An Ode to Background Characters
bringing “background character energy” into 2023
By natalie duerr
“There’s no such thing as a small role,” my theater director remarked as she handed out scripts for our camp’s production of Annie. At the time, I didn’t believe her. Scribbled at the top of my script was “Oliver Warbucks’s Chauffeur” and after thumbing through it, I realized I was in one scene where I walked on stage with a piece of luggage, dropped it, and then promptly walked off.
While I’d come to accept that I would never be cast as a main character in any sort of production due to a lack of talent for both singing and acting, I still believed there were such things as small roles and I refused to have one in life. When I needed to conjure that feeling of importance, I’d put on my best outfit and find a place to be seen. I’d sit and read in coffee shops or sip on a bubble tea while wandering bustling streets.
This behavior was later dubbed “main character energy,” a trend that I first heard about on Twitter in 2021. With a new sense of freedom from the pandemic, social media was an endless trove of romanticized, everyday moments and calls to put yourself at the center of your life. Even though I wasn’t posting any of these moments to social media, it’s clear to me now that I wasn’t doing those things for myself, just like the influencers who filled my feed.
“Main character energy” can be a positive thing, but for me, it meant I was equating my self-worth with how others perceived me. It was during this reflection that I began to pay more attention to the background characters of the films I watched. I found myself looking past the big stars to see what was going on beyond them.
Babylon (2022), dir. Damien Chazelle
Consider the movie Babylon, a story of outrageous excess and decadence that is filled to the brim with background characters. Specifically, I think of the party sequence at the very beginning where, yes, Margot Robbie is electric, but it’s the background characters that make it so visceral and debaucherous. Without the band playing, the whirling dancers, and the decorative umbrellas and masks undulating in the background, Robbie would be dancing in an empty room to music that no one is playing. Even though she is undeniably the star of this film, the background characters pull the scene together.
Likewise, there’s also that random dude in Glass Onion who is just living his best life and serving absolutely no purpose. He just waltzes in and out of scenes, always with a Corona in hand, briefly interacting with the “main characters.” He brings a certain levity to the film, but also a twist to a genre where usually every small detail matters. It isn’t that complicated—the man just found himself on the sidelines of a game he didn’t even know they were playing. His presence isn’t necessary, but it makes you second-guess yourself or maybe even chuckle when he says, “Want to hang out or…” as a character quickly runs into and out of his room.
Glass Onion (2022), dir. Rian Johnson
But perhaps my favorite background characters of recent memory are the cosplaying audience at the crash site of Lydia Tár’s career. They don’t know who this woman is or how she ended up conducting an orchestra playing the Monster Hunter theme in Southeast Asia, but they sure expect a great evening. While the voice-over and videos playing behind the orchestra hint at Tár’s downfall, it isn’t until the camera pans over the audience that her nosedive is cemented. Their immaculate costumes and massive presence help the joke stick its landing.
By giving a little more attention to the people behind the big stars, I have finally come to accept that there are no small roles. To me, being a main character means to exist for others’ entertainment. But background characters on the other hand, just happen to be there. They are free from a predetermined narrative that has a definite beginning and ending. And even though the spotlight isn’t on them, they bring films to life. Now I am looking to bring “background character energy” to my life—not just granting myself freedom from performance, but gaining the opportunity to exist beyond myself.
Instead of taking and curating photos from a fun evening into a social media post, I started treating my iPhone camera as a film camera. I’ll snap a photo or take a picture with friends, but I won’t look at them until at least the next day. I get to revel in capturing a memory, but not be held prisoner by it. I’ve also basically renounced posting on Instagram widely (except to promote COPY), now preferring to share smaller updates on my close friend’s story. I no longer squirm on my couch after making a post on Instagram, hoping that it gets more likes than the last one.
During midday walks, I’ve also begun to turn the Lady Bird score off and let my neighborhood be my background sound. And if I ever unintentionally twin with someone on the street also carrying an American Utopia tote bag again, I want my brain to think “woah, another David Byrne fan,” instead of disgust and shame for not being “unique.” Maybe I’ll even let myself start a conversation with them. Who knows, maybe we could even become friends—I already know we have something in common.
And at yoga, I let myself chant “om” with the rest of the class, even though it has always felt a bit too Midsommar-y for me. I’ve realized no one is listening to me specifically, no one is waiting to judge my probably off-key “om.” Instead, I’ve found it’s a moment of magic, where you can feel both the physicality of your voice and also be enveloped by the presence of others.
By bringing “background character energy” into 2023, I want to grow past the innate desire to be the star of the show. I refuse to miss out on moments of everyday magic for the sake of the individualistic high of feeling special.