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Not-So-Small Role

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A seemingly minor or unimportant character turns out to be much more crucial to the plot than they first appear.

This is usually, but not always, signalled by the character in question being played by a big-name actor or someone recognisable, who wouldn't normally be wasted on such an insignificant part (unless it's just The Cameo of course). If you recognise the actor in a bit part, it will probably turn out not to be such a small role after all; it will be The Big Bad, or the murderer, or someone else who is a key to whatever mystery the show revolves around. Usually, their true identity is not revealed until the final act. This is often referred to as the Law of Economy of Characters in film criticism.

This is especially prevalent in dubbed anime series with large casts. A seemingly insignificant character will later end up having a large role. Even if Anyone Can Die, a character voiced by Steve Blum will rarely be Killed Off for Real (until the finale).

However, sometimes the character will not be played by anyone special, or it will be the Star-Making Role of the actor- the crux of this trope is more to do with relevance of the character to the plot being bigger than expected.

The converse of this would be Small Role, Big Impact. See also Ascended Extra, where the role originally was small but the character became more important later on.


If you have an example for the subtrope, put it on those pages. See also: Contractual Immortality, Conspicuously Light Patch, Chekhov's Gun. Contrast Dead Star Walking. May be a Final Girl.

Examples may contain unhidden SPOILERS


Anime and Manga

  • Baccano!: A seemingly ordinary guy who works on the train (played by Masakazu Morita) gets killed fairly early on in episode 2 when the train gets hijacked. Then came episode 9 and it was revealed that he faked his death skillfully enough to trick the audience and is actually the infamous assassin known as Vino and the urban legend known as the Rail Tracer, and he gets to play against the seiyuu's known roles.
  • Even before there was a voice actor to indicate it, Fairy Tail had one of these. Sure, Siegrain just acted like a background character who'd comment on the cast's adventures, but the first time he does this is the first page, before the cast even shows up, and even that isn't as telling as the fact that he's given the exact same character design as one of the more popular characters from Hiro Mashima's previous manga.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam 00: Tōru Furuya (aka, the guy that voiced Amuro Ray, the primary hero of the very first Gundam series, among other major anime roles) voiced what appeared to be a bit character, Ribbons Almark, who was barely even an extra who appeared maybe twice in the first season, acting as a random assistant to a scheming spy-type character. (He did use a pseudonym for the role, but fans easily recognized his voice.) Then, in the season finale, he usurps the plot out of nowhere and becomes the Big Bad of the show for the second season, having apparently been manipulating his assumed boss from the start. Oh, and it's also later revealed that he's the one who made Setsuna a Gundam Meister in the first place, and the reason Setsuna's so obsessed with the concept of "Gundam" at all.

Film — Animation

  • In Turning Red, Mr. Gao is played by James Hong who initially appears as just another one of the patrons of the Lee family temple. He is actually the shaman who leads the red moon ritual.

Film — Live-Action

  • In Equilibrium, William Fichtner's distinctive features are visible in a crowd shot. It's some time before he makes a speaking appearance.
  • In Red (2010), Morgan Freeman gets one scene as an old friend of the protagonist's, before being "killed off" offscreen. Yeah, right.
  • In The Hurt Locker, this is surprisingly subverted with major actors three times; Ralph Fiennes, David Morse and Guy Pearce all have less than 10 minutes screen time, and Fiennes' and Pearce's characters are so minor they both die mid-scene.
  • Hail, Caesar! has Channing Tatum popping up an hour in to perform a South Pacific style musical number - as Burt Gurney, a character who has no connection with the rest of the cast. Of course he's The Mole for the Russians, and it's his house Baird Whitlock is being held captive in. Played with when it comes to Jonah Hill's role as Joseph Silverman as it really is just a cameo - but he still marries DeeAnna Moran, meaning that she doesn't have to resort to black market adoption to hide her pregnancy from the public.
  • The Dark Knight Rises features a supporting character called Miranda Tate who has no connection to the comics and whose only function seems to be to provide Bruce with a rich ally and love interest played by a big-name actress (again). Also, Nolan worked with her before in Inception, and he likes to reuse actors. But since she's played by Oscar winner Marion Cotillard she's actually the daughter of the first film's villain and the true mastermind behind the evil plan.
  • Sleepy Hollow (1999) casts Miranda Richardson in the seemingly insignificant background role of Lady Van Tassel. She's the one who's been summoning the Headless Horseman.
  • The annoying reporter Debbie Salt in Scream 2, played by notable TV actress Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne, is actually none other than the mother of the first movie's killer looking to take revenge.
  • Disney's Cinderella (2015) would lead you to believe that Helena Bonham Carter is just there to provide a narration as a Celebrity Voice Actor. Then it turns out she's the Fairy Godmother.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - you know the secretary at Lacuna Inc is going to have something to do with the plot given that she's played by Kirsten Dunst. She's revealed to have had an affair with Howard, had her own memories erased and then mails everyone their tapes to give them their memories back.
  • Terminator Genisys: Matt Smith, having just come off his role as The Eleventh Doctor, is seen in a pan across John Connor's platoon of Resistance fighters in the opening act. Since such a major actor could not possibly be a bit extra, it's obvious he's going to be important. He's actually the personification of Skynet, there to assimilate Connor and change the past thereby.
  • David Morse makes two fleeting appearances in some early scenes in 12 Monkeys, where he plays a creepily cheery scientist who attends a book signing put on by one of the main characters. In the final scene he turns out to be the terrorist who was actually responsible for starting the plague that put the movie's time-travelling plot in motion.
  • In Sea of Love, the two lead detectives meet with a seemingly insignificant cable guy who throws them a suspect in one of the murders. He's played by Michael Rooker, and though he was a bit less than famous at this point in his career, he wasn't exactly unknown (he was the lead in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and had major roles in JFK and Mississippi Burning). Turns out he's the Lonely Hearts Killer.

