Monday, April 18, 2016

Five Great Actors in Ten Great Roles

When James Norton appeared on the small screen this past winter in War and Peace, Happy Valley and Grantchester, much was made not only of his ubiquitousness but of his versatility. And rightly so: he's a gifted actor who gets to the essence of a role -- apparently any role -- and makes it his own. Seeing all the attention lavished upon him, I was reminded of other actors I've seen recently take on multiple roles, and of that pleasure you get watching TV, seeing a familiar face and saying, "Where have I seen them before?" -- and then remembering. And sometimes there's the added pleasure of remembering in disbelief -- because although the internet tells you that they previously appeared in such-and-such a role, it's so completely different from the one they're currently playing that you can only sit back and marvel at their talent. Here are five splendid actors who've impressed me recently in ten different roles. They're all in their late 20's or 30's: here's to many more great performances to come.

1. Morven Christie (Grantchester, The A Word): A friend directed me to BBC One's The A Word prior to its premiere; I recognized Morven Christie's name from Grantchester, so of course I tuned in. I thought I knew what to expect. In Grantchester, as 1950's socialite and art historian Amanda Kendall, Christie keeps her character's feelings carefully in check. She's never less than wonderful, but because I'd only seen her play that one role, I presumed she worked best within a very specific emotional range. What a fool I was: I should have realized that was an acting choice designed (rightly) for a lady of upper-class upbringing, and that when the right role required it, she could easily uncork all the feelings that Amanda keeps bottled up. In The A Word, set in the present-day Lake District, she's Alison Hughes, the mother of an autistic child wrestling as much with her own demons as with the proper rearing of her son, and her emotions keep bubbling to the surface. They bubble till they overflow. A nervous jumble of neuroses, fears and unreasonable expectations, Alison Hughes is a well-meaning mother, but she's also the worst kind: the kind who makes her child's accomplishments, or lack thereof, all about her. And to Christie's great credit, she's not afraid to let her character be awful. She doesn't ask for your understanding, but she makes Alison so desperately devoted to helping her son lead a "normal" life, and wears every disappointment so nakedly on her face, that you can't help but sympathize with her. As Christie plays her, Alison is a wounded warrior, a fighter and a loser, whose insecurities do her in every time. As a footnote, I was shocked to realize that after first seeing Christie in Grantchester in the fall of 2014, she'd popped up on my TV screen less than a year later in Doctor Who, in the two-parter "Under the Lake" and "Before the Flood," as an intelligence officer aboard an underwater base in 2119 -- and I'd not recognized her! Christie is a remarkable chameleon who goes willingly where the role take her -- then embodies it completely.

2. Bridget Regan (Jane the Virgin, Marvel's Agent Carter): When I penned my 2014 year-in-review, I had a paragraph about White Collar Season 5 that I eventually cut before posting. It was directed at Bridget Regan's multi-episode stint, and her double transformation: from patsy to accomplice, from accomplice to antagonist. It was my first encounter with the actress, and I couldn't seem to capture her in words: she made the switches with such eerie ease that I found myself unable to get to the heart of "who she was." I figured I'd adopt a wait-and-see attitude, and perhaps I'd learn more about Regan in her next appearance. I got so much more than I bargained for. After White Collar, she showed up in Jane the Virgin: a sexy minx, not only comfortable in her own skin, but comfortable getting under other people's as well (with a doozy of a surprise backstory, which she navigated effortlessly) -- an eager opportunist with an irresistible hint of self-mockery. "So this is Bridget Regan," I thought -- and then she took on yet another new role and upended all my expectations. As Soviet assassin Dottie Underwood on Agent Carter, the series' first-season Big Bad (who was too good not to invite back for a brief visit the following year), Regan was an original: a barracuda masquerading as a fish-out-of-water. (Regan says the character's first name prompted her to base her speech patterns on Judy Garland's Dorothy Gale, from The Wizard of Oz, and indeed, even her most devilish deliveries were tinged with a wide-eyed, cockeyed sense of wonder.) You felt you were witness to the reinvention of the Marvel comic book villain, from something ghoulish into something girlish -- yet more dastardly than anything that had come before. Transformation comes as easy to Regan as breathing comes to the rest of us. The constant in all her performances: a joy in acting -- and in play-acting in particular -- that's utterly infectious.

3. Mike Vogel (Under the Dome, Childhood's End): Friends found Under the Dome a guilty pleasure, but for me, it offered diminishing returns over its first two seasons, and I bailed a few episodes into Season 3. (Ironically, a friend later announced that was his favorite season; someday, I suppose I'll dive back in for a binge.) It was a show that pretty much hit its high-water mark in the first three minutes of the pilot, when a cow was sliced in half by the descending dome. (The producers repeated that image so many times in the "previously on" recaps, it was like a promise of more bovine slaughter to come. It was TV's first cow tease.) But in a series that was largely plot-driven, Mike Vogel (as Dale "Barbie" Barbara) was a standout; his eyes became our eyes, and his easy acceptance of whatever the dome threw at him -- his ability to be at once decisive yet detached -- made even the craziest plot-twists somehow palatable. Nonetheless, after making his acquaintance in Under the Dome and filing him away as "someone to watch," I was unprepared for the performance he'd serve up in Syfy's Childhood's End. In Dome, he had an appealing openness; in Childhood's End, his face fairly ached with pain: the emotional pain of loss and the physical pain of illness. (As with Morven Christie, I came to realize that the reserve I'd observed in his earlier role was merely an acting choice, not an acting trait.) His character, Ricky Stormgren (the first human to make contact with the alien Overlords), disappears early in the book; I didn't care for everything in Matthew Graham's adaptation (Hugo Wainwright, the media mogul, felt particularly anachronistic), but I applaud his decision to continue and complete Ricky's story, weaving it through the remainder of the narrative and taking it to its natural, moving conclusion. The miniseries needed an emotional through-line, and Vogel delivered in spades. And throughout, he and Charles Dance were unexpectedly well-matched, navigating their intergalactic bonding with grace, light humor and, ultimately, great pathos.

