Marton Csokas Is Too Quiet To Forget
11:46 AM EDT on August 11, 2022
Welcome to Hey It's That Guy, a series celebrating a selection of character actors and spotlighting, in detail, the under-appreciated, singular traits that make them so indelible.
Marton Csokas isn’t the sole reason I wanted to begin this column, but I wouldn’t feel as much enthusiasm for it, and the role that character actors play in the entertainment industry, without him. A New Zealand performer of Hungarian descent, the 56-year-old Csokas typifies a certain type of cinematic familiar face: he is both immediately recognizable—handsome with sly eyes and a distinctive, sometimes mischievous smile that can easily and quickly turn into a foreboding scowl—and chronically typecast. In classic form, Csokas often plays the villain. His most prominent turns include Russian terrorist Yorgi in 2002’s daytime TNT mainstay xXx; the scientist-turned-medieval knight Willian Decker in 2003’s Timeline; vampire Jack Barts in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; and, opposite Denzel Washington’s avenging retiree, Nicolai “Teddy” Itchenko (also Russian) in The Equalizer. Exceptions to this trend include Csokas’s five seconds of screen time as an elf in the first two Lord of the Rings movies, and a turn as a medieval aristocrat in The Last Duel, which represented a small reunion between Csokas and Ridley Scott, who had previously cast Csokas in 2005’s Kingdom of Heaven.
I hope to explore various different strains of character actor in the future, but it felt fitting to start with someone of Csokas’s particular disposition: a drama school-trained performer whose wide-ranging skill is flattened by casting directors, at least in the kind of projects that get American attention, in favor of more simplistic, creatively narrow side roles. In lovingly curated but redundant lists of prominent character actors, a common thread is the preponderance of the role of the heavy. For non-American (and non-white) actors making their debut in big-budget films, the villain represents a limited, but potentially fruitful opportunity. The role naturally entails a fair amount of screen time and even if, as can be the case, they are a variation on the same kind of bad guy (Csokas is usually called upon to play a vaguely Eastern European character, when he’s not being his own weird brand of Russian), there is the chance to create someone memorable.
“Oddly memorable” could serve as a fitting if overly broad definition of the role a good character actor plays, not to be confused with “loudly distracting” or “kind of strange, I guess.” For Csokas, his most consistent and recognizable trait is his voice. He is almost always soft-spoken, the barest hint of a lilt lingering at the end of his words, less a tick than a flourish, one of those little trademarks you notice after watching enough of his performances. Words can sound like physical objects in his mouth, sometimes sticking, sometimes flowing, in clearly examined and intentional ways. This grants his characters more texture than your average bit part might require, the sense that they are something approaching three-dimensional, which, in turn, ripples out into the suspicion that Csokas is a much better actor than he is often called on to be.
Character actors instill a certain kind of loyalty in their fans and much of this has to do with their natural charisma, which manages to shine through no matter how generic their roles are. This applies to Csokas, who I’ve seen pop up as a breath of fresh air in some of the worst movies of the mid-aughts. But I first paid attention to him in The Bourne Supremacy, one of a motley cadre of films including Titanic and Moulin Rouge, that I watched on repeat as a kid. The entirety of the Bourne franchise is built upon a foundation of suspicion, which extends to each and every new person Jason Bourne interacts with. So, without much preamble, it was obvious that Csokas’s character could be, at best, an untrustworthy person. In truth, I liked Csokas immediately, as much as any celebrity at that time. I was drawn to his face and his voice and the almost unnervingly fluid way that he moved, and my overriding thought was that he should have been much more famous than he was.
Anyway, in The Bourne Supremacy, Csokas stars in a single scene as a Munich-based former covert operative named Jarda. Here, he’s dressed sort of like an early-aughts interior designer, with thick acetate glasses, fur-collared coat (Csokas is, for whatever reason, constantly wearing fur in his movies), and a dark suit. The entirety of this sequence lasts about five minutes and Csokas speaks for considerably less time than that, by turns unfortunate and easily memorized. Jason Bourne pays Jarda one of those classic break-in visits in which the hero is seeking some answers, dammit. Like any of Bourne’s attempts to glean information, their encounter quickly goes sour. After disarming a hidden gun and forcing Jarda to zip-tie his own wrists together, Bourne attempts an interrogation. Where Matt Damon is nervy, affecting danger and fear in his anxiousness, Csokas is still, alert but comfortable, speaking slowly, enunciating each word without belaboring it. When Bourne pushes Jarda over and demands an answer, Jarda responds pointedly, “I don’t know. Why would I lie?” Even if you know how the scene ends (badly for Jarda), you believe him.
Csokas has gone on record multiple times espousing a workmanlike sensibility when it comes to creating his characters, the Konstantin Stanislavski mode of acting employed in perhaps its most suitable capacity given that Stanislavski himself was a celebrated character actor. In the short time he has to make an impression, Csokas seems to prefer understatement to exaggeration, keen to carve out time for himself through silence and listening rather than Gary Oldman-style hyperactivity. Still, his choices can be striking for their finessed strangeness, never more apparent than when Csokas is doing any accent that isn’t his native New Zealand one.
The actor is often called upon, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say he’s allowed, to put on a variety of idiolects, with multiple chances at the same one over the span of his career. For instance, the subtle, not-quite-right Southern drawl he utilizes as a racist cop in Jeff Nichols’s 2016 biopic Loving is superficially similar, but leagues away from the melodramatic preaching he affects as a bloodthirsty baron in the 2015 AMC sci-fi martial arts show Into the Badlands. When his characters are nominally European, Csokas lays on a blend of what would seem to be British, German, and Russian, blanket coverage that actually feels plausible whenever he uses it and is never quite the same. This puts him among the likes of Guy Pearce and Bill Camp, similarly gifted performers who know when and when not to push certain vocal eccentricities in order to avoid full-on caricature.
It’s a frustrating tradeoff balancing hope that actors like Csokas will one day be given a lead role with the reality that their prolific work as side characters means they’ll have a steady, if underrated stream of work. The last time I watched Csokas onscreen before The Last Duel was when I rewatched the decent but forgotten 2010 film The Debt, about a team of Mossad agents tasked with capturing a Nazi war criminal in 1965. Tom Wilkinson, a reigning character actor in his own right, plays the modern day version of the same agent Csokas embodies in flashback. As one of the few Hollywood films where Csokas’s non-villainous role is supporting and not merely auxiliary, it showcases the actor’s dramatic talent and natural onscreen presence. Csokas cuts a debonair figure as the team’s leader, by turns authoritative and flawed. In a film that includes Jessica Chastain, Ciaran Hinds, and Helen Mirren all attempting some sort of effortful actorly gravitas, Csokas is the most assured and compelling, perhaps because he understands, as he has repeatedly shown throughout his career, that it is still possible to stand out in a larger ensemble, no matter the size of the role.
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