The Best Performance in a Wes Anderson Film From Each of His Regular Cast Members

With ‘Asteroid City’ now on Peacock, let’s salute the actors who keep showing up in the director’s movies
The Best Performance in a Wes Anderson Film From Each of His Regular Cast Members

When Wes Anderson announces a new film, the question isn’t simply what it’s going to be about, but who will be in it. Over the course of 11 films, he hasn’t just mastered a meticulous visual style but assembled a troupe of actors who keep popping up in his fanciful worlds. By this point, they’re like old friends, a comforting face to guide us into Anderson’s stories — so much so that it can be jarring when one of those familiar presences isn’t there. Hence many people’s confusion when word got out that Asteroid City, now streaming on Peacock, wouldn’t feature Bill Murray, who had been in every Anderson film save for his 1996 debut, Bottle Rocket. We don’t just go to Anderson’s movies to get lost in his gorgeous environments — we go to see his regular stable of collaborators do their thing.

With that in mind, I decided to highlight 11 actors who have appeared in at least five of Anderson’s flicks, picking each performer’s best role. As a warning, some people who you think might be in this rundown aren’t: Jeff Goldblum has only popped up in four films, and Luke Wilson (who was central to Anderson’s early movies) hasn’t been in one since The Royal Tenenbaums. I’ll start with the eight actors who appeared in five films and then work my way up from there. You can probably guess which person has been in the most.

Click right here to get the best of Cracked sent to your inbox.

Eric Chase Anderson

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Kristofferson Silverfox, Fantastic Mr. Fox 

Sometimes, Wes Anderson likes to keep it in the family. His younger brother Eric, who’s also an illustrator responsible for the cover art for Wes’ Criterion Collection editions of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, has done small parts in his sibling’s films. But his most memorable role was in Fantastic Mr. Fox, in which he provides the voice of Mr. Fox’s precocious nephew Kristofferson, who’s an amazing athlete recruited to be part of Mr. Fox’s heist crew. 

There’s a dry matter-of-factness to Eric’s performance — he even sounds slightly like his big bro — that’s very winning, serving as the perfect counterpoint to George Clooney’s grandiose, big-talking Mr. Fox. (He’s also quite funny juxtaposed with Jason Schwartzman as Mr. Fox’s underachieving, insecure son Ash, who feels threatened by this serenely confident outsider who’s infiltrated his home.)

Bob Balaban

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: The Narrator, Moonrise Kingdom 

Character actor, writer and director Bob Balaban is one of those performers who instantly makes anything he’s in better, whether it’s playing the uptight NBC chief who greenlights Jerry’s show about nothing in Seinfeld or being wryly hilarious in Christopher Guest mockumentaries

His first appearance in a Wes Anderson film was Moonrise Kingdom, in which he plays the narrator who lays out the location and time period for what is about to unfold. Balaban has appeared in each of Anderson’s movies since, usually signing up for fairly small supporting roles. He always adds a touch of classy gravitas, but it would be great if the director could find something a little more substantial for Balaban to do.

Adrien Brody

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Julien Cadazio, The French Dispatch 

Wes Anderson has been a boon to the Oscar-winner, whose career since The Pianist has arguably had more valleys than peaks. Adrien Brody was a revelation in The Darjeeling Limited, playing one of the three depressed brothers at the center of the story, but in subsequent Anderson films he’s often delivered off-kilter comedic performances that he wasn’t being offered elsewhere. 

My favorite is in The French Dispatch, where he’s Julien, an ethically slippery art dealer who’s landed in prison for failing to pay his taxes. That’s where he meets the deeply disturbed criminal Moses (Benicio del Toro), who’s a murderer but also maybe a master painter. This smooth-talking schemer has plans to make Moses a household name — and himself rich. Brody has often played earnest or intense in other people’s films, but Anderson has unleashed a delightfully playful and quirky side to the actor. He’s never been more charming on screen than when he’s in front of Anderson’s camera.

Willem Dafoe

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Rat, Fantastic Mr. Fox 

The Oscar-nominated actor has made a habit out of playing bad guys, and he serves a similar function in several Wes Anderson films. The best of the bunch was Rat in the stop-motion movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, which took full advantage of Willem Dafoe’s slinky, malevolent voice. As Mr. Fox’s adversary, Dafoe practically coos his every line as Rat enjoys taunting him — especially while making inappropriate comments about Mr. Fox’s wife. In Dafoe’s live-action performances, he’ll often go to bugged-eyed extremes to convey his characters’ wickedness. But here, it’s all in his seductive, antagonistic line readings — Rat is as sharp and deadly as the switchblade he loves to brandish. 

Anjelica Huston

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Etheline Tenenbaum, The Royal Tenenbaums 

Etheline cannot help herself: She knows she’s over her lousy ex-husband Royal (Gene Hackman), and yet, after all these years, she still has a soft spot for the scoundrel. Anjelica Huston brings a regal grace to Wes Anderson’s movies, her characters often a pillar of stability and sober reason amidst the immaturity and foolishness around them. As the wise, long-suffering matriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums, Huston radiated a maternal warmth for her dysfunctional children while falling in love with her loyal accountant Henry (Danny Glover), allowing herself to find a little happiness in a family in which such joy is rarely sustained. Whereas other members of Anderson’s acting troupe are often comedic, Huston is frequently called upon to be the calm grownup — she’s lovely in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Edward Norton

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Scout Master Ward, Moonrise Kingdom  

It’s awfully tempting to pick Edward Norton’s spot-on Owen Wilson impression from Saturday Night Live’s very funny Wes Anderson spoof, but since we’re focusing on actual films, I’m going with the actor’s first appearance in the Anderson Cinematic Universe. As Scout Master Ward in Moonrise Kingdom, the Oscar-nominated actor got to lighten up a little, showing off a comedic side that’s not frequently on display. Funny enough, though, he’s actually playing a tightly-wound individual, running his troop like a drill sergeant and demanding these kids keep their campground immaculate. 