4. DJ Qualls (The Big Bang Theory, The Man in the High Castle): DJ Qualls first drew my attention in a Season 1 episode of The Big Bang Theory. It was a crucial episode for me: the first time I fully embraced the show, after fighting off reservations for half a season. And a good part of what won me over: Qualls' guest shot as a scientist-cum-actor that Sheldon hires. (Leonard wants to get out of seeing Penny in a one-night showcase of Rent, so Sheldon invents a cousin just being released from rehab who needs their help -- then engages a colleague to play the part, to make sure the alibi is airtight.) Qualls take the role and runs with it: "Let me ask you something, Penny. Have you ever woken up in a fleabag motel, covered in your own vomit, next to a transsexual prostitute?" No one can steal focus from Jim Parsons, but Qualls comes darn close. I've since seen him pop up in other guest shots and in recurring roles, but I'd never seen what he could do as a series regular until The Man in the High Castle -- and I was not disappointed. Man in the High Castle was that television rarity where every role, no matter how small, was cast with detail and delicacy -- and Qualls was remarkable. One of my least favorite trends in TV today is the proliferation of sad sacks: the best buds, the tag-alongs -- the ones who are there to worry, to pine, to never get the girl or the glory. (I moaned seeing someone as bright-eyed as Jeremy Jordan reduced to that role for the first 2/3 of Supergirl's premiere season, and was delighted when the showrunners finally rewarded him with a little self-worth.) Qualls, with his hollow cheeks and wounded eyes, could easily get typecast, and indeed his High Castle character, Ed McCarthy, who lives with his grandfather and is best friends to male lead Rupert Evans, could have devolved into stereotype. But Qualls goes unexpected places. He keeps you off-guard; you're never certain where his loyalties lie: whether he's driven more by friendship or by fear. It's a challenging role, because he only pops up when the story-line needs him, but when he does, he's focal. In fact, even when he's a bystander, the camera seems to go right to him, as if it trusts him to tell you all you need to know.

5. Tuppence Middleton (Sense8, War and Peace): I had some misgivings about Netflix's Sense8, although I wasn't sorry I watched to the end. A hallucinogenic thriller about eight people from across the globe who suddenly become mentally and emotionally linked, it was part spectacle and part character drama -- often hypnotic, but just as often self-indulgent. It needed a script editor (or two) to wield the scalpel, to trim the fat -- but instead, it seemed like creators Lilly and Lana Wachowski put exactly what they wanted on the screen (they wrote every episode, and directed several) without input or intervention. Whatever reservations I had, however, didn't extend to the casting, which was pretty much flawless, both the actors known to me (Doona Bae, Freema Agyeman, Naveen Andrews, Brian J. Smith) and those not (Max Riemelt, Jamie Clayton, Tina Desai). And Tuppence Middleton, as an Icelandic DJ escaping a troubled past, who through the course of the twelve episodes morphed from victim into heroine, glowed with warmth. It was a fascinatingly oblique performance with a startling duality: earthy yet ethereal. She was so utterly convincing that when she reappeared early in 2016 in War and Peace, as the insatiable vixen Helene Kuragin, I did not recognize her. A friend made the connection for me, and I responded in disbelief; even today, looking at publicity shots from each production, I have to squint to see the resemblance. Middleton's War and Peace transformation was complete: she seemed slenderer, her jaw more pronounced, her eyes narrower -- and she managed to take a staple of 19th-century fiction (the bad woman who comes to no good) and imbue her with equal measures of frailty and obliviousness that made her hard to hate. Middleton is capable of astounding variety. Simultaneously with the airing of War and Peace, she was appearing in BBC One's Dickensian; I've not yet seen it, but it's next on my list.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders.


  1. This is a post that was really crying out for a picture of said actor to go with each write-up. I love Middleton and she was ace in war and Peace. Love Dottie from Agent Carter too. What about Tom Hollander - so funny in Rev but also quite dangerous in The Night Manager? James D'Arcy is also wonderfully versatile - both Jarvis in Agent Carter and a murderer in Broadchurch Series 2.

    1. I really should update this blog, to incorporate photos. As you said, with an entry like this, two pictures -- side by side -- would be worth a couple thousand words... But as I'm sure you know with your blog, just finding the time to write is hard enough; finding time to do an formatting overhaul: next to impossible! I probably should have done a two-parter on this entry, too; it proved one of my most popular, and as you note, there are SO many other actors I could have listed, doing spectacular, diverse work in two or more roles. Maybe I'll add a Part 2 later this summer -- with pictures!