A character is only as good as the actor/actress who breathes life into them. The actor or actress who puts their blood, sweat, and tears into ensuring that we’re able to understand the deeper nuances, which make the character special. And these 10 performers weren’t difficult to single out this year as they made each of their characters unbelievably relatable, complex, and beautifully evocative.
(A special PSA, you will not see any performers, specifically Elizabeth Moss from The Handmaid’s Tale on this list because while I thought she was unbelievable, and definitely one of the strongest of the year, I couldn’t finish the show to properly write for it. And it’s because of the groundbreaking performances on that show that makes The Handmaid’s Tale too difficult for me personally to stomach. It makes it too real.) But do not fret, Heather over at TV Examined had a lot of amazing things to say.
Also, be sure to check out our Series of the Year | Stranger Things article, as the number one performances, characters, relationships, and moments are all featured there. Essentially, they deserved their own special tribute.
- Nicole Kidman
Big Little Lies
Nicole Kidman’s unprecedented, award-winning portrayal of Celeste Wright has left a number of us amazed – in utter awe, and easily, at a loss for words. The moment when Kidman steps onto the screen as Celeste, a story is unfolded masterfully through the eyes of a woman whose story is too big to tell. It’s a story that must be shown. And with each episode that passed, we were given the chance to see a confident, enamored woman crumble with bouts of rage and exhaustion, fear and bravery. Kidman brought the troubling vulnerability of a domestic abuse victim’s grief to life so poignantly, it was almost too difficult to watch at times. It was too real, too fearful, and it couldn’t have been as evocative if Kidman hadn’t shown us the unwinding of a woman seemingly crazy in love. Celeste was a friend, a wife, a mother, and in the midst of it all, she was a woman hiding a dark, vulnerable secret, a task which Kidman showcased in a riveting, often painful manner by meticulously bringing forth the deep inner conflict Celeste tirelessly battles.
2. Jennifer Morrison
Once Upon A Time
In her final chapters as Emma Swan, Jennifer Morrison bared everything in her in order to properly showcase and spectacle the crumbling of the walls that’d been piled up in front of our Storybrooke Savior. Morrison’s been on this list every year, and it’s sad to say that this will be the end of her run as Emma Swan, but in these final episodes, Morrison has never been stronger, she’s never been bolder, and she’s never been more transparent. In her final showcase of an ugly duckling’s full transformation into a swan, Morrison bared a colossal amount fear, agony, heartache, exhaustion, perplexity, and love all while remaining steadfast to the kindness that’s always grounded her. And those very emotions helped her move on towards defeating the most threatening evil yet only to finally reach a place of unparalleled bliss in the form of marriage. Morrison embodied Emma so acutely, so passionately, that there was never a moment where she didn’t accurately convey the depth of the emotions that possessed her. Morrison’s transparency and innate sincerity as she continued to breathe life into Emma made for an enthralling, wondrous farewell.
3. Sterling K. Brown
This is Us
There’s a lot I’m uncertain of, but Sterling K. Brown not being a part of every writer’s list this year isn’t one of those things. Brown has been rising as a star wonderfully first through his portrayal of Christopher Darden in American Crime: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and now as This is Us’ Randall Pearson. In this year alone, there hasn’t been a single episode where Brown hasn’t given his heart and soul into the character. There hasn’t been a single episode where his performance has been anything but superb and even in the subtlest, most quiet moments, Brown’s still speaking. And when Randall is pulled through the greatest emotional rollercoasters, Brown rises to the challenge with full force delivering each heartrending feeling with the most organic embodiment I’ve ever seen from an actor.
4. Andy Samberg
Andy Samberg is a comedic genius no doubt, but Brooklyn Nine-Nine challenged him excellently this year as they gave him the platform to subtly show us just how broken Jake is. And the keyword here being subtlety. There hasn’t been any sort of protruding emotional breakdown or anything bold for us to witness, but Samberg has brought to life heightened emotions such as fear, loss, and disbelief all while remaining “cool cool cool cool cool.” While in prison, we’re once again reminded of the weight he carries because of the absence of love from his father. We’re reminded of the fear that’s planted deep within, tucked away behind a man who’s supposed to be brave — cool, calm, and collected all the time. We’re reminded of the fact that humor is his way of masking the loneliness that year after year has only grown stronger. But apart from the organic display of a man well aware of the issues he carries, Samberg has shown us that overpowering the bleak loneliness that may haunt him is a man with colossal love to bare, which he does so meticulously and remarkably, reminding us that beyond anything, Jake is always grateful for the family he’s found in the 99.
5. Sophie Turner
Game of Thrones
This was Game of Thrones’ season to give Sansa Stark the platform to showcase just how fitted she is to take on the iron throne, and Sophie Turner’s exhilarating, remarkable performance easily took front and center. Turner has grown tremendously in the seven seasons we’ve known Sansa, but the work in her penultimate year was something we couldn’t have prepared for. Turner was subtle, raw, and unabashedly fierce in her depiction of an unprepared but acutely qualified queen. Turner makes it easy to feel every ounce of Sansa’s defeat, the unexpected joy of reuniting with her siblings, and the quiet rage when it comes to defeating those who’ve harmed her family. If there’s one thing that we can be certain of now, it’s that we’ve yet to see the best in her.
