Best of 2019: Actors

Welcome to the kickoff of my Best of 2019 month! I have 10 posts planned for the month covering my favorites in the world of television and books and a bonus post about my favorite YouTube channel, so I hope you’ll stick around and share your own favorites with me. In addition, be sure to keep an eye on MGCircles and Nerdy Girl Notes for their own end of the year content and enjoy all the enthusiasm that comes from people sharing the things that most resonated with them.

As always, these lists are less about crafting an objective list on the best/highest quality things of the year and more about reflecting who I was in 2019 though the things I love. So let’s get started with a list of the actors and actresses who gave standout performances to me this year!

1. Michelle Williams (Fosse/Verdon) For eight episodes, Michelle Williams was Gwen Verdon. She so fully inhabited the role and brought a woman who was a powerhouse of talent to the forefront of the relationship that defined her life. You can see the passion and love that went into this role and how Williams, along with the writing team, wanted to do right by Verdon. She is complicated and feels so deeply and conveys so much by small gestures and facial expressions. She nailed the dancing and the singing despite neither being her main skill and the end result was brilliant. We understood who Gwen Verdon was and the choices she made in her life because of the time and energy that Williams put in. I knew nothing about her going into this show but I feel like I do now, not just on stage but in her personal life as well. That’s not easy to do, to make sure a real person maintains all the nuance and history and complexity without becoming a symbol of something greater. But she did and it was truly spectacular to watch. 

2. Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) I could never have chosen a better actress to play Brienne of Tarth. The amount of love and effort that Christie put into the role gave Brienne the complexity that I suspect the scripts were lacking but that the story needed. Her ability to have full conversations with just her facial expressions alone is remarkable and all of that was on full display in the final season. From her initial defense of Jaime to Daenerys and the way we get to see her physically draw herself up and ready herself to speak to her queen on behalf of someone who had caused a lot of harm to the Targaryean family to the combination of hope and honor that blooms across her face during the knighting, all of Brienne’s emotions are right on the surface and that’s a perfect character choice. She never learned to bury her feelings and deny them to even herself. It makes her very bad at the politics of Westeros but it’s what allows her sense of goodness and honor to shine through. It’s also what made her choice to cry as Jaime left and seemed to confirm her worst fears about him so good. It was talked about and picked over so much but it rang true to me and I don’t think the woman who had to go for a walk because she was so upset about this choice for Brienne was going to do anything further that felt wrong for her. She let her guard down and was disappointed in the worst way and that needed to be written all over her face and body language. We felt it and Nikolaj felt it and it was a choice that felt like it was coming from a deep place of understanding and grief rather than one made as a reductive act for the character. Christie was consistently brilliant throughout this season and I was so thrilled to see her get the recognition she deserved, even if it didn’t come in the form of an Emmy. 

3. Aya Cash (You’re the Worst) My undying love for You’re the Worst has been discussed at length over the past few years and so much of that has to do with what Aya Cash has done with Gretchen. Gretchen is kind of the worst. She can be mean and self-destructive in a very real way and then instantly drop all of those defense mechanisms and show the very scared and damaged person underneath that is never sure in her self or that the people she loves feel the same way about her. So much of her character is a persona and if it stayed up, it probably would still be an entertaining, if more frustrating, show to watch. But Cash continually shows a deeper side to her that rips my heart out every single time and this final season was no exception. Any time Gretchen’s depression or fear or self-loathing got the best of her, you felt it and you hurt for her. Even at her worst, you love her because we’re given the chance to truly see her and that’s all due to what Cash has brought to the role. 

4. Todd Grinnell (One Day at a Time) Between finding a girlfriend, seeing his father again, and relapsing, it was a tumultuous season for Schneider and Grinnell stepped up to the challenge beautifully. He’s been a steady touchpoint of the show, simultaneously a source of humor and heart, but this season expanded on the character and gave him the opportunity to show us how much he’s capable of. Everything about the relapse arc broke my heart and I love that he was both given the opportunity to share his own history with addiction and brave enough to include so much of it in the role. I imagine it can’t be easy to get yourself back into that headspace and to occupy it with the compassion the show is known for. He’s vulnerable and hurting and that comes through even when he’s being defensive and lashing out to protect his addiction. He is terrific as a comedic actor but his dramatic skills can’t be overlooked and I hope to continue a little bit of that in s4. Also, as much as I love the idea Penelope and Schneider romantically on the show, you cannot deny how completely adorable he is with real-life wife India de Beaufort as his onscreen girlfriend. There’s a beautiful ease and lightness that he brings to all of their scenes together along with a truly excellent set of heart eyes. 

