It doesn’t take a lot of spoken words to make a movie or a role great. Ever since the early days of film, it was the images that have been the most important pieces of a film, not the words. While many filmmakers are unable to present meaning without using speech, there are still many films that say a lot with characters who say very little. Some of the best performances in the history of film have had few spoken lines.
That being said, most of the more silent performances these days are due to characters that have some form of speech impairment. It’s rare to find characters that are relatively silent by choice, especially when the actors playing them are megastars. It seems to be counterproductive to sign on a huge star and then silence them in the script. Yet, most of those silencing decisions, at least the ones on this list, worked out extremely well. It stands to reason that if a character can be brought to life with very few spoken words, they tend to develop quite nicely on screen. Maybe it says more about the writing than how audiences perceive them, but, either way, it seems to work more than it doesn’t.
Despite how gimmicky a character’s silence can come across, we’re going to go through the 15 best examples of a big star playing a relatively silent character. Some of these say the same things over and over; some of them just say very little overall. Whatever the reasons, these characters can speak, but choose not to. The list doesn’t contain just any character with few spoken words. Instead it has characters played by A-listers, who chose roles that were relatively silent. Here are 15 big stars with the least spoken words in a role.
15. Vin Diesel/Groot – Guardians of the Galaxy
When Vin Diesel suited up as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, you would think that the star would get more than two lines, but that would mean you don’t know the character. The line, “I am Groot” is all that the character says. Well, kind of. At the end, Groot changes it up a bit, saying “we are Groot,” which is surprisingly powerful in context. It helps that Rocket Raccoon can translate what the giant tree is saying, so he actually says a lot more than what his minimal lines suggest. Even though this character seems a little gimmicky, he accomplishes quite a bit without ever saying much. Plus, when Vin Diesel starts talking too much it can take away from the performance. It’s better to keep it simple.
14. Anthony Hopkins/Hannibal Lecter – The Silence of the Lambs
Technically, Anthony Hopkins speaks quite a bit as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The character is incredibly well-spoken and he uses his gift of gab as often as he can. However, considering that he won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1992 for the role, it might surprise you to learn that he was only on screen for about 13 minutes. So sure, he speaks a lot in that time, but relative to most starring roles, it’s actually very little. Under normal circumstances, Hopkins wouldn’t make the cut on this list, but the Academy Award makes it worthwhile to discuss at least a little. My people expect to see Hopkins on the list, so they will get Hopkins on the list.
13. Tom Hardy/Forrest Bondurant – Lawless
With respect to this list, Tom Hardy‘s character of Forrest Bondurant in Lawless is about as close as it gets to not being able to speak—thus disqualifying him from making the cut. However, we’re going to make an exception. Since Forest has his throat slit, he speaks very little (and his voice is hard to understand when he does). He comes in at 13 on this list because his character is amazing, by far the best thing about this movie, with what little he does say. Hardy has become one of the more expressive actors in Hollywood in spite of the fact that he very often plays one of the more silent characters. It appears that he is quite capable of putting in a wonderful performance without moving his lips.
12. Henry Cavill/Superman – Batman v Superman
Since Batman v Superman is so jam-packed with action (some might argue it’s too jam-packed with action), it makes sense that there isn’t much dialogue throughout. But the fact that Henry Cavill’s Superman only speaks 43 lines in the film is still really surprising. There’s a lot of brooding and grimacing and face-punching and not so much talking, but 43 lines is next to nothing. Compared to most of the entries on this list, Cavill’s Superman could have really used a few more lines to bolster his character. There was something missing from him it seems and Zack Snyder and the screenplay team were wrong to think they could get away with a silent superman. Ack. What’s done is done.
11. Leonardo DiCaprio/Hugh Glass – The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio finally took home an Oscar for Best Actor with his performance as Hugh Glass in The Revenant. After being attacked by a bear in the wilderness, Glass becomes essentially a dead man walking. For much of the movie, the character is by himself, so he doesn’t need to talk, but his injuries make it difficult for him to do so, for the most part. Whenever he does, it’s a raspy, throaty voice, similar to real life Nick Nolte’s voice, except Nick Nolte was ravaged by alcoholism not a bear. Like Alejandro González Iñárritu’s other films, The Revenant relies on images and sound much more than it does dialogue, so Leo’s role fits in beautifully. Again, the fact that he wins an Academy Award for the relatively silent role is very impressive considering all the strong performances he hasn’t won with.
10. Arnold Schwarzenegger/Terminator – The Terminator
Legend has it that, in order to protect the character and hide Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s accent, the character of the Terminator in The Terminator was made to speak very little, 16 lines little. In addition to that, the 16 lines that the character does have are made up of about 3-4 syllables on average. When the Arnold reprised his role in T2: Judgement Day, his amount of dialogue goes up quite a bit, but he still speaks very little compared to most characters. In total, he speaks only about 700 words. If you assume that every line has an average of 10 words, that’s only 70 lines. Math. Still a tiny amount in the grand scheme. James Cameron must have really hated Arnold’s voice. It’s hard to criticize The Terminator, but a little Arnold voice goes a long way. There’s something majestic about the big Austrian’s voice that makes everything sound a little better.
9. Johnny Depp/Edward Scissorhands – Edward Scissorhands
Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands is a shy and almost silent character in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. In total, the character only has 169 words of spoken dialogue, but in there are some real beauties such as, “I thought it was shish-cabob”, “I am not finished” and “I am not complete.” Edward is a sweet character, and the fact that he doesn’t speak much shows off his insecurities more than words ever could. His submissive and timid nature comes through brilliantly in his silence and 169 words is more than enough to tell everyone who he is. Considering that Johnny Depp has a hard time sounding like anything other than Captain Jack Sparrow these days, it’s nice to go back and revisit this soft and kind voice of his.
