Come April 4, the 27th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards will crown the year’s best performances of the big and small screen. As working SAG-AFTRA members everywhere consider their favorite examples of acting excellence, both individually and collectively, Backstage is once again here to guide you. Read on for a cheat sheet to the 2021 film and television ensemble SAG Award nominees!
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY A CAST IN A MOTION PICTURE
“Da 5 Bloods”
“I see ghosts,” says Delroy Lindo’s PTSD-triggered Paