LA Noire: The 10 Best Actor Cameos

If you know anything about video games you'll know by now that LA Noire is a detective thriller, set in 1940s Los Angeles and made by Rockstar - the same guys behind Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. You just might have heard that it was the first video game to bag a slot at the Robert De Nero's Tribeca Film Festival, back in April. But what you most certainly know is that it boasts fantastic, hitherto unprecedented, motion capture for a video game. This development has enabled Rockstar's Team Bondi to focus the bulk of the game around gauging the facial expressions of crime suspects. This gameplay mechanic wouldn't have been possible without the technology backing it up, as LA Noire boasts frighteningly realistic and often incredibly subtle facial expressions. Yet Rockstar needed more than just technology if they were to create dozens of distinct characters capable of displaying a wide range of recognisable emotions - they needed proper actors. They couldn't afford to have their characters sound like the cast of a 90s SEGA coin-op. If the characters weren't "real", the whole enterprise would fall down flat. Happily, the game is replete with recognisable actors, many of whom are from top American TV shows. I'm sure many of you know that, taking the role of detective Cole Phelps (above), the game's star is none other than Aaron Staton (AKA Mad Men's Ken Cosgrove). But there are literally dozens more (maybe as many as fifty) recognisable actors in the game. Here's my pick of the thesps you can expect to chase, badger and berate as you play through it. If you don't recognise at least half of the actors below: you aren't watching enough television. There are minor plot spoilers after the drop. So here, in no particular order: 1. Greg GrunbergWhere you've seen him: NBC drama Heroes may have been unceremoniously canned after its fourth lacklustre season, but there is life after the show for Greg Grunberg, the actor behind LAPD police officer/mind-reader Matt Parkman. Like many in the LA Noire ensemble, Grunberg is a US TV journeyman, with roles in Monk, House, Alias and Lost counted amongst his credits. In LA Noire: Here Grunberg is a working stiff named Hugo Moller, a suspect in a case investigating the death of his wife. With his shifty eyes and a history of violence, Moller is hiding something - but what is it? What he brings to the role: Even as the evidence mounts up against him, you can't help but feel sorry for Moller as Grunberg plays the character with an air of world-weary resignation. He can't be bothered to defend himself with any gusto, so convinced is he that you're setting him up for a fall, and this makes for a really compelling, memorable character. Grunberg is so convincing that I failed his interrogation the first time, and had to start the case again. Hours after I'd finished his case I found myself thinking about Hugo Moller. Did I bring in the wrong guy? This (slightly insane) sense of responsibility for a video game character isn't normal and it's a credit to Grunberg's portrayal that I felt it. 2. Vincent Kartheiser Where you've seen him: He was once cast as David Boreanaz unspeakably irritating son Connor in Angel. Now he's the unspeakably irritating, and ubber-slimy, social climber Pete Campbell in Mad Men. In LA Noire: Kartheiser usually plays quiet, well-spoken characters who struggle to contain deep-seated feelings of resentment and superiority. However, here he plays completely against type as a working class gas heater installation man with a broad accent. Walter Clemens is a suspect in an arson case, with a previous conviction to his name and anarchist pamphlets in his work locker. What he brings to the role: Aside from the satisfaction that yet another Mad Men actor is in the game (there are at least half a dozen to spot), Kartheiser clearly revels in the opportunity to play a role he wouldn't usually be given on TV or in film. His role here points to the exciting possibility video games like LA Noire can present to type-cast actors looking to show their range. Incidentally, he is really very entertaining as Clemens and it's a pity he isn't a more prominent character. 3. Andy UmbergerWhere you've seen him: You wouldn't know it, but Umberger is the man behind the make-up in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the vengeance demon D'Hoffryn. Perhaps of greater relevance here though are his recurring roles as a human in Boston Legal, Desperate Housewives, 24 and (you guessed it) Mad Men. In LA Noire: Here he takes to the role of the LAPD coroner Malcolm Carruthers, one of the first characters on the scene of any homicide. There he gives you valuable insights into the time and cause of death, often assisting you further from his facility in the city morgue. He is thorough and professional - and always in pursuit of the truth in a corrupt police force where that can't be taken for granted. What he brings to the role: Umberger invariably turns up in TV shows as some kind of besuited government stooge, often cast as somebody untrustworthy or in some way obsequious. However, in LA Noire his character is a pillar of integrity - one of the good guys. He's always a welcome presence on-screen and one of the few characters you see across the entire game as Phelps moves from department to department. He has a face and voice which, to me, seem to say "listen to me, I know what I'm talking about." He's the sort of strong and reliable character actor you wouldn't usually expect to find making up the numbers in a video game, but here he is and it's great. 