5. Mj Rodriguez (Pose) Blanca is the character around which the world of Pose revolves. It’s her relationships with Elektra, her children, and Pray Tell that we’re most invested in and her success and her health that we want to root for the most. Without someone capable of the right blend of fierce inner strength and innate warmth, that could all fall apart. Rodriguez is equally good at the quiet moments as she is in the big moments and radiates pure love in all that she does. Blanca is such a genuine and good person and the skill it takes to play a role like that sometimes gets overlooked but allowing yourself to get to the vulnerability and emotions needed to really commit to such a role takes an incredible amount of personal bravery and trust in your team. There can never be enough praise for the work Rodriguez is doing and I need some award recognition for her immediately. 

6. Natasha Lyonne (Russian Doll) Russian Doll could not have been what it was without Natasha Lyonne. She was the sole focus for half the season and kind of split focus with Charlie Barnett for the back half but it was still primarily her story. It was her ability to channel this world-weary, kind of self-involved and destructive person who was just over everything to avoid coping with her past trauma and make her into someone we wanted to see do better that made this show work. It wasn’t the unraveling of the mystery, or the myriad of ways we watched Nadia die (though Lyonne’s physical comedy work was also exceptional) that drew us in. It was the way Lyonne managed to ground Nadia and make her something more than the over-the-top mess that we first see. She was gradually able to turn her into someone real who spent years shoving aside her own humanity and pain to avoid her past and we got to see both of those things creep back into her life. She had to turn her feelings back on and re-engage with the world while still feeling like a cohesive character from start to finish and Lyonne did a brilliant job portraying that and carrying the theme of the show. 

7. Michael Sheen (Good Omens, Prodigal Son) It feels like this was the year that the internet collectively decided to fall in love with Michael Sheen and who could blame us. He’s absolutely incredible in Good Omens. He makes Aziraphale’s love of humanity and the food, books, and music it has created shine through everything he does but also conveys so much about Aziraphale’s growing and conflicted relationship with Crowley with a simple change in tone or fleeting facial expression. It made for simultaneously the quietest and loudest love story and I was riveted the whole time. Then Prodigal Son started. He carries so much of the off-kilter humor on this show, seamlessly switching between the affable father excited to reunite with his children and a charismatic and terrifying serial killer who shows no remorse for his actions. That line between sincerity and manipulation is very narrow for him and Sheen walks that line brilliantly. I’m not sure there’s any other actor I’ve had more fun watching this year and can’t believe it’s taken me so long to see how terrific he is. 

8. Tina Lifford (Queen Sugar) If last season was a year of triumph for Violet as she saw her dreams come true and married Hollywood, this was a season of healing and growth and it was a pleasure to watch Tina Lifford tackle that challenge with the grace and strength she’s brought to the role for four seasons. She had some of the most powerful moments of the season as she cared for Darla when she was struggling and faced the man who spent years abusing her and telling her she was nothing and was nothing short of incredible. The almost physical change that Lifford goes through as she realizes that Jimmy Dale is nothing more than a bully who made himself bigger by making her smaller and chooses to deny him that delusion by proudly claiming her success was so powerful to watch and would get her an award nomination if Emmy voters had any idea that OWN existed. 

9. Manny Jacinto (The Good Place) There is this really beautiful sincerity that defines Jason Mendoza as a character and makes him someone we can’t help but love even when he says words like “Pam Anderson boob motorcycle” and I am fairly certain that’s all thanks to the kindness Manny Jacinto radiates in the role. For a character who is basically the living embodiment of the Florida Man meme, he is continually shown to be one of the most considerate (if a bit oblivious) member of the team and we believe it because of Jacinto’s facial expressions and vocal choices. In the hands of a lesser actor, Jason could be nothing more than a joke character there to gently mock but he’s become so much more over the course of these four seasons and I can’t wait to see where Jacinto’s career takes him in the future. 

10. Lauren Ash (Superstore, She-Ra and the Princesses of Power) In addition to her perpetually terrific performance as Dina Fox on Superstore (a character who could easily be one dimensional and exist solely for laughs but is instead is a self-assured woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants and is unapologetic in their pursuit), Lauren Ash also did an incredible job as the voice actress for Scorpia on She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. She infuses so much warmth into the character, who is very nearly Dina’s opposite in everything but the loyalty and strong moral code that drives them both, and makes her someone you immediately want to love and protect. The dichotomy between these two characters allows you to see just how good Ash is at fully embodying her roles, her delivery is completely different and would be unrecognizable if you didn’t read the voice cast for She-Ra. 

Honorable Mentions: Summer Bishell (The Magicians), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Melissa Fumero (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, One Day at a Time), Blanca Lawson (Queen Sugar), Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin)



1 thought on “Best of 2019: Actors

  1. This entire list is wonderful, Heather! You do such a gorgeous job talking about performances I can’t imagine this being the hardest category being tough for you.

    But I need to talk about how much I appreciate you writing about Todd Grinnell because I feel like this is one of the most underrated performances of the year. I wept like a baby when he opened up to Penelope and how vulnerable he allowed himself to be in a moment that I imagine was so hard for him. I can’t wait to see what he brings to the new season because I already loved Schneider to bits and this made me respect him that much more despite how much I was hurting for him.

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