The Definitive Ranking of Wes Anderson’s Players

Across 11 films, the beloved director has often returned to the same famous faces. Let’s examine which of your favorite actors has been utilized within the Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe the best.

The Definitive Ranking of Wes Andersons Players

Photographs: Everett Collection; Collage: Gabe Conte

From the beginning of his career, casting has been Wes Anderson’s greatest strength. He’s had an incredible trajectory, graduating from his roots of simply using the performers available to him within a three block radius of the flop house on Throckmorton Street in Dallas he was sharing with similarly broke friends (including Owen Wilson, and occasionally his little brother Luke) when he made a short film about two Texas shitheels suffering from terminal ennui who half-heartedly take up a life of crime.

Then he somehow cajoled James Caan to come on for a few scenes as an antagonist in the feature-length treatment of that short, Bottle Rocket, purely off its performance at Sundance. With each subsequent project, Anderson raised his game, the stakes, and the world-building of his films as his star tonnage increased impossibly and exponentially: He discovered Jason Schwartzman, he resuscitated Bill Murray, he got the last truly great performance out of Gene Hackman, he got the best Gwyneth Paltrow performance to date. Some of the movies were great, some forgettable. All were meticulous scale models about characters swaddled in white privilege: a working-class, brilliant E.L. Konigsburg/Salinger worshiper’s idea of what a rich coastal family is like. And in each successive film, the call sheet would burn brighter than the last.

Anderson is a filmmaker who historically seems most comfortable around familiar faces, returning to the same actors over and over again, occasionally indoctrinating new faces into the fold and making them a part of the team. For the criticisms he’s faced as an icy and impersonal writer, he clearly has forged loyalty and enduring love among a community of actors he returns to time and time again.

Asteroid City (now available to stream on Peacock) may be the first time we’ve seen the inevitable stressors this case of “Too Many Guys” can have on even the most talented filmmaker. By packing his cast so deep, the obvious need to give, say, Steve Carell something to do in a film that should be closer to a four-hander challenges the nature of story structure itself. Anderson’s latest film suggests the clout of being able to get legends of screen to stand in as glorified extras for his films is threatening to swallow his work whole.

What we here at GQ decided to examine was Anderson’s facility as a Pat Riley–esque executive, not just at procuring superstars, but how effectively they’ve been utilized across his 11 films. A brief aside on methodology: We set the bar at a minimum of two Anderson films to qualify. To be clear, this ranking is not an evaluation of general talent, but facility within the Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe.

So, friends, throw on your go-to, well-tailored summer seersucker suit, grab a rum cannonball, and let’s dive deep into Wes Anderson’s wide world of brilliant friends and coworkers.

25. Harvey Keitel

Films (3): Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs
Best Role: Moonrise Kingdom
Notes: Scorsese’s first muse, the Bad Lieutenant himself, merely played a Boy Scout commander and a prisoner sight gag with a handful of lines. Jay-Z contributed more to “Pop Style” than Keitel has to Anderson’s films. A crying shame.

24. Bob Balaban

Films (5): Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: Moonrise Kingdom
Notes: It’s insane the great Bob Balaban has been in five Wes Anderson movies with so little to do—his contribution to The French Dispatch is just two scenes sitting on a couch. That’s it.

23. Liev Schreiber

Films (3): Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: Isle of Dogs
Notes: Schreiber is basically the second lead in Anderson’s weakest film, Isle of Dogs. But he’s an actual liability in Asteroid City, whose side plot contributes little besides a distraction from the main story of two families struggling with grief and loss.

22. Waris Ahluwalia

Films (3): The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Role: The Darjeeling Limited
Notes: Ahluwalia appears briefly in three Anderson films, most significantly in Darjeeling as a persnickety dickhead cuckold train conductor. A great beard attached to a great face that deserved more to do.

21. Seu Jorge

Films (2): Life Aquatic, Asteroid City
Best Role: Life Aquatic
Notes: In many ways, the Brazilian singer-songwriter is the most interesting part of Life Aquatic. But then again, Seu Jorge singing Bowie is pretty hard to fuck up.

20. Bryan Cranston

Films (2): Isle of Dogs, Asteroid City
Best Role: Isle of Dogs
Notes: There isn’t really a lead in Isle of Dogs, but if you had to pick one, it would probably be Cranston, which is how he leaps ahead of a few actors on this list (particularly Balaban). His role in Asteroid City is essentially a reprisal of the Balaban role in Moonrise Kingdom, complete with a fourth-wall-breaking episode as the Our Town stage manager, appropriate for a film that borrows much more from Wilder than Moonrise did—but Balaban’s part was meatier.

19. Brian Cox

Films (2): Rushmore, Fantastic Mr. Fox
Best Role: Rushmore
Notes: A single line in Mr. Fox qualifies Brian Cox for this list, but he deserves it for his role in Rushmore as yet another irritable loving-yet-admonishing force in Max Fischer’s life. His performance when he’s disturbed from a coma by the voice of his life antagonist is alone worthy of inclusion.

18. Kara Hayward

Films (2): Moonrise Kingdom, Isle of Dogs
Best Role: Moonrise Kingdom
Notes: A bit role in Dogs gets her here. You could be forgiven for noting Hayward’s wardrobe and makeup and concluding her character Suzy is a cut-and-paste job from The Royal Tenenbaums, little Margot plucked from the Upper West Side and plopped down on a remote island off the New England coast. But Suzy isn’t that. She’s allowed to be vulnerable and goofy and childlike in a way few Anderson children had been permitted to be before, alongside her goofy and vulnerable love interest. This is both the strength and weakness of the character, a refreshing change up for the director who likes his kids as small adults, precocious and turned cold by trauma, but also makes for an occasionally grating and somewhat clunky performance on rewatches.

17. Frances McDormand

Films (2): Moonrise Kingdom, The French Dispatch
Best Role:The French Dispatch
Notes: McDormand is more or less wasted in Moonrise as a wife unfaithful to Bill Murray with Bruce Willis’s dull but surprisingly soulful Captain Sharp. In Dispatch she owns the second vignette as a journalist married to her career, serving as an inspiration and guiding spirit of a student protest—and as a sexual tutor and editor to Timothée Chalamet’s Zeffirelli. Anderson tends to utilize McDormand as a hard-barked intellectual saddled with an elusive yearning for physical touch who demands satisfaction.

16. Tilda Swinton

Films (5): Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: The French Dispatch
Notes: In Matt Zoller Seitz’s addendum to his Anderson Collection dedicated specifically to Grand Budapest, Wes Anderson sums up Swinton’s performance in both Moonrise and Budapest: “Her character(s)…are meant to be real people, and human characters. But at the same time, you could say they’re something else.” Across five films Swinton is wacky, chameleonic, heavy on makeup, prosthetics, and accents. The best of the bunch is probably the Aspbergery, flighty, New York art world type who serves as a narrator for the Benecio Ddel Toro vignette in French Dispatch.

15. Edward Norton

Films (5): Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: Moonrise Kingdom
Notes: Norton is a kind of demarcating line between movements in Anderson’s career. He has quietly become a staple player for Anderson, showing up in every film he’s made since debuting in Moonrise Kingdom. In that film he’s a hapless Boy Scout detective-protector; in Grand Budapest he’s a uniformed jackboot with a semblance of humanity. Anderson most often casts Norton as an authority figure, a perfect subject for Anderson to stuff in uniform and lend authority. He’s a classic Anderson character: the helpless automaton, futilely attempting to impose the illusion of control on havoc.

14. Kumar Pallana & Seymour Cassel

Films (4)/(3): Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited / Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic
Best Role: The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore
Notes: These actors work in tandem because they serve largely the same roles in the early Anderson films. They’re the believable support and cuddly hearts of their films, Sancho Panza–types who endear us to the films’ protagonists for their loyalty to each other.

One of the punch lines of Bottle Rocket is Pallana, an expert safecracker who’s totally full of shit and has no clue what he’s doing; it’s a gag that helped Anderson unlock his approach to both this film and the rest of his filmography. If Anderson wrote one of these parts again, it would probably go to, say, Denzel Washington or Al Pacino.

