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Backstage Experts

Backstage Experts Answer: 19 Must-Watch TV Performances

Backstage Experts Answer: 19 Must-Watch TV Performances
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

As acting teachers, casting directors, and everything in between, our Backstage Experts know a stellar performance when they see one. That’s how we knew they’d be the perfect group to ask the following question:

Which (current) TV performers should all actors be watching and why? 

Here are 19 actors on television who got the attention of our Backstage Experts! 

(And if you missed the last installment of this column, check out “12 Overdone Auditions Songs” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!)

Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher 
There is a scene between Sam Shepard and Ben Mendelsohn on Netflix’s “Bloodline” that I can watch repeatedly and never lose interest. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll refer to it only as “the negotiation,” but when you get to it you'll know exactly the one I’m talking about. 

Though the entire cast is emotionally available, natural, and willing to follow their choices to the very end, this very simple scene between a legendary American actor and one of my fellow Australians contains, for me, so many of the hallmarks of great acting. The subtlety and nuance with which the scene of such high stakes is handled should be inspiring to us all.

Many performances rely of histrionics to draw attention to themselves, but this scene between a father and son with, let’s just say, stuff to work out, is touching, fun, surprising, dangerous, tragic, fascinating and heartbreaking. Pretty much everything you need to know about acting is in this scene, and if you can’t spot it all, you haven’t been taught everything yet. 

David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
I think we should study actors to whom we seem the most similar and who are doing what we want to do.

What makes anyone successful is their belief in themselves, and that by being the best they can be, they don’t have any real competition.

Acting is like athletics. At the highest levels, it is extremely specialized. There is no point studying a lineman if you want to be a receiver. By the same token, there is not much point in studying someone who is nothing like you to understand what you might be capable of.

If someone who is similar to you can be successful, then it gives you the sense that you could be successful too.

Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
Two actors of whom I never get enough—no matter what they are doing—are Kevin Spacey (“House of Cards”) and William H. Macy (“Shameless”). Both of these gentleman always take chances with their choices. I love being surprised, and these guys both always live dangerously in their acting choices. I am always encouraging my actors to go somewhere weird and dangerous. It has to be real and believable but, please, make it interesting. These guys are both masters of their craft, but make it look as though each moment is effortless. Technique plus living dangerously equals magic. 

I also love anybody (or thing) on “Game of Thrones.” This show is an actor’s dream. It has great scripts, characters, production and costumes. Everyone from cast to production team is a master craftsman. And did I mention there are dragons? Bonus: It has turned a generation onto classical theater ...and they didn’t even know it. 

I hope these amazing actors inspire you to get great at your craft. Make magic.

Kate McClanaghan, L.A.-based casting director
Frank Dillane is a young actor who plays Nick Clark, the heroin-addict son featured on AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead.” Dillane plays this unusual antihero so earnestly; he teeter-totters between high-risk vulnerability one moment and the overwhelming will to survive the next. It’s these great dualities and contradictions that add to the reality, raise the stakes, and further the suspense, making the high-flung reality of the zombie apocalypse seem completely plausible. This is a high-wire act for any actor. His performance could easily topple over into tedious melodrama, or worse—a bad, lost-weekend parody. 

Instead, in Dillane’s skillful and capable hands, you almost feel the role of Nick might be as much (if not more) of a threat than the pending nightmare that is slowly dawning on the rest of humanity. Great stuff. Dillane plays this part like a young Johnny Depp.

Stefanie O’Connell, found of the Broke and Beautiful Life 
Check out people like Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of “Broad City” who created the vehicle for their own success. This new era of television provides so much opportunity for the actor to serve as the creator and driver of their own artistic vision. You can now build your own audience and create demand for your work on the Internet with mass reach and relatively low startup cost. Content is King. If you can produce it in a unique and engaging way, you can get rockstar distribution like these ladies.

Brian O’Neil, “Acting as a Business” author and NYU and Julliard faculty
As of late, we can claim Oscar Isaac as a television star. On the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries “Show Me a Hero,” Isaac plays Nick Wasicsko, the youngest mayor ever of Yonkers, N.Y. What’s most fascinating to me about Isaac is that he is always able to bring the highest degree of the art of acting to all of his work. Isaac has said that just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s interesting, and so he looks to the highest and most sophisticated forms of acting from Greek tragedy to Kabuki theater. One of the few on-camera stars of his generation to star in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” before becoming a household name, the most fascinating aspects of Isaac’s performances is his lack of mannerisms and “tricks” upon which lesser actors rely. He goes far deeper than that. How? His intelligence, natural instincts, seriousness of his art, and his training comprise the confluence of factors that lead to his stunning performances. Actors, watch this man at work!

Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
I would highly encourage aspiring actors to watch the work of Mark Duplass. Duplass is the creator and star of the HBO series “Togetherness”—a show that looks at human relationships, expectations, dreams, and realities with honesty and humor. Duplass, along with a cast of capable supporting actors, navigate the challenges and general b.s. of life, families, and relationships with a truly nuanced wit and candor.

Duplass is also an important figure to follow because he condones a very proactive and realistic method of achieving industry success. Using his career as an example, Duplass empowers young creatives to produce projects—with almost non-existent budgets—that have the power to ignite their careers. Actors see more results when they generate projects themselves, rather than waiting for work to fall into their laps. If you can’t write, find a friend who can. In my work with actors, I help them to book more roles and launch their careers—on their own terms! Duplass is a testament to the powers of teamwork and self-created momentum.

Jackie Reid, manager, and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited
I will focus on children. The teen ensemble on Disney’s “Girl Meets World” is among the most talented on TV. Each actor embodies his or her character thoughtfully and thoroughly. The show balances comedy with serious themes in each episode brilliantly. Tackling issues like bullying and autism isn’t easy, yet this cast brings poise and authenticity to each storyline, while still showing levity and humor.

On ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” I am constantly impressed with Bailee Madison, Abby Ross, and Nicole Muñoz. Each plays the younger version of an established series character. They show their own voices and motivation for their characters while collaborating with the actors playing their adult selves to seamlessly blend mannerisms, facial expressions, and vocal inflections without imitation or mimicry. They are so familiar with each other and their story arcs that the result is a perfect blend of the two incarnations of each character.

To watch any one of these young people is a great lesson in showing dimension and a range of emotions while staying true to character.

Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
Although this actor has become more of a film star as of late, I would say watch Steve Carrell on “The Office.” Carrell has an uncanny ability to express multiple thoughts and feelings through nonverbal communication in just seconds. I’ve never seen someone express so many complex thoughts and emotions so effortlessly and so quickly. He truly is a most remarkable talent and someone everyone should emulate.

John Swanbeck, director-author
Tatiana Maslany on “Orphan Black.” And if you have to ask then you’re missing out on the coolest acting job anyone has on TV right now. It’s hard to keep track of just how many characters she juggles, but what’s just as impressive is the precision she displays in the creation of each one. And they all pass the crucial litmus test for whether an actor has actually created a character or is just doing a good job of acting a scene—a mistake many actors make because the latter doesn’t pop on camera. The litmus test is whether we would recognize your character just as easily if we took your character out of a given scene and put him or her in a coffee shop somewhere ordering coffee. If we would recognize your character in a silent movie showing someone reading the phone book, then you’ve actually created a character as opposed to just acting a scene. She plays multiple characters and they’re all that vividly drawn.

Craig Wallace, L.A.-based acting teacher
Aden Young on “Rectify.” He is absolutely fascinating. No one on television can do more by doing less than Young. He has the whole emotional map of his character tucked so deeply inside of his body and heart that all he has to do is look at the camera and your heart breaks. His performance is master class in the art of being.

Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
Gimmicks and “cool” voice affectations dominate most TV acting. The material is information driven, trading character for exposition. Fast production schedules help lower the bar. Tired procedurals with stock versions of stock characters still dominate primetime. The few great shows give us the false sense that TV is in a “golden age.” Well, great film acting requires so much rehearsal and precision that the limits of TV are such that I almost never see interesting acting in that medium.

If you want to study technique, you will need to turn to foreign shows like “Downton Abbey.” Amanda Abbington stands out on “Mr. Selfridge.” Offering up fully realized American TV performances are Lee Pace on "Halt and Catch Fire," and Taraji P. Henson on “Empire.”

However, my pick is someone who represents the future of the medium, Louis C.K. What he lacks in range he makes up for in dynamic skill sets. Tune in to see what is possible when a performer becomes a concept to creation content provider. C.K. edits the episodes on his laptop. He writes, directs, and casts his friends.

As network budgets plunge and platforms expand, C.K. is a harbinger of the future. I prepare my students by spotlighting filmmaking disciplines that go along with in-depth actor training. You might be wise to look into this path. 

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff. 

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