The Players' Journal


SAG Awards–Spotlight and Room

The SAG Awards are upon us and like many of you I have been viewing the nominated films, mostly through the convenient digital streaming service SAG/AFTRA has set up for members.  There is a LOT of great acting going on!  If you haven’t yet seen some of these films and television shows, I encourage you (SAG/AFTRA members) to do so and register your votes.

I want to mention the acting in two films:  Spotlight and Room.  Beyond sharing one word titles, these films, and the actors in them, stand apart from the typical fare–not a car chase or shootout between them.  That said, both offer us harrowing and disturbing worlds in which, whether fictional or fact-based, rely on terrific acting to remain credible and compelling.

Scene from 'Spotlight'

Spotlight features a first-rate ensemble– Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James (whom I have written about recently, see TPJ Observation–Something Rotten!).  What struck me was the juxtaposition between the explosive nature of the material (sexual abusive priests and the subsequent years-long cover-up) and the understated performances of the cast.  Nearly every scene involves subtle (and not-so-subtle) interactions of power.  Except for one climactic outburst, all these scenes play out in a very naturalistic way. But that’s not to say nothing is happening and the actors are wooden.  Far from it.  Rather, the actors skillfully embody the changes in status that occurs in the scene.  One example is a scene between Keaton’s character and a lay member of the Boston Diocese.  Set in an upscale bar (a bar that Keaton’s character would not typically patronize), the unctuous man from the Diocese enters puffed up and assured of his success.  Keaton curls around the bar, head down, focusing on his drink.  Yet, when Keaton does not buckle under as expected, the small slight shift in alignment (in both men) tells you everything you need to know about what has occurred.  It is one of many many examples of this kind of subtle and superb playing.

Scene from 'Room'

In Room, Brie Larson plays a woman captive for seven years in a shed, which she shares with her five year-old son–the off-spring of the abusive man who has imprisoned them both. In contrast to Spotlight, however, Larson and her son (played by the amazing and precocious Jacob Tremblay) play large and vividly within the tiny confines of the space.  Near the beginning, we see that the two survive the day (Godot-like) by making up stories and playing games.  Larson pulls off the double feat of simultaneously enacting the games with joy, but never letting us lose the sense of the soul-crushing effects of her captivity.  While metaphorically rich, the acting of the scenes in the room demonstrate how, with skillful direction and acting, large choices can be just as effective as small ones.  The rest of the cast is also universally fine, with only one or two false notes (one by the usually reliable William H. Macy–but I contend the problem is the impossible choice foisted upon him by the script and not his performance.  He does the best he can given what he is required to play).

In both movies, the actions cohere–that is, they make sense with the mise en scene.  The direction is excellent and more praise-worthy by the fact that both directors let the actors do their jobs.  It almost feels as if the camera just happens upon these people and, in some cases, literally captures them at their most vulnerable and true.

I’ll have more to say about other performances as the award show approaches.  Until then, get streaming!

Paul Kassel