I didn't take to movies very well when I was little. My parents had to drag me screaming out of All Dogs Go to Heaven and Ghostbusters 2 because they scared me pretty badly (to be fair - I was a kid raised on Rocky and Bullwinkle then thrust into a dark room only to see this). So it must have come as some relief when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out and my dad announced happily that we were going to watch it on opening night. It's one of my favorite memories with me and my little brother whooping in joy and my parents grinning because of how happy we were to watch it.
I remember having fun with the film but aside from an endless parade of "Cowabunga" and spinning nunchaku little of the turtles stayed with me. Instead there was a guy, in just a handful of the screens, that brought the film out of product placement and catchphrase mode and grounded the film in something darker. This was Elias Koteas, speaking his lines with authority and grim humor, in the darkest scenes; the fire that consumed April's apartment, Ralph sitting bleeding in a tub, and, maybe the darkest, throwing the switch ("Ooops") that crushed Shredder. Those moments stuck with me and rewatching the film earlier today they stayed for good reason, Koteas has been giving genre films resonance for years.
He's also the first actor I ever noticed doing a good job and, though I wasn't aware of it, formed a benchmark for empathetic performances. His name in the credits assures us of at least one strong character fully embedded in the reality of whatever world he found himself in. Koteas has given resonance to great dramas like The Greatest Game Ever Played, thoughtful science fiction in Gattaca, and mind-bending thrillers like Shutter Island. It's sad that the term character actor is usually damning someone with faint praise (and you'll be seeing a lot of these sorts of folks on my appreciation pieces) because Koteas is so perfect at embodying these characters with empathy and weight in a variety of genres.
My deep respect for him was finally cemented when I started watching through all the films of Atom Egoyan. Egoyan, no stranger to messing with genres, found in Koteas a perfect performer for his creative stable. Those elliptical films needed a grounding agent and Koteas has always been a firm beacon in these films. But if he were just an expositional anchor I might not have cared as much. Instead, Koteas uses his firm presence as a way to blind side us into the well of emotion that binds Egoyan's characters together. In Exotica his seemingly pathetic growl over the loudspeaker serves as a dual purpose of keeping both the girls of the club safe and letting the men act out their emotional fantasy. Then, in one amazing moment, we see just how much he cares and sees, voice finally cracking, barely able to get out just how beautiful it is the way his once love is able to soothe a man so broken.
Koteas was in my memory before that moment, but afterward he has stayed just as close to what I've grown to love about cinema. Empathy, above all else, is important to me and he is a performer who has never lacked it in his characters. Check out a Koteas film and you'll see just how much an actor can make you feel.