Crucial supporting performances don’t necessarily correlate with screen time. Take, for instance, 2021’s Best Supporting Actor frontrunner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose presence in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog nearly rivals that of the lead, Benedict Cumberbatch. Smit-McPhee clearly isn’t the lead, of course. He isn’t Campion’s subject, the figure whose behavior and actions warp the narrative. Smit-McPhee has nonetheless been routinely decorated among critics groups, and there’s an arguable reason why, apart from his exceptional performance: He’s undeniably there, visible right up to the film’s end. His work lingers and calcifies into something truly memorable.
Let’s compare that supporting performance to that of David Knell in Michael Sarnoski’s Pig. Knell doesn’t stick around until the closing credits. Nor does he compete with Pig’s star, Nicolas Cage, for screen time. Instead, he appears about halfway through the film to function as a bullseye for one of Cage’s gruff, hushed monologues, then slowly decay into a grinning, nervous, stammering wreck throughout their encounter. “We don’t get a lot of things to really care about,” says Cage’s chef-turned-hermit/truffle hunter Rob, both in admonition of and sympathy for Knell’s Chef Derek. Derek used to work for Rob years prior before getting canned for torturing pasta. Now, he’s heading up an upscale molecular gastronomy restaurant that’s so fancypants it’s nauseating.
Rob’s speech, where he gently prods Derek into making an implicit confession that fussy science fair food isn’t his dream, immediately evinces Cage’s colossal talent as an actor, and validates the Cage-aissance that began slowly rolling through the early 2010s before reaching critical mass in 2018 or so. (Credit that to Mandy.) But the credit for making the scene work should actually, and rightly, go to Knell, whose job it is to express every feeling Rob’s words stir—puzzlement, curiosity, outrage, amusement, grief, self-loathing—using few words and considerably more body language.
This is no easy task even when you’re acting against someone other than Nicolas Friggin’ Cage. Sarnoski gives Knell a challenge Hercules might balk at. But Knell pushes Derek’s emotional capacity and ends up matching Cage moment to moment with subtle, layered work. Nobody has seen Rob in over a decade. Derek comes mere syllables away from admitting that he thought Rob was actually dead, in fact, a fumble Knell articulates with spluttering self-awareness. Theirs is an awkward reunion. When Rob addresses the elephant in the room—the pig in the room—Derek deflects. “I respect you, Chef, I always have,” he blusters. “But I’m running a business here, and people have expectations—critics, investors, so forth.” What’s a stolen pig in the eyes of backers and customers with high expectations?
Everything. Cage takes the reins at this point, leading Derek down a path of questioning that ends when he’s faced with his heart’s desire: To open an English pub and put liver Scotch eggs, served with a honey curry mustard, on the menu. It’s patient work on Rob’s part, breaking down Derek’s barriers. At first, every answer he gives sounds rehearsed, as if he’s on autopilot repeating a financier’s pitch instead of making an original thought. Is this the kind of cooking he likes? “It’s cutting edge! It’s very exciting.” Pressed on that response, he defers to the packed dining room. “Everybody loves it.” Derek’s cracks start to show right away, though when Rob asks him if he likes cooking this particular style of cuisine, his reply—“Absolutely!”—reads as sincere.
Here, Knell furrows his brow, as if Derek can’t comprehend why Rob would even ask, because Derek fundamentally is at odds with himself. The restaurant is a hit, as the lunch crowd proves, and he probably does enjoy cooking the food. But that isn’t the same thing as satisfaction, and it sure as hell isn’t the same thing as cooking his food, his way. “Liver Scotch eggs with a honey curry mustard.” Knell ejaculates that line like Derek’s been clenching down on it for, well, as long as Rob’s been off the scene, and bursts into maniacal, wheezing laughter. He smiles. Sarnoski frames him at center, each of Knell’s bared teeth fully exposed to the viewer, who may be undecided whether he’s about to break down in tears or lunge at Cage’s throat.