6. Matthew Rhys
The Americans is undoubtedly a well written show, but if it weren’t for these performers, I can’t say that I’d be as intrigued by it. I can’t say I’d have my eyes glued to the screen searching for the details as I do. And Matthew Rhys alongside his scene partner Keri Russell are the stars for a reason — though certainly difficult and unfair to choose between the two, Rhys gets the crown for the silent crumbling he’s brought to life. We’ve known that Philip’s been drained and broken for a while now, but the subtlety in which Rhys has allowed his character to show the traces of defeat and exhaustion as we watched his moral compass make way into his eyes has been captivating. There’s always been profound, silent communication in this show, but what Rhys has been showcasing in the penultimate season is worthy of constant praise. Could he and Russell please be given the Emmy for their final season. I can’t even imagine the groundbreaking work they’ll do then.
7. Tracee Ellis Ross
Black-ish did impeccably well casting Tracee Ellis Ross because not only is the genre of comedy fortunate to have her, but where there’s an episode that requires more spectacle to bring light to a more serious topic, Ross has done a masterful job thus far in shining. We’re now at the point in her performance streak where I’m convinced there’s nothing she can’t do and no emotion she doesn’t excel at embodying. And while Ross has been a superlative actress in the series’ run so far, the work she’s done in season four alone has been superb. Ross has managed to convey the kind of emotions that aren’t easy to resonate with when the viewer hasn’t gone through the thing themselves, but through her poignantly moving, meticulous acting choices Ross always brings light, humor, and incomparable fierceness to Bow Johnson.
8. Abigail Spencer
I didn’t get to honor Abigail Spencer’s performance as Lucy Preston last year because I had already talked about her for Amantha Holden on Sundance’s Rectify, but it all worked out great because Spencer’s work in Timeless’ second half of its freshman season was all kinds of riveting. As a character, Lucy’s incredibly special — different, bold, brave, terrified, and particularly expressive, thereby, it gives Spencer plenty of material to dabble in. And wherever Lucy’s emotions are concerned, Spencer has shown us just how passionate she is in bringing to light the details that make the character burst. If there’s one thing I can personally be certain of it’s the fact that I’m going to be doing a lot of crying as the series progresses because Spencer’s work is that evocative. Whether it’s the quaint ever-present tinge of sadness that lingers in her eyes, the silent rage that’s building up, or the immense capacity of love and unyielding empathy that’s already in full force within her, Spencer knows how to make the audience see what’s vital and then some.
9. Wentworth Miller
Wentworth Miller dived right back into the role of Michael Scofield as if he’d never left; delivering each and every emotion profoundly with his eyes. That’s always been my favorite thing about Miller as a performer, and by extension, Michael as a character, the amount of talking he does with his eyes floors me. Miller’s tone of voice, the quiet sadness that seems to linger no matter how far he gets from prison grounds, and the innate sincerity that always follows. The distinct character breaks from Outis that only a few could catch, and the heart wrenching relief upon reunions. And then came the moment I never knew we’d get, which was the moment he finally saw Michael Jr. – Miller wore unparalleled bliss cobbled with fear so expressively, I had to hold my breath. This wasn’t just a man meeting his son for the first time, but it was a man with genuine fears and a will to do whatever takes to protect. Whatever, Michael faced, Miller embodied him remarkably, never once missing a beat to remind us of how deeply this man feels everything.
10. Gabriel Macht
Gabriel Macht is always explosive as the suave attorney Harvey Specter, but when he was given the chance to show us the man behind the legalities, Macht met the challenge masterfully with little moments that brought light to the darkness he’s ceaselessly battled. And where he needed to crumble, Macht did so with a natural display of a man at his wits, an exceedingly clever man with unimaginable uncertainties. We were given the chance to know Harvey to his core — his fears and heartaches, his longings and his rage, all of which were emotions Macht brought to life through meticulous acting choices that allowed us to not only feel deeply for him, but it gave us the chance to understand how difficult exploring these emotions are. Harvey isn’t someone that could just break, he’s kept it together for so long that when the time finally came, he wasn’t aware of the emotions that engulfed him, and Macht showed us these emotions through the quiet, underlying cries that spewed through his everyday dialogue.
(Because we couldn’t match our yearly number due to time constraints, here our seven more of our favorite performers this year in honor of 2017.)
Honorable Mentions: Tea Leoni (Madam Secretary), Reese Witherspoon (Big Little Lies), Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones), Alexa Davalos (The Man in the High Castle), Mandy Moore (This is Us), Colin O’Donoghue (Once Upon A Time), Keri Russel (The Americans)
Who were your favorite performers this year? Let us know and let’s get to discussing them!