Osito: “Nightmares let you know you’re not a psycho. ‘Cause when that Dark Shit comes… And you let it come and you let it go. That’s when you know you’re a soldier. That’s when you prove what you’re made of… and for awhile…you’re going to wake up every day thinking…”
“I’m a Killer, I’m a Killer.”
“And one day… you’re going to wake up, and… you’re going to think about breakfast.”
“And life goes on!”
[Atkins Estimond to Shane Harper “Hightown” (2020)]
You know, I always find it interesting when I see actor that I’ve never seen before give a performance that is so special it almost makes me shake my head in disbelief. After that, I always know what’s going to happen the next time I see that actor in something else. What is it? Why it’s something we all hope when we see something special. We hope that this same actor will do it again. Now too often that doesn’t happen, but it still doesn’t lessen the original performance you saw which made such a strong impression to begin with. A lot of times it might not even be a particular performance but something about an actor’s persona which makes you wind up asking yourself, “Who is this guy/gal,” while you find that you cannot take your eyes off of them. Two actors I always remember in that way are Rami Malek and Jay Hernandez. Malek I first noticed when he was in the Emmy winning World War II mini-series, “The Pacific” (2010) and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Ever since that moment, I started to follow his career and I wasn’t disappointed when his talent came out like gangbusters with him winning an Emmy for best actor for “Mr. Robot” (2015) and a later Oscar for Best Actor for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018). Hernandez made the same impression when he exploded (figuratively and literally) onto the screen for his performance as tormented and tattooed anti-hero El Diablo in “Suicide Squad” (2016). Although he has been in a lot of stuff, both on Network TV and in the movies, he has not had anywhere near the success of Malek. However, he is currently the lead on the popular “Magnum P.I.” reboot which is currently going into its third season, and is still, someone I always keep an eye on.
Not to exclude women, two others who made that sort of impression to me were Kirsten Dunst when she starred (when she was just 12 years old) as a child vampire opposite Tom Cruise in “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in the aforementioned “Suicide Squad”. At the very least, both of them should have been Supporting Actress Oscar Nominated (And they both should have won, Damnit!). Since that time both of them have had very successful careers with Dunst giving standout performances on both TV and in film while Robbie has hit the heights by winning Oscar nominations for “I, Tonya” (2017) and “Bombshell” (2019).
Now, I have gotten a little sidetracked once again from stating what this month’s Blog post will be all about. So to clarify, what I really want to do this month is to point out for praise actors who may not be the most well known, but have given a performance (usually in a secondary role) or in a series of performances so eye-catching that they should be more readily known to everyone. All of these actors have already done a lot of stuff for film, TV, and even the theater. Every single one of them is fabulous. Also, except in one case, all of them are still not over forty. Now that I have laid out the ground rules, let me introduce you to the first one, actress Justine Lupe as Holly Gibney in the TV series, “Mr. Mercedes” (2017-20).
“Mr. Mercedes” is based on a trilogy of Steven King novels with retired detective Bill Hodges (Brendan Gleeson) hunting a serial killer who previously killed a bunch of people with a stolen Mercedes at a job fair. During his hunt for the killer, he befriends Holly, who is the younger cousin of Janey who has hired Bill to help find the killer whose prior actions resulted in Holly’s other cousin, Olivia, committing suicide. In Holly, King created one of his most memorable literary characters. His Holly is on the autism spectrum, suffers from OCD, and has difficulty in understanding and processing her emotions. Justine Lupe absolutely grabs this role and runs away with it. Her Holly is very insecure, at times afraid, and generally awkward around people in general. At first glance, it almost seems like she is going to vibrate and completely shatter into a million pieces before your very eyes. However, her Holly is also smart, observant, refreshingly unfiltered, focused, doggedly determined, very trustworthy, and exceedingly brave despite her psychological issues. Holly ultimately becomes not only Bill Hodges partner, but also his voice of reason. Of course, Lupe was never nominated by the idiots at the Emmys, but every time she is in a scene (and stealing it from everybody else), you mentally want to give her a smile and a hug.
The next person I want to highlight is actress Annaleigh Ashford on the Showtime series “Masters of Sex” (2013-16). “Sex” explored the research and personal relationship between William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) who pioneered human sexuality research starting in the 1950s and moving on into the 1960s along with the numerous individuals involved in their lives. Ashford has had a long career on stage and on Broadway where she starred in musicals as well as sung professionally on different labels. She was a Tony Award winner for a revival of “You Can’t Take It with You” (2014-15) and has done numerous roles in film and on TV. On “Sex”, she plays Betty DiMello, a young, hard as nails prostitute who introduces Masters and Johnson to some of her other co-workers to provide data for their research with later episodes having her quit her prior life and become Masters and Johnson’s office manager. Her Betty doesn’t take lip from anyone especially from Masters who, despite his superior education, is repeatedly put in his place by her and, at times, it is a comical delight to see. Betty, who is gay, desperately wants to have children, and as the series progresses she is even willing to marry someone for that reason alone despite her wanting to be with the real love of her life, Helen (Sarah Silverman). The resulting choices she makes are heart-breaking. Ashford balances this character with a combination of humor and sadness that makes her always unique and interesting. Of course, she was never nominated for an Emmy either. Fun fact: In season four Ashford in real life was visibly pregnant so they used CGI and judicious placement of objects to hide how she really looked. Betty might have not been able to have children, but Ashford definitely did!
Speaking of being ignored, next on the list is actor Tom Pelphrey from one of my favorite TV shows, “Ozark”. Pelphrey appeared in season three as Ben Davis, Wendy Byrde’s (Laura Linney) deeply troubled bi-polar brother whose actions put all of them at risk. Pelphrey previously has been on TV, in film, and on stage. He even did daytime soap operas winning Emmys for his role on “The Guiding Light”. I first took notice of him when he became a regular on the Cinemax series “Banshee” as a multiple tattooed ex-Neo Nazi trying to forget his past by becoming a sheriff’s deputy for the series’ lead. However, for “Ozark”, his performance as Ben Davis was electrifying! As Davis he can be dangerous, gentle, fragile, angry, child-like, fearless, disturbed, funny, clever, romantic, and sad in an instant. He also is the only one out of everyone on Ozark who sees and recklessly tells everyone who and what sort of person they really are which throws the entire place into turmoil. His scenes with the great Julie Garner as Ruth, who falls in love with him, are both tender and heartbreaking.
If you want to see something special just check out the first five minutes of Season 3, Episode 9 where Ben is in the back seat of a cab and being driven somewhere. For most of that time sequence the camera is either in closeup on his face or cutting to quick scenes of what he is seeing outside while the cab is in motion. All of that time he is talking or you are hearing his mental thoughts while the camera is on his face and while he is talking to the faceless cab driver who never responds. He is in the midst of a full blown bi-polar meltdown babbling on and on, sad one moment, upbeat the next, relating how his mind is not working, but then instantaneously mentioning that he is having a good day talking on and on like some sort of sad human emotional roller coaster mentally about to crash. For the Emmy nominations this year, both Julie Garner and Laura Linney were deservedly nominated once again but Pelphrey, of course, was ignored. Funny thing, some of Linney and Garner’s most powerful acting scenes were when they were interacting with Pelphrey. I noticed! If you happen to see Season 3 of “Ozark”, I hope you’ll notice too!
Moving right along, the next actor I want to mention is on the new Starz crime drama “Hightown” (2020). The show follows an alcohol/drug abusing and gay National Marine Fisheries agent (Monica Raymund) in Provincetown, Mass. who tries to unofficially assist the local drug enforcement authorities after finding a local girl’s dead body. She was previously executed from orders given by a local incarcerated drug kingpin, Frankie Cuevas (Amaury Nolasco) to his acting Lieutenant Osito (Atkins Estimond). Honestly, “Hightown” is neither good or bad but just an OK crime show. However, what is not “just OK” but really “great” is the terrific performance by Atkins Estimond as Osito. Estimond has been acting since High School and he has previously been on numerous TV shows and in movies usually playing comic or laid back roles. However, his Osito is a major dramatic switch that stretches his acting muscles considerably. Estimond, a huge man of Haitian decent, is scary as the smart, murderous criminal Osito. He moves slowly and talks calmly but he uses a glaring stare and his overall bulk as an intimidating weapon. Yet, despite being a stone-cold killer, he is strangely sensitive to his soldier in training Junior (who he has a soft spot for), and later, out of character, he surprisingly even risks his own life by going against Cuevas in order to protect Junior. This side of him makes you actually kind of want to root for him to survive despite everything. To be able to elicit sympathy for a character as brutal as Osito takes real acting, and in that regard, Estimond definitely delivers.
Next, actress Melissa Rauch is well known to Network TV fans as Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz, one of the regular cast members of the popular CBS sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory” (2007-19). After starting her career by doing standup comedy, Rauch has branched out into doing quirky comedy roles for TV and films. Her one recent role that really stands out for me is the character of Bethany in the film, “Ode to Joy” (2019). “Ode” is a romantic comedy drama about Charlie (Martin Freedman), a librarian living in Brooklyn who suffers from narcolepsy with a symptom of cataplexy which causes him to faint whenever he experiences strong emotions especially joy. This causes him to avoid dating Francesca (Morena Baccarin) who he really loves and instead, start to date Bethany, Francesca’s co-worker who is bland and safe because he isn’t really attracted to her at all. However, once Rauch’s Bethany enters the picture, she immediately proceeds to steal almost the entire rest of the movie.
Bethany is quirky pi-squared into eternity. She is wide-eyed and enthusiastic about the most mundane things (Yarn-making anyone?). She is frank and unpredictable (or maybe unpredictably frank?) but comes across grounded and real. Every time she randomly says something odd, it’s not only hysterical, but more importantly, it’s believable. When during one of their dating excursions she comes across a cello, picks it up, and starts to play it while singing a rousing impromptu version of the Cranberries’ “Zombie”, I was wondering whether Charlie might pass out just from being surprised by the complete sheer audacity of it all. However, she is also touching when she finally decides to break up with Charlie when she realizes that she wants more in a relationship than Charlie can provide, not because of his affliction, but because he really loves Francesca. Pertaining to actors, there’s an old saying that goes, “Dying is easy, Comedy is hard!” Seeing Melissa Rauch’s brilliant performance, she makes comic acting seem almost effortless!
The last person that I want to highlight is a little different than the others. First, he is the only one from all of the actors that I have listed that is over 40. Second, I want to praise not one, but a series of performances that he has done over the past number of years. Three, he is not even American. He is well known for being able to adapt so many different accents that he can easily be able to fit into any number of different roles. He also can disappear into roles so completely, or be on the periphery of scenes with bigger or more well established stars that you do not even notice him until you check the actor credit listings at the end of a TV show, film, or even music videos (Yep, he’s done them too) and say, “Holy Hell, That was so and so! How did I miss him or not recognize him?” You might have briefly spotted him in the Emmy Award winning series, “Band of Brothers” (2001). You also might have seen him in a couple of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films as the character, Scrum. I first took notice of him when he played the frighteningly scary psychopathic gangster, Baby Face Nelson, in the Johnny Depp film, “Public Enemies” (2009). Did I also mention that he played Al Capone in the HBO series, “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-14), or in the John le Carre’s film version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), or in “Rocket Man” (2019), or Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) or as Jacob Marley in the most recent version of “A Christmas Carol” (2019), and is now in the new Tom Hanks film, “Grayhound” (2020)? Is your head spinning yet? Well let me introduce you to one of the best, and busiest character actors in all of show business, Englishman, Stephen Graham!
The 47 year old, 5’6″ tall, bullet-headed Graham might be short, but he projects an imposing presence that makes him seem like he’s a lot larger. When he had a small role in “Gangs of New York” (Yes, he was in that one too!) they used to call him ‘Little Joe Pesci’ on the set, maybe because he could be so animated. Speaking of small roles, he is one of those actors that doesn’t believe there are small roles which is why he has been in both large and small parts throughout his long acting career which started when he was just ten years old. When he played Baby Face Nelson (who in real life was so crazy that even John Dillinger was wary of him) Graham played him with an over the top flourish of a huge smile on his face which only increased the more violent he got. As Al Capone in “Boardwalk Empire” he is threatening to those around him but also comical when he tries to do the same thing to his little son who is misbehaving at home. His Capone also shows a tender family side to that same son, who is partially deaf, and to a brother who has an increasing drug problem. Whether its playing a Texan [“Texas Killing Fields” (2011)]; a short-tempered, bald, tattooed, white nationalist ultimately seeking redemption [“This is England” (2006) and its sequels]; or even a Jamaican gangster (in real life Graham is of mixed race origin) in “Yardie” (2018), you can always expect the unexpected when you see Graham in something!
To close, this prior paragraph sort of brings back to mind an old MGM movie I once saw called, “The Good Earth” (1937) based on the Pearl S. Buck novel of Chinese farmers trying to survive in pre-World War I China. The book and the movie are really dated now and all of the actors (Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, etc.) are ridiculously made up to look Asian. Hollywood back then was so biased against any actor in a major film role not being Caucasian that they’d just rather make up someone Caucasian to look foreign rather than hire actual ethnic actors. However, they did use ethnic actors in secondary roles and one of them was a fine Chinese/Hawaiian actor named Richard Loo. Funny thing, not only were the Hollywood big wigs mega-bigoted back then, but they were also stupid because they really thought all Chinese actually looked alike so to save a buck they had Richard Loo play not one, but three different minor (and uncredited) secondary roles in the same film (I’m not making this up). Maybe if Stephen Graham was around back then, they would have probably just had him play all of the minor secondary roles all by himself.