13. Saoirse Ronan

Films (2): The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch
Best Role: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Notes: A perhaps surprisingly high placement given the body of work and screen time, but Ronan is a natural for Anderson, able to deliver the writer-director’s lines while retaining an individuality and warmth only one other actor near the very top of this list is capable of. In Grand Budapest, her Agatha, a pastry chef with a Mexico-shaped birthmark on her cheek, is lovely in limited minutes, and she needs to be to convey the lost love and accompanying melancholy that haunts Zero Mustafa and the film. We believe it.

12. Willem Dafoe

Films (5): Life Aquatic, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: The Life Aquatic
Notes: Like Swinton, Dafoe is of a piece in Anderson’s universe, up for anything no matter how bizarre or extreme. Anderson has narrowly interpreted Dafoe’s rather infinitely dynamic talent as menacing, a pit bull henchman thug loyal to his master, be it for “good” (as Klaus in Aquatic) or evil (as Rat in Fox and Jopling in Grand Budapest).

11. Jeff Goldblum

Films (4): The Life Aquatic, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs, Asteroid City
Best Role: The Life Aquatic
Notes: The quirky king of idiosyncratic line delivery was an obvious fit for Anderson and has been a core player for nearly 20 years. He gets ample space to be “Goldblum” as an obnoxious ex in Life Aquatic, but never really gets the screen time deserving of his talents again. What’s frustrating is the sense of possibility and opportunity. Like we could say about nearly every actor on this list, but particularly the top 10, how incredible would an Anderson vehicle written specifically for Jeff Goldblum be?

10. Michael Gambon

Films (2): The Life Aquatic, The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Best Role: The Life Aquatic
Notes: Only two credits, but the great Brit does the two registers of (non-Harry Potter) Gambon schtick that made him legendary: the benevolent money guy in Life Aquatic and the scheming arch-thug in Fox. His accent with that cigar and bacon fat voice oozes authority and makes him a natural Anderson player, but for some reason he never returns.

9. F. Murray Abraham & Tony Revolori

Films (2)/(3): The Grand Budapest Hotel, Isle of Dogs / The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Notes: Lumping the old legend Abraham with the upstart Revolori may be scandalous. Both follow Grand Budapest with bit parts in subsequent Anderson films, but they’ll always be linked in the hearts and minds of Wes heads as the Kate Winslett–Gloria Stuart audience surrogate battery at the heart of his best film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The performances are halves of a whole, and need to pick each other up for the part, and the film, to work. And they do.

8. Jeffrey Wright

Films: The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: The French Dispatch
Notes: Probably the most difficult placement on the list. He’s the heart and soul of The French Dispatch, an expat Baldwin figure who drives home the power and message of the film, as well as the justifiable love it has for Bill Murray’s editor-patriarch. But his screen time is up against a bunch of players with starring roles.

7. Scarlett Johansson

Films (2): Isle of Dogs, Asteroid City
Best Role: Asteroid City
Notes: A very logical addition to the troupe. Johansson is at her best when offering flat affect, an impossible and unapproachable goddess, drained of emotion. Asteroid City is, essentially, a duet between her and Schwartzman. As Midge Campbell, a Marilyn Monroe type, she’s both cold and alluring, gorgeous and captivating.

6. Adrien Brody

Films (5): The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: Grand Budapest Hotel
Notes: You run out of ways to say an actor was “made for Wes Anderson,” but just look at his delicate, aristocratic features, his angular frame, his voice. His first Anderson role begins with him outsprinting Bill Murray for a train, then splitting the rest of the film in thirds with Anderson’s two other core actors. The obvious symbolism and general assumption would be that Brody was being tapped to become Anderson’s new leading man and muse.

It didn’t end up working out that way, which is perhaps for the best. Brody isn’t quite as far out there as Dafoe and Swinton, but occupies a space closer to the margin than the center, down to add color and play broad, funny supporting characters in subsequent efforts. It’s why his profane, jilted gangster brat in Grand Budapest—comfortably insulting Ralph Fiennes as a “candy ass” in Europe in the 1930s—is my favorite performance of his. He’s violent, hilarious, and outrageous, playing against type and having a blast.

5. Anjelica Huston

Films (5): The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch
Best Role: The Royal Tenenbaums
Notes: The women in Anderson’s early films were often the same archetype: an idealized, cryptic and beautiful object with dramatic eye makeup for men to project their damage onto and compete over.

