[I wanted to grab Mikey's comment on the Dark Knight and give it its own post. On the one hand, of course, Dark Knight has such massive production values that it can afford paychecks on a secondary cast that is almost whole recognizable. But this idea that there is something intentional about it, that it relates to the pulps, is really neat, and has my attention. Casting is an aspect of filmmaking that I find particularly fascinating. We play a game in my house where we try to be the first to identify where an actor we vaguely recognize is from; we place our bets and then go to imdb.com and the google. Sara and I had a field day with this one:
That is Mrs Landingham from the West Wing, the guy from the incest episode of Stranger's With Candy (AND he was Chip on Kate and Allie), the ambassador from the unnamed middle eastern country on the sixth season of 24, and a woman who was in another commercial where she was delivering mail and a washer-dryer someone hated came shooting out of a house.
I should probably be ashamed to know all of that, but, as I mentioned in my essay on House, casting is a lot like word choice in a poem -- it is often really helpful to know the history of the actor/word to get the meaning intended. As Mikey notes, there is a good reason Eric Roberts is cast in Dark Knight.
Anyway, here is Mikey:
Good good good x a billion and forgive me if I go on a bit here was Eric Roberts and lots of the C-list casting. It's the influence of the pulps and the Batman animated series and it really worked for me.
So named on the poster you have all this talent: Bale, Caine, Oldman (who is amazing and even fricking looks like a drawing in this), Ledger, Freeman. These are the 'flagship' high profile characters that populate Batman's universe. But in the comics and movies you've always had lesser figures: gangsters, wiseguys, grizzled types, sometimes overtly freakish, sometimes human but always faintly grotesque or characterful/memorable. There's always a hook to them, often an incongruity. This is important because it makes the Batman mythos distinct and is a unique retention of the pulp origins not just of Batman but all superheroes (it's also one of the few things Burton's 2 Batman movies got right - the world of carnival freak shows, spectacular stunts, circus strongmen). It's also there in the difference I've always loved between characters referring to him as The Bat-Man (urban legend) and Batman (superhero, brand). The whole world has to be made up of 'types' that carry with them the pulp carnival.
This is where Eric Roberts'll either work for you as a viewer or undermine the whole attempt at seriousness - How to suggest this in your big movie? Cast a bunch of instantly recognisable "That Guys" who look like cartoon characters brought to life (Michael Jai White, William Fichtner, the great Ron Dean). These are the guys who'll never be on the poster, the inverse of all your good-looking, ridiculously well paid lead actors. The incongruous and the underside of the movie business. They also all play underworld- or underbelly-type characters. It's like a hypertelic version of Tom Wilkinson's gangster in Batman Begins who looks like he's appeared from out of a different movie entirely - a 1930s gangster flick. This is perfectly in keeping with the Batman aesthetic, which the writers of the Batman animated series knew instinctively. Batman Begins, lest we forget, also featured Rutger Hauer and Colin Macfarlane, who English viewers know from the goddam Fast Show!! And now, TV's Eric Roberts as the boss of a crime syndicate. Garish.
Hence: of course Dark Knight's Gotham City has a Mayor who looks like he's wearing eyeliner the whole time.