Stanley Tucci Is The Greatest American Character Actor

Area of Expertise is a column on niche interests, personal passions, and other things we might know or care a little too much about.

Stanley Tucci is the best working American character actor, a designation I foist upon him with the utmost respect. He is recognized yet underappreciated; though his long nose, bald head, and rich voice are distinct, his roles are not. He remains the kind of actor who elicits in most viewers the question “Where do I know that guy from?”

Depending on your age, or Netflix algorithm, there might be dozens of potential answers, thanks to Tucci’s unfailing gameness to inhabit any filmic world: Tucci was the irascible lawyer won over by Mark Ruffalo’s dogged journalist in Spotlight; the frighteningly well-coiffed host of the murderous reality TV spectacle in the Hunger Games series; and the wizard Merlin, inexplicably, in Transformers: The Last Knight. He also picked up an Oscar nomination — for Supporting Actor, of course — for 2009’s The Lovely Bones, playing a serial killer. Tucci’s career has been long and varied enough to inspire a recent, uncharacteristically creative music video sketch on Saturday Night Live in which Pete Davidson, costumed in Lil Pump–esque braids and bling, announced his membership in the “Tucci Gang.”

I’m convinced that the largest number of people recognize Tucci from his role in The Devil Wears Prada, a movie that has enjoyed a powerful resilience in our cultural consciousness, even 12 years after its release. Seemingly anyone born between 1982 and 1995, of any gender and creed, can find something to like in the film, whether it’s the clothes or Meryl or the glossy refraction of the contemporary American dream: suffering through a creative-class internship that might lead to career advancement.

Or, if you’re like me, that something is Tucci, who is there in the periphery, playing the wise fashion-magazine elder to Anne Hathaway’s ingenue. Tucci’s character, Nigel, is the ultimate stifled artist, ever deferent to Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly and her exacting vision. As the film goes on, he becomes a tragic figure, resigned to his subordinate place in the fashion hierarchy — a role he imbues with poise and composure, hard-edged and steely from years under Miranda’s shadow, yet with humanity enough to extend a hand to Hathaway’s Andy.

This is my favorite of Tucci’s supporting roles, in part because it so neatly synthesizes the arc of his career. Nigel, the life-long second fiddle to another person’s genius, mirrors Tucci, the life-long scene-stealer supporting other people’s starring roles. He’s so good as Nigel because he is Nigel — always in the corner, working diligently with the little bit of screentime he’s been allotted.

But, in fact, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Because when Tucci’s not appearing in other people’s movies (or writing cookbooks, or owning restaurants — food being his other creative outlet) he’s writing and directing his own. All that work in the trenches, all that time wearing fake chompers and blue hair for The Hunger Games, has been in service of his own art. It’s the John Cassavetes model of paying for your passion projects with paychecks from others’ work, and there may be no greater contemporary practitioner than Tucci.

Tucci’s latest directorial effort (and the first he hasn’t starred in himself) is Final Portrait, a quiet movie about the painter Alberto Giacometti, starring Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer, that’s been in the works for no less than 13 years. But his best known and loved is probably Big Night, from 1996.

Big Night is the story of two Italian immigrant brothers and their struggling Italian restaurant, located somewhere on the Jersey Shore, sometime in the 1950s. Tucci is Secondo, responsible for the restaurant’s front of house, and Tony Shalhoub is Primo, the restaurant’s perfectionist chef, incensed that the “philistine” American patrons of his restaurant don’t like his risotto. Secondo implores compromise, while Primo refuses on the grounds of culinary purity, and this tension is the core of the film’s conflict.

The titular evening occurs when the brothers’ competitor, an incurious lout named Pascal who operates a significantly more successful low-brow Italian joint down the block, throws Secondo a lifeline by inviting his pal, the crooner Louis Prima, to come by for a meal at the restaurant. Convinced that the publicity from this occasion will finally boost their restaurant’s popularity, Secondo and Primo exhaust their meager remaining funds to host an unforgettable dinner party for their circle of friends and acquaintances.

But, as the night wears on and the courses pass, it becomes clear that Prima is not coming. Pascal admits to Secondo that the invite was a lie, with the intention of bankrupting the brothers, and this, in turn, leads to a cascade of further revelations: Secondo’s girlfriend realizes that he has been having an affair with Pascal’s wife; Secondo realizes that Primo has been considering returning to Rome to work for their uncle; Primo and Secondo realize that, after years of hard work, they have failed at their goal of building a life for themselves in the US.

Big Night is a small, endearing movie, and repeated viewings reveal Shalhoub as the true center of the story. He’s an object lesson in the danger of slavish artistic inflexibility, yet also something of an aspirational figure.

The movie ends the morning after the big dinner, with Secondo cooking some eggs in the restaurant’s kitchen and Primo entering, looking shaken and vacant. Not a word is spoken throughout the entire scene, shot as a single, long take. It may seem at first a harsh ending — there is no deus ex machina for the brothers and their dreams. But it shows that there is value in making something and sharing it, even if that something is an omelet and not an elaborate meal. It says that there is redemption in an act of creation, even if the thing you are creating is a compromise, not great itself but in service of something greater.

It’s a fitting subject for Tucci the auteur, perhaps the only one he’s ever had. And, in both his career as an actor and his tenacity as a creator, he has proved out the truth of this subject. He makes others’ films, and, when time and money allows, he makes his own. When faced with the constraints of the world — including the inherent tension between art and commerce — Tucci doesn’t buckle or bray. He gets to work, and makes what he can. ●