Huston is the lone exception, the distant mother figure, not quite as remote and withholding as the rest of Anderson’s cavalcade of withholding and remote (often dead) parents. Anderson perfectly capitalizes on her gravitas, her royal cinematic bloodline, our relationship with her decades spanning equal parts severe and gorgeous image that demands a camera to capture it, as the estranged matriarch and ex-wife of his cinematic universe.

4. Luke Wilson

Films (3): Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums
Best Role: The Royal Tenenbaums
Notes: It’s somehow been 22 years since Wes Anderson has made a film with his first protagonist. Luke was the soul and early anchor of Anderson’s early films. If Owen Wilson comes off as a force of personality practically making you like him and follow his orders, Luke is the clinically depressed homecoming king. You inherently want to follow him and believe in his decency. In his masterpiece performance, he’s a broken fount of warmth and forgiveness, free from the petty resentments that plague the rest of his family, and yet the most fucked-up and damaged of them all. It’s one of the very best performances of the ’90s, and the third-best performance ever in an Anderson film.

3. Owen Wilson

Films (7): Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch
Best Role: Bottle Rocket
Notes: Anderson’s first writing partner. Wilson is one of the only actors that’s given rope to be consistently strange and surprising in his readings and deliveries, not beholden to what has become a kind of house acting style of soul-weary pain via loss delivered in monotone.

As Dignan in Bottle Rocket, he’s the source code for the Anderson cinematic universe, a moron trying to use the bonds of friendship and cobbled-together family to force order on chaos, even as he serves as a chaos agent upsetting the “natural” order of life. Dignan is a dictator along the lines of what Anderson has been characterized as on set, what you have to be to maintain his painterly frames (and characterized himself as in a classic AmEx commercial).

2. Bill Murray

Films (7): Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The French Dispatch
Best Role: Rushmore
Notes: Hard to say where Wes Anderson or Bill Murray would be in culture if either man hadn’t made the decision to gamble on one another in 1998 with Bottle Rocket. Murray took a 1990s SAG day rate, what Anderson estimates around $9,000 total for the film that would reimagine both the filmmaker and star’s career and lives.

No one captures the odd house blend of intellectual, articulate profanity like Murray, the deadpan melancholy. Either Anderson writes for him or he was made to deliver Anderson’s dialogue; at this point there’s no use in attributing merit to either men, it’s a symbiotic unit. Both dignified and coarse, pompous and absurd, a loving, selfish brute cutting through the pretensions and formality of polite society. Perhaps Anderson and Murray didn’t invent this archetype: the magnetic, irascible, irresistible father figure. But together (with an early assist from Gene Hackman), they perfected it.

1. Jason Schwartzman

Films (8): Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, Asteroid City
Best Role: Rushmore
Notes: The story goes that Wes Anderson had an uncastable demand, “a 15-year-old Mick Jagger” to play the role of Max Fischer, and he found one in Jason Schwartzman, a beauty marked, preternaturally confident adolescent with no prior credits. He is the swarthy, scrawny scion of the Coppola empire, making his debut in Rushmore. He’s an immediate star with immense power, packed into such a small frame.

Going into Asteroid City, crowning him the king of Anderson’s filmography over Bill Murray might’ve been an impossible toss-up. What ends up giving Schwartzman the nudge is with Anderson’s 11th film, you can watch the full circle of life journey of a person on film specifically through Anderson’s work, from ingenue eternal kid brother to hangdog, burnt-out, classic Anderson archetypal shitty dad. It’s like a version of fellow Texan Richard Linklater’s Boyhood told across eight films, 25 years and a lifetime.

He’s only been additive in his work with Anderson, both a perfect complement and star, able to hold his own in every shot, or chip in a joke and shuffle off. He’s cycled through every type of character in the Anderson universe with no signs of their creative partnership slowing down. He’s been the perfect team player.

Pop Culture

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Watch Luke Combs Shotguns Beers With Glen Powell & ‘Twisters’ Co-Stars at NJ Concert
Wolfgang in the Meadow
Summer Theatre Festivals Are Facing Big Challenges
How Lonnie Bunch Has Transformed The Smithsonian
Christina Hall’s HGTV Show Will Go On Without Josh Hall Amid Breakup