Knell teeters intentionally between heartbreaking and terrifying. To watch a man rent asunder with simple words is, after all, startling, even when the man is Derek, who we’re meant to perceive as an antagonist (such as Pig is all that interested in depicting characters in these terms). But Knell reveals Derek’s humanity with a truly breathtaking emotional range, and covers that range in the scene’s five-minute duration; then, without saying “bye,” he exits stage right and we don’t hear from him again. His moment doesn’t fade away, though. Frankly, his exchange demonstrates the power of a clutch supporting performance. There’s nothing flashy about what Knell’s doing here, no vanity or showboating, just focused, high-strung naturalism.
Derek is the type of role easily overlooked on account of brevity. It takes a certain actor to not only see the potential in that brevity, but realize it. Knell is a certain actor. In this way, he’s sort of a spiritual cousin to Clifton Collins Jr., who, like Knell, has gravitated toward small parts throughout his career: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Honey Boy, Tigerland, Traffic, Pacific Rim, Extract. Like Knell, he’s traditionally a bit player, albeit with a higher profile. He’s a “that guy” actor, someone whose name may not ring a bell but whose face gets the church tower a-clanging. But Collins has stepped into larger parts, too, most notably Perry Smith in Capote opposite Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and in Westworld, playing the “host” Lawrence.
This makes his involvement in Clint Bentley’s feature debut, Jockey, a professional incongruity, but not one without benefits. “That guy” he may be, but his ubiquity fosters familiarity; audiences will likely recognize him, and in recognizing him they’ll associate a broad, variable range of sensations with his presence. He’s played so many characters in so many different types of movies over the years that what he brings to Jockey will inevitably lie in the eye of the beholder. That might sound like a curse. For Bentley and Collins’ purposes it’s a boon that facilitates complexity. Collins plays the lead, Jackson Silva, a worn-out old horseman living each day one at a time, his body’s sell-by date long past. Winning’s what fuels him, and a desire for glory, accolades, the love of the crowd.
But winning is exhausting, and trying to win is even more so. Collins looks bowed and drawn thin throughout most of Jockey, leaning heavily into Jackson’s age. This isn’t exactly a movie about growing old in the field, even though it’s clarified more than once that Jackson’s getting up there in years. It’s about the ravages his work takes on his flesh and spirit. The latter’s willing. The former’s dinged and dented. Collins, for lack of a kinder word, looks like hell. It isn’t until newcomer Gabriel (Moises Arias) confronts Jackson with paternity revelations that Collins lets himself risk a little bit of warmth. Is it likely Gabriel is actually Jackson’s son? Does it matter? Jockey life means expecting the unexpected and preparing for worst-case scenarios; Gabriel is definitely unexpected, but he’s not the worst case by a mile.
Jockey sits adjacent to “great man” cinema, character studies about tormented geniuses who don’t play well with others and readily sacrifice everything in the pursuit of greatness. Jackson sacrifices himself. Don’t call him a genius, either. He’s a rider. It’s in his blood, plain as can be. Collins finds modesty in the character’s identity rather than narcissistic martyrdom, playing Jackson as a regular Joe who only wants one more win before he hangs up his dress boots and breeches for good. Think of Jockey as a “working man” fable, where the working man’s hunger to achieve is muddled by reality’s snap intervention. The success Jackson craves clashes with his wish to be a better dad (or dad figure) to Gabriel than his own dad was to him, an interior conflict that Collins communicates, again, with weariness.
Even then, he maintains Jackson’s humble quality, the trait that defines him above all else. Most would describe a performance like this as “soulful.” Collins does have soul, of this there’s no doubt, but that soulfulness is so couched in a broad expanse of humanity—self-doubt, self-loathing, traces of ego, melancholy, honest pride—that it stays muted in the background. Think of that as Collins’ greatest accomplishment in Jockey: He’s so confident in his portrayal that he suppresses the impulse to give in to the easier impulse. Anyone could make Jackson soulful because “soulful” comes cheap.
Not many, however, could give him as many faces as Collins, who reaches deep into his “that guy” experience to pull together one of 2021’s most thoughtful lead performances. Nor could many actors alter the entire wavelength of a movie in a single scene, as Knell does in Pig. But this is what it means to be a supporting actor: To live in a scene, a single moment, so fully that your moment leaves a crater on the rest of the picture.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.