Six Damn Fine Degrees #28: Bill Camp

I admit I am probably slightly more name-driven when it comes to picking my movies. Plus, if there is a face popping up in several different genres, I might get hooked. Bill Camp seems to pop up in very diverse movies; it is really rather ironic that, for all the various genres, he often plays an unlikable character, or at least one with an impossible task or a hidden agenda. I have never consciously seen him cheerful or happy or anywhere near exuberant. It is to his credit that I never thought of him as anywhere near typecast. Speaks to the quality of his acting.

The first time I spotted him was in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), where he and his wife (Elizabeth Marvel, who is also married to him in real life) play an outspoken racist couple who are disgusted with Honest Abe for wanting to end slavery and berate him in his own office while be patiently listens to their complaints. That I can’t remember him being in 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) is testament to his ability to disappear into a role or maybe to my not paying attention. Camp and Marvel are both theater actors, and I have the sudden urge to travel back in time and seen them on stage.

And then there was The Night of (2016), where he plays Sergeant Dennis Box, a man who just knows that the young guy (Riz Ahmed) in his prison cell might be innocent, but has something to hide, and by God, Box will get it out of him. It is a lean, almost sparse performance, but he gets under the young man’s skin, getting closer and closer about what happened that night. The young guy’s lawyer (John Turturro) knows Box and his methods and calls him a ‘subtle beast’, which is also the name of one of the episodes. One thing that Box and Camp have in common is that, if something can be said in six words, they’d rather use four words and make you guess the other two.

I want to tell you about his few cameos, scattered and unexpected, in HBO’s excellent The Leftovers (2015-2017), but those you will have to discover for yourself. They should surprise you, in a series that is full of surprises and unexpected turns. The Leftovers is so good that Camp turning up is the cherry on top of all the good storytelling. The next feature he surprised me in with his appearance was in Skin (2018), where he plays a charismatic, hateful father figure to a group of neo-nazis; he can rile them up or make them calm down, whatever he needs from them.

After a smaller role in Joker (2019), he is the taciturn janitor in The Queen’s Gambit (2020), who has the very good or very bad suggestion that young Beth should play a game of chess with him. He does not teach her a lot, he just unearths the talent already in her, unwittingly so, but he teaches her when a game is over, when to soldier on, and when to surrender. At some point, he tells her: “You’ve got what it costs.” He could have told her that she has got what it takes, but that is not the same thing. Look at him when he says that. He knows more than he lets on.

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