Live-Action TV

  • Charmed:
    • The third season had a featured extra called Abby who worked behind the bar in P3. Then comes the episode "Sight Unseen" where Abby turns out to be Prue's stalker.
    • The Season 3 finale also had a minor character called Alice, who seemed to be a token background believer in the sisters' powers. She ends up shooting Piper fatally because she believes the sisters are evil.
  • Doctor Who: In "Utopia", Sir Derek Jacobi appears in a one-off guest role as the kindly scientist Professor Yana... who's revealed to be the Doctor's nemesis the Master, one of the most iconic villains in the show's history. This is an interesting case, as although the actor's role is that of a guest, the character remains prominent throughout.
    • In "The Girl Who Died", Maisie Williams plays the seemingly minor role of a Viking villager called Ashildr, who, as the episode's title suggests, dies in the episode, apparently confirming the one-shot nature of her character. But then the Doctor revives her, indeed he makes her immortal, and Ashildr makes several more appearances throughout series 9, where she is integral to the plot arc.
  • In Law & Order: SVU:
    • When lab tech Dale Stuckey shows up in an episode, he seems to be nothing more than a momentary source of inappropriate Gallows Humor, a common enough role for law and order bit parts, one that is poorly received by the audience. A couple of episodes later he shows up again, and again, and starts affecting the plots by screwing things up for the detectives. Then after another one of these screwups he goes off the deep end and becomes the Big Bad of an episode, going on a killing spree to cover his screwups and get revenge on the people who treated him like a Butt-Monkey.
    • When the long-lost biological grandmother of Olivia Benson's adopted son Noah turns out to be Brooke Shields a naive audience member could be forgiven for believing they cast a celebrity in the part just because Benson's personal life has taken such an outsized role in the series as to demand it, but Genre Savvy viewers were immediately suspicious, and indeed it turns out Sheila is criminally insane and all her apparent character development during the series, all the acreen time invested into developing her relationship with Benson was just an elaborate ruse to gain the family's trust and enable Sheila to kidnap Benson's son.
  • Lost: For their first appearance, Mark Pellegrino and Titus Welliver were credited as playing "Man #1" and "Man #2". Turned out, they were in fact cast as Jacob and his nemesis, aka "The Smoke Monster" - two cornerstone mythology figures in the show.
  • The Pretender: The two-parter "Bloodlines" stars Haley Joel Osment. Jarod must identify which one of three children is a genius. Since two of the children are unknown child actors and the last one was the lead in The Sixth Sense the year after appearing on this show, it's not hard for a post-1999 audience to guess which one it is.
  • Sherlock: In The Great Game, Molly's boyfriend Jim has a cute scene in the hospital and then disappears from the plot... until he's revealed as Sherlock's arch-nemesis James "Jim" Moriarty in the final scene.
  • Supernatural had a lot of iconic genre actors make one-off guest appearances, but when a minor-seeming angel named Ezekiel shows up in the body of Tahmoh Penikett, fans knew he wasn't as minor as he seemed.
  • Tru Calling: Jack Harper (played by Jason Priestly) started off a paramedic who would come in, drop off a dead body, and provided the series with what seemed to be some minor flirtation. Then by the beginning of season 2, he's the anti-Tru villain who is the antagonist of nearly every episode.


  • Tommy: In the film, Tommy is played by Roger Daltrey, a not-so-subtle clue that he might not be mute for the entire movie.

Western Animation

  • Avatar: The Last Airbender has Mark Hamill voice Fire Lord Ozai, who scarred Zuko in his initial appearance. He becomes the Big Bad after Book 2.
  • Frequently subverted in South Park, who often have famous guest stars voice acting bit parts, such as George Clooney "voicing" Stan's gay dog Sparky; the opening credits even promoted him as a Special Guest in a rare move for the series, which just added to the joke that Clooney's role only amounted to simple barks and growls.
    • Word of God says Trey & Matt received a call from the agent of Jerry Seinfeld, telling them Jerry was a fan of the show and was interested in lending his voice to a bit part. Said Trey: "Okay, we want him to be Turkey #3." "You don't understand," the agent returned, "this is Jerry Seinfeld." "All right then, how 'bout Turkey #5?" Unlike George Clooney, Seinfeld didn't get the gag and ended up not doing a guest spot.
  • The first few episodes of Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters feature a nondescript male background character that usually rides the train in Charter City. Later in the first season, the show focuses on him and he becomes a Monster of the Week due to Rook's Flexarium experiments. He has a distinct voice actor in Andrew Kishino, but is still only credited as "Man", is easily defeated and presumably dies. Come season two, we find out from flashbacks that he was close to Rook as he knows about his true identity as Stretch Monster. In the final scene of the season, he is revealed to have kidnapped one of the Flex Fighters' new allies and is posing as him.
  • The Legend of Korra season 3 has Kuvira appear in a few shots and only a few lines. She's the antagonist of season 4. Since she's voiced by Zelda Williams people were suspecting that something was up from the start.