8. Robert De Niro/Vito Corleone – The Godfather II
If you had never seen The Godfather: Part II and you found out that Robert De Niro won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, you would probably guess that he spoke quite a bit, but he doesn’t. He actually only speaks about 20 lines in English in the film. He does speak in Italian for some scenes, but to have Robert De Niro in a film and having him remain virtually silent throughout is a weird ask. The guy is so magical at turning basic lines of dialogue into beautiful lines, so it seems like a dumb move, but it works. The fact that De Niro won an Academy Award for the role makes it that much more interesting. De Niro is the third and last of the Academy Award winning performances on this list, a pretty remarkable feat for him, Leo and Hopkins to accomplish with so few spoken words.
7. Robert Redford/Unnamed – All is Lost
Robert Redford‘s character in All is Lost speaks almost never throughout the film. Outside of his opening dialogue, his character barely ever uses his voice. His isolation on a sinking boat helps this lack of dialogue along, and, unlike Tom Hanks in Castaway and the kid from The Life of Pi, Redford had no friend to talk to (Wilson and Richard Parker respectively). Once more, the silence of the character aids in bringing out what the filmmakers want to show in him, his solitude and isolation, his loneliness and the growing futility of his situation. Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actor, Redford made the most of his little speaking time and nailed the silent portion of the role. His facial expressions were brilliant and you never feel as if the film is lacking anything.
6. Mel Gibson/Mad Max – Mad Max: The Road Warrior
The official count of spoken lines for Mel Gibson‘s Mad Max in Mad Max: The Road Warrior is 16. The angry and near silent character doesn’t need to speak to prove his point in this high octane thriller. In those 16 lines, though, Mad Max has a few very eloquent lines such as, “I only came for the gasoline” and “I only came for the gasoline.” He speaks quite a bit more in Beyond Thunderdome, but that’s because he comes in contact with so many more people. In Road Warrior, the film is about isolation and seclusion, so his silence is necessary. Back then you could catch a glimpse of Gibson’s Australian accent too, back when Mel was loved and not a touch more than a tad crazy.
5. Matt Damon/Jason Bourne – Jason Bourne
Now that Matt Damon has returned to playing Jason Bourne in Jason Bourne, the filmmakers apparently don’t need to hear him speak anymore. In between kicking people in the face, punching them in the face and running and driving really fast, Bourne only speaks 25 lines total. It appears now that the character has been so developed (arguably overdeveloped in too many sequels) you don’t really need to hear him speak. It’s still early, but early indications suggest that this lack of speech has actually hurt the character in the new film and, just because the character is developed, doesn’t mean you can just grind him to a halt. That’s not to say that speech is needed, but it can’t hurt when silence does nothing for your character. Action movies can use action to drive forward the plot, just look at Mad Max, but your character has to be silent for a reason, not just because he’s too busy punching people.
4. Dolph Lundgren/Ivan Drago – Rocky IV
The crazy Russian, Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, doesn’t need to speak a whole lot to scare the bejesus out of people. With only 9 lines of spoken dialogue, Drago has to show us who he is with few words, and does he ever. In those 9 lines we learn a lot about the boxer. We know what his mission is: “I must break you,” and we learn what he thinks of Rocky: “He’s not a human. He’s like a piece of iron.” We learn who Drago is: “I fight to win, for me. For me!” We also learn a little philosophy, “If he dies, he dies.” It’s possible the filmmakers wanted to have Drago appear more robot than man, so having him speak very little helps get this across. Whatever the reason was, it was a smart choice. Ivan Drago is awesome.
3. Tom Hardy/Mad Max – Mad Max: Fury Road
Tom Hardy makes the list once again for his performance as Mad Max (the character’s second appearance on this list as well) in Mad Max: Fury Road. If you take away his opening monologue, he barely speaks at all. He grunts and makes noises throughout, but he chooses to remain silent for the most part. I guess the insane non-stop action thrill ride helps to camouflage his silence overall, but really, most of the characters in the film are pretty silent. It is weird to see an actor playing a character who can speak do it so little though, especially one as massive as Tom Hardy.
2. Ryan Gosling/The Driver – Drive
In what might be the most criminally underrated film of the last few years, Drive features the character of the Driver, played by Ryan Gosling. Speaking only about 116 words total, Gosling needs to put his driving, expressive face and actions on center stage to emote for the audience. Overall, the film is pretty quiet (something that Nicolas Winding Refn films are known for), but Gosling’s character is basically a mute. He’s contemplative and introspective and it shows in every scene he’s in. The lines he does speak are very short and to the point, but it all fits incredibly well. If you’re expecting a crazy high-energy action film, this one can feel a little muted itself, but its minimalist style is pitch perfect.
1. Scarlett Johansson/Laura – Under The Skin
With only 3 spoken lines in Under the Skin, the character of Laura, played by Scarlett Johannsson is one of the better silent characters in modern film. Laura is more than capable of speaking, but to distance her from the humans she’s acting alongside, the filmmakers had her remain almost entirely silent. While many of the beautiful actress’s devoted fans would say that it doesn’t matter how often she speaks, her near-silent performance is one of the better ones in her great career, and her looks are completely secondary. Since Laura is on Earth to observe and blend in, the less she speaks, the better. The film is a bit heavy-handed in its approach, but its simplicity and use of sound is utterly fantastic.
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