4. Adam HarringtonWhere you've seen him: You may have seen him in Queer As Folk USA, and Canadian readers may know him as the star of short-lived comedy series Show Me Yours, but Adam Harrington is unquestionably best known to international audiences as Agent Walker in Dexter. In LA Noire: Ok, Harrington is not the biggest star in a cast made up of so many recognisable TV actors. Yet he deserves a mention because he's one of LA Noire's most interesting characters. The game borrows heavily from Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential (elsewhere Andrew Connolly's police Captain is a clear analogue of James Cromwell's character from that film) and if Harrington's vice squad detective Roy Earle has a parallel in the movie it would certainly be as Kevin Spacey's media-savvy narcotics cop Jack Vincennes. Earle understands the streets as they are, rather than as they should be. He wants to control crime rather than eradicate it and he doesn't mind taking advantage of the odd boxing dive or bribe from time to time. Like Vincennes, Earle is a snappy dresser - a showman keen to make the front pages. Needless to say, he's an antagonist for the "by the book" Phelps throughout. What he brings to the role: As with all the characters in LA Noire, getting a real actor in to give a performance lends subtlety to a role which might otherwise have been two-dimensional. Earle, in any other video game, would just play as unbearably self-satisfied and his loud suits would undoubtedly have lead to the actor voicing him in an overtly comic way. But given Harrington, and some decent motion capture, Earle comes to life as an ambiguous and sly customer playing the angles. 5. Iyari Limon Where you've seen her: She's been in adverts and played bit-part roles in ER, The Drew Carey Show and Without A Trace, but I'd bet anything that you'll know her as potential slayer Kennedy from latter seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In LA Noire: She has a small but pivotal role in the game as she's the first witness you get the chance to interrogate, as you hope to determine whether or not she is telling you the truth. As Clovis Galletta, Limon plays a secretary whose boss has been shot dead on his lunch break after confronting a jeweller who she owes money. What she brings to the role: Limon manages to give her weeping 1940s secretary a feisty edge, snapping back venomously at your questions with indignation. As the first witness in the game - basically a tutorial character - her facial expressions are supposed to be easy to read, so as to teach you the game mechanics. But in spite of the fact that she has to dart her eyes from side to side in an effort to look as shifty as possible, Clovis Galletta still feels like a real person. 6. Patrick FischlerWhere you've seen him: Perhaps most memorable as the sleazy, temperamental comic Jimmy Barrett in Mad Men, Fischler has also had recurring roles in Lost and Southland. He has also made one-off appearances in shows such as Bones,ER, Lie to Me and The West Wing. In LA Noire: In the game, he plays real-life Jewish Mafia boss Mickey Cohen - responsible for much of the organised crime in 40s LA, but untouchable. You won't find yourself hurling "Mickey C" into the back of a police van, not as long as half the LAPD's cops are on the take. What he brings to the role: I don't know if this will come across as a compliment, but Fischler exudes a certain effortless sliminess and a smug kind of charm. His face, even when he's playing it deadpan, can't help but look like he's laughing at you - at at least holding you in contempt. Perfect for a mob boss who knows he's above the law. 7. Elisabeth MossWhere you've seen her: You may not know it from the poor quality of the image above (decent screen grabs for smaller characters are hard to come by so close to the game's release), but Elisabeth Moss has been a series regular on two highly rated and widely seen American TV series. She first caught my attention as Zoey Bartlet, daughter to Martin Sheen's President Jed, in The West Wing, before more recently becoming one of the leading stars of Mad Men - playing the quirky and endearing Peggy Olson. Incidentally, the moustachioed barman you interview in the very next scene is played by Mad Men co-star Michael Gladis. In LA Noire: Here Moss is Shannon Perry, a witness to a hit and run incident which may have actually been a homicide. Perry is honest and helpful - and not in the game for long. She seems like a nice lady though. What she brings to the role: One of the great things about having recognisable and damned fine actors in the tiniest of roles is that they are memorable and have an instant impact. We also come to them with a certain set of expectations already, and likely have an opinion of Shannon Perry the moment we first see her, which the game is able to play with (she comes with a semiotic value, just like an actor in a movie might). Just like Vivian Leigh in Psycho - or Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea - we might also assign her undue significance and expect her character to be more important than she is, possibly influencing the way we respond to her in-game. This possibility - of playing with an audiences expectations - is relatively new to games and LA Noire exploits this in an interesting way. As it happens, Shannon Perry isn't all that important. But put Elisabeth Moss in that role and suddenly you've got a character out of a video game NPC with hardly three lines of dialogue. 