There’s an endearing combination of golly-gee naivety and hardass disciplinarian in Ward, and considering that Norton usually depicts streetwise types, it was incredibly rewarding to watch him just be a big dork. Since then, he’s portrayed lawmen and playwrights in Anderson’s work, but here he’s so damn lovable — like a literal overgrown boy scout, you might say. 

Tilda Swinton

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Madame D., The Grand Budapest Hotel 

Tilda Swinton is one of our best actors, which is why it’s a shame she’s never had a really great role in a Wes Anderson film. She seems more than happy to doodle in the margins, usually portraying an eccentric who has wild hair or a funny accent. The Oscar-winner can do much more than that, of course, but she’s clearly just enjoying herself in his fantastical worlds, and who can begrudge her? 

If I had to pick her best role, I’d go with Madame D., the elderly, anxious, rich widow being romanced by Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s not a meaty role — the character is essentially an excuse to get the plot rolling — but Swinton (who loves disguising herself in makeup) is very funny playing someone so geriatric and feeble, hilariously close to death who, wouldn’t you know, shuffles off this mortal coil early in the movie. 

Wally Wolodarsky

Number of Films: 5
Best Performance: Kylie, Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wally Wolodarsky is not primarily known for acting: Actually, he’s one of the most important writers from the early years of The Simpsons, working with partner Jay Kogen on beloved episodes like “Last Exit to Springfield.” But he and Wes Anderson are buddies, and so Wolodarsky often does bit parts in his friend’s movies. 

The highlight is Fantastic Mr. Fox, in which he was cast as the voice of Kylie, a nervous pal of Mr. Fox who gets talked into helping him with his crime wave. In the Ocean’s films, George Clooney’s Danny Ocean was paired with cool bros like Brad Pitt, but here, the best he can hope for is a not-very-bright opossum who has an odd habit of staring blankly when Mr. Fox is trying to talk to him. Kylie might be Fantastic Mr. Fox’s most underrated comedic character, and Wolodarsky’s amusingly hemming-and-hawing voice performance is a big reason why. 

Jason Schwartzman

Number of Films: 7
Best Performance: Augie Steenbeck, Asteroid City 

This is probably a controversial pick. Why not go with Max Fischer in Rushmore, the  iconic comedy that launched his film career? I also think he’s wonderful as Ash, the sad-sack son in Fantastic Mr. Fox. But I think Jason Schwartzman’s work in Wes Anderson’s latest is the best thing he’s done. He plays Augie, a war photographer and widowed father reeling from the death of his wife, taking his children to Asteroid City and falling for a melancholy actress with her own baggage (Scarlett Johansson). 

Fifteen years after Rushmore, Schwartzman is once again center stage in an Anderson film, far more nuanced as an actor now and able to convey a closed-off man grappling with grief and a life he can barely manage. That Schwartzman is able to make such a despairing soul funny as well is even more impressive. Technically, Schwartzman is doing two characters in Asteroid City — he’s also the New York actor Jones, who’s playing Augie in the TV production within the movie — but as good as the other role is, it’s Augie’s wistful spirit that you’ll think more about in the days after. 

Owen Wilson

Number of Films: 7
Best Performance: Eli Cash, The Royal Tenenbaums

Tempted as I was to go with his performance in Bottle Rocket (where he’s really funny) or The Darjeeling Limited (where he’s really heartbreaking), I give the slight edge to The Royal Tenenbaums, simply because his portrayal of Eli Cash is just perfect. You get different aspects of the Owen Wilson persona here: the pompous artist, the utter dolt and the sweet heartthrob. As a self-important author who has spent his life trying to impress the snooty Tenenbaum family, all the while harboring a crush on adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), Wilson is funny and vulnerable in equal measure. 

Also, The Royal Tenenbaums would be the last time he’d work on the script for one of Anderson’s films, the two men getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. (Anderson and Wilson had also collaborated on Bottle Rocket and Rushmore.) Friends since college, they have enjoyed the most long-lasting of any of Anderson’s ongoing acting partnerships, although Wilson has been plenty busy on his own in recent years thanks to projects like Loki.  

Bill Murray

Number of Films: 9
Best Performance: Herman Blume, Rushmore 

If not for COVID, Bill Murray would have been in Asteroid City, his 10th Wes Anderson production. (Steve Carell took his place, although the Tom Hanks role seems far more Murray-esque.) No actor is more associated with Anderson’s brand of hip, slyly sad filmmaking, and early on Murray helped give the young director a stature, lending his star power to Anderson’s second feature, Rushmore. In return, Anderson gave Murray his second act: No longer the lead in broad studio comedies, the Ghostbusters actor transitioned to more seriocomic fare, becoming a character actor who pursued emotionally nuanced material. Soon, Murray would get an Oscar nomination for Lost in Translation and critical acclaim for the Jim Jarmusch indie Broken Flowers. None of that would have happened without Rushmore.

In the film, he plays Herman Blume, an adrift middle-aged industrialist who finds very little to enjoy about life. He befriends ambitious young Max Fischer, serving as a mentor of sorts to the angry young man — all the while falling for the teacher Max adores, Rosemary (Olivia Williams). Rushmore established the Murray template he’d further hone over the next several years: the melancholy failure who realizes things haven’t quite worked out. Variations of the character would pop up in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. In the process, Anderson found his muse, and Murray found a new creative direction.

All these years later, it’s easy to dismiss Murray’s remarkable transformation as nothing more than a shtick he’d repeat ad nauseam. But for a while, it felt fresh and exciting. And Rushmore is where it first took flight.  

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?