It’s not every day you get to speak to someone who’s got an acting talent that’s a step to the left of most. Less generalised, less shotgun and less jack-of-all-trades. Character actors are a good example of embodying a singular acting style, and Robb Skyler’s a good example of a character actor.
If you’re not entirely sure what a character actor is, let me give you a few names. Steve Buscemi. Harry Dean Stanton. John C. McGinley. Actors who have a special talent when it comes to playing the eccentrics, the oddballs, the defined villains and squint-eyed sidekicks. It’s a fascinating job to have, as an actor, and Robb Skyler happens to be one of the lucky few who’re making it work.
So, how exactly does one go about getting the skill-set necessary to becoming a character actor? “The leading man is like the gift wrapping,” explains Skyler, “and the character actor’s what’s inside the box. More substance. It’s the guts, literally and figuratively, of acting, I think. It’s gotten away from the golden age of Hollywood where you had your Clark Gables, and you had those cookie-cutter, manufactured studio products.
“Now? I don’t think that a character actor has to be necessarily less aesthetically pleasing. It’s what you bring with it, and what you bring to it. You need the power of observation, a lack of vanity. You have to dissect the character – deconstruct and reconstruct. You have to understand your character, its fibre and its essence, and not only that but where it fits into the overall picture.”
He raises an interesting point. A leading man or woman can simply stride onto set and, well, lead. Character actors are the sniper’s bullet to the lead actor’s artillery. More focused, and better aimed. They’re there for a very specific role, and act as a crucial support to the rest of the cast. So who does Skyler regard as some of the greats?
“Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Christian Bale. All three of them are character actors – you could say they’re leading character actors. Although, someone like Gary Oldman, who I loved in True Romance, could take a small scene, almost a cameo role, and when you watch Gary Oldman work, he devours it. He didn’t pull any punches… he makes such an impact.”
In any job, there are always tasks you’re set that’ll throw you for a loop, ones that make you really work and think outside the box in order to get them done. Skyler’s experience of character acting has been no different. “I think every role’s challenging – sometimes the smallest role. It’s a matter of attitude, a matter of approach. Sometimes, the smallest role can be the most challenging because you have to know your role – not the character’s role, but your role in the whole piece.”
It’s an interesting idea, to have such a specific role inside the film, but it also lends character actors an air of invulnerability. If a film flops due to the acting, blame is always levelled at the leading actors, but never character actors. Arguably this is because they’re there to be a specific personality type, and really, there’s little chance of that going wrong.
“I’ve got to harken back to the fact that a character actor can indeed be a leading character actor,” states Skyler. “So I don’t know if I can agree with that in totality. Most films are either going to be good or bad. The most underrated aspect of film is the editing. Most actors – character actors included – would say ‘I can’t believe they chose to keep that scene’.” He then gives an example of being cut out of a film entirely by the editing, but realising that he was lucky – bad editing may ruin a film, but with luck, it’ll also remove you from the version the public sees.
So what inspires Robb Skyler, outside seeing other character actors do what they do best? Music? Theatre? “My family, my wife, my friends – they all inspire me to be a better person, to strive to do something good to contribute to the world. No man is an island. Those are important aspects of my life – I’d say that if I wasn’t happily married for twenty years of my life I’d be lacking a major collaborative force.
“I’m also inspired by other artists, particularly live performances of the musical variety. My music preferences – I like to say I’m a lazy listener. If I’m in the car… I’m always punching 70s and 60s, 70s music mostly. I was recently at a charity golf tournament and they had a big bash afterwards, lot of great musicians. I love watching other artists perform. I can’t say I’m inspired, necessarily, by a painting. [The artist] painted that 150, 200, 300 years ago. But if I see somebody performing, singing, playing an instrument, acting in a play… that really inspires me.”
So where does he go from here? “I’m looking forward to developing some of my own projects. I do have a project in development. There’s a very good chance that it’ll go into production in the next calendar year. I’ll be the writer and director… I’ll have a lead character role in it. I want to see this grow, I have people interested in it, and it’s a character-driven piece. It’ll appeal to all those baby boomers out there. It’s not a coming-of-age film – it’s more of a ‘coming-to-terms-with-age’ film.”
Skyler’s a rare thing – a humble, focused actor that allows his brains to be picked with no barriers at all. I’ve always been a fan of those who can act in a very targeted way, rather than simply playing very similar roles between films. It’s refreshing to see someone on the rise who believes in doing just that.