan Hawke’s secret to inspire his non-enhanced son.   In my opinion, the best scene of a great film.  

Every now and then, these character actors break away.   They find a vehicle that allows them a performance so strong and memorable, they may never again be able to blend into the background.   They seem somehow bigger then they were.

This happened with Tom Wilkenson.   To this day IMDB lists Wilkenson as a “popular British character actor”.   But those of us who have seen In The Bedroom or Michael Clayton know that it doesn’t seem to be a fitting title.   Tom Wilkenson is an Oscar nominated star.   His performance in In The Bedroom is one of the most amazing I have ever seen.   Wilkenson has more than earned the right to be co-starring in films with big names like George Clooney.  

And I think Xander Berkeley may have found his vehicle to the next level in Cook County.   While I’ll stop short of putting his performance in the same league as Wilkenson’s Oscar nominated performance, it’s a performance that will make it difficult for me to accept Xander as a guest murder suspect in a television cop show.   Not to knock the work that Xander has done in the past, but after seeing Cook County, it’s clear to me that this is a star.

As you might guess, I’m a pretty big fan of Cook County.   The film is beautifully done and difficult to forget.   I caught Cook County on my last day of SXSW, and I was glad I took the time to see it before my flight.   It was a great way to end a great festival.  

The film centers around a broken family in the middle of the rural meth problem in America.   The entire cast was terrific.   Anson Mount, who got the juicier role of the film, did an incredible job as a meth junkie who has started crossing the line.   Ryan Donowho is a real talent.   I could see a lot of genuine emotion in his performance.   I fully expect to start seeing a lot of him soon.  

A special note on the performance of Polly Cole.   She was so convincing as the meth addict girlfriend, that I almost wondered if they hired a real meth head.   That’s an attempt at a compliment.  Seriously, she looked pretty tweaked.

But it really was Berkeley’s performance that tied everything together.   There is a subtle determination in his character that seems to be at odds with who he is.   He plays a flawed man with a sincere goal of trying to make things right with his son.   The casualness of the performance is what stood out most.   No heroic moments, even when the character has one.   Both the director and Berkeley keep the film restrained from being overly preachy, or even redemptive.   There is redemption, but in an appropriately sad form.  

Berkeley was a Producer for Cook County, which I think is very interesting.   I sent Xander a few questions, but I unfortunately caught him at a bad time, as he was about the leave to London for filming.   But he did say I had good questions, so hopefully he will get the chance to respond in the future.  

Xander is never hurting for work it seems.   This is a guy whose IMDB profile extends back to playing “Marine” in M.A.S.H., and “taxi driver” in Riptide (I liked the nerdy guy from the show with the robot).   He was even in V, which I just watched again a couple years ago.   My cousin and I both recognized him right away.  

Berkeley has another TV show lined up, Night and Day, which is supposed to be a “new format”.   He is also going to be in the Nicholas Cage film, Kick-Ass.   All these look like great projects, but I’m hoping to see Cook County get a wider release and more notice.   If you get the chance to see Cook County, jump at it.



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