8. Keith SzarabajkaWhere you've seen him: Szarabajka has a string of glamorous film credits to his name, most recently with a role in The Dark Knight (as the cop the joker pisses off in order to facilitate his escape from jail), but also including a memorable turn in the likes of Jack Lemmon movie Missing. He also had recurring roles in Cold Case, Angel and Law & Order. The man is also no stranger to video game work also, with Call of Duty, Dragon Age, Mass Effect and BioShock listed amongst his credits. In LA Noire: Here he's a downbeat WWI vet and arson detective Herschel Biggs. He doesn't usually work with a partner and he hasn't ever discharged his firearm in the line of duty - though both those things change when he's paired with Phelps. A pragmatic man with little interest in losing his pension rubbing important people up the wrong way. What he brings to the role: Throughout the game Phelps is partnered with really great supporting characters like Biggs (Southland star Michael McGrady is another one as the alcoholic veteran homicide detective Rusty Galloway) who really help to liven up the long car journeys across the city with their insights and world view. I picked out McGrady because he's got the most interesting character arc of all Phelps' sidekicks - going from a silent, dispirited misanthrope to become one of Phelps' only genuine friends by the climax. Szarabajka gives the role a subtle touch of vulnerability behind his hard-edged demeanour. 9. Chad TodhunterWhere you've seen him: Maybe you haven't yet as, aside from being a series regular on Party of Five, Todhunter (right) is not really known. He's potentially a rising star though, thanks to having been cast as "Trevor" in the upcoming fourth season of True Blood. He's also appeared in just about every US cop show at one time or another, including NYPD Blue, CSI: NY, Criminal Minds and Without A Trace. In LA Noire: As Courtney Sheldon, Todhunter is an important character in LA Noire. He served in the US Army during WWII, alongside Phelps in fact, and is a catalyst for some of the games biggest cases after having stolen crates of BAR rifles and morphine at the end of the war, which he then sold to the mob. Easily influenced, Sheldon is taken under the wing of the sinister psychoanalyst Harlan Fontaine (left, played by Peter Blomquist of web comedy Get Hit) and is something of a tragic figure. Well meaning, but mentally disturbed. What he brings to the role: Todhunter plays Sheldon as a crazy ball of misplaced energy/borderline psychopath. He's the cause of a lot of harm so he's hard to like, but he's played in such a way that you understand he's really a victim, possibly damaged by his experiences in Okinawa. Such distinctions are rare in games and I doubt this character would have anything like the depth without the motion capture. He'd probably just be irritating. There is a reason the Grand Theft Auto games, for all their intelligent, satirical scripting, feature broad archetypes for characters - a certain level of nuance is hard to achieve in a game which calls for dozens of characters (as distinct from, say, Heavenly Sword, which boasted impressive video game performances back in 2007). It's this ability to fill a city with well-acted individual characters that mo-cap technology affords LA Noire. 10. Michael B. SilverWhere you've seen him: He's best known for playing Assistant District Attorney Leo Cohen in NYPD Blue, though he's also been in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Nip/Tuck, CSI: Miami and Brothers & Sisters, among others. In LA Noire: In the game, Silver plays Edgar Kalou - a Jewish jeweller suspected of a homicide. It soon becomes clear that he shot the victim knowing him to an anti-Semite. He shows no remorse. What he brings to the role: Edgar Kalou is another one of those fully-fleshed characters that appears early on in the game, but stays with you until the end. He's unquestionably guilty, remorseless and angry - but he's also sympathetic because he's a man pushed too far in a country that, with some justification, he thinks hates him. He's a Jew in the late 40s trying to make sense of the events of the last ten years, who has become increasingly militant. There is nothing weak or feeble about Kalou, but he's also a victim in his own way - and one of many characters in this video game who have more depth than the entire cast of many feature films. He also, early on, flags up one of the game's key themes - of people damaged by war acclimatising to life back home. These are just some of the many, many cameos in LA Noire. Have I missed your favourite one? There are doubtless some bigger ones I didn't spot because I don't watch that particular TV show or haven't seen that movie. Have your say about it below.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.