There’s a whole host of talented folks crowing our TV screens these days. Undeniably so. From cable to network to Netflix, we are spoiled for nuanced performances and flashes of brilliance. But there’s an extra layer of commitment that shows its face from time to time. A performance so raw, so honestly vulnerable that it strips away at the distance we audience members so often enjoy. These performances can slice to the very heart of us because the actors leave all of their vanity behind them in service of their commitment to a role. That can’t be easy to do in such a superficial field. And no, I’m not talking about Nicole Kidman slapping on a fake nose to hook herself an Oscar. I’m talking about bone-deep commitment to a role. My most favorite example of this kind of gut punch acting is, of course, that fabulous Margo Martindale from Season 2 of “Justified.”
Martindale is a handsome lady who eschewed every speck of make-up and hair product and slouched onto our screens in her sloppy, hillbilly threads. And she blew us all away. I’ll never stop talking about how amazing she is. But let’s live a little more in the now and pay homage to the actors this year who pulled off similar feats of raw, unmannered performance. I’m not saying they deserve an award for leaving the eyeliner at home, but I am saying it helped me fall for their characters hook, line and sinker.
Taryn Manning — “Orange Is The New Black”: Manning is actually an amazingly beautiful woman, so that mad hair and meth-damaged grill of hers took me by surprise. But it was perfect and leant an extra layer of menace to her already dangerous religious zealot. She went full mental case in this role, and it paid off.
Hugh Dancy — “Hannibal”: The decay of Will Graham’s mental state over the course of the season was something to behold. It was fitting that Dr. Lecter’s diseased mind was clothed in such a precise, dapper fashion while Graham’s weakened one unraveled him both internally and externally. Frequently drenched in sweat and twisted up, Graham went from endearingly rumpled to a walking mess. Dancy’s commitment to this kind of performance is unquestionable.
Michelle Fairley — “Game Of Thrones”: Fairley spent most of the season looking downright swell in her prim little collars and queenly robes. Sure, her Northerner hair could have used a brush, but other than that, she was looking pretty trim. But in That Episode when That Thing Happened and she lost it (her mind, everything that mattered to her), Fairley went for it. Veins popping and tears streaming, she invoked unquestionable sympathy for a largely unsympathetic character. She stole my heart and the whole scene.
Louis CK — “Louie”: In my opinion, Louis CK is downright adorable in all his doughy, ginger beardy glory. But he is completely willing to make himself look as repugnant as possible. It’s part of (if not the entirety of) the charm of his show.
Mireille Enos — “The Killing”: The season finale of “The Killing” was a bit of a slog. It had no hope of topping the drama of the past two weeks and so did what that show does best and dragged its moody heels. But every time the camera lingered on Enos’s grief-stricken, crumpled face, I was mesmerized.
Claire Danes- — “Homeland”: Much like her husband Hugh Dancy, Danes is completely unaware of looking a fool in the service of madness. Her contorted cry-face has become a bit of a joke, for sure, but she’s all in and for that we have to admire her.
Chloe Sevigny — “American Horror Story”: You know almost all the ladies on this show let it all hang out this season, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give good ol’ Chloe props for … whatever this was.
Lena Dunham — “Girls”: The Queen of Putting It All Out There, Dunham went even deeper into Hannah’s self-loathing this season. Why she gets condemned by many while Louis CK gets all the praise, I’ll never understand. But she should be given SOMETHING for that haircut alone. “The Newsroom’s” Maggie Jordan has nothing on this.
Gwendoline Christie — “Game Of Thrones”: Christie is my favorite example because while we might make much of how well she “cleans up,” there’s something about her performance as Brienne that has made that character, in all her plain-faced sweaty glory, absolutely beautiful to me. It’s a clear case of inner beauty (and awesomeness) softening and enhancing the whole package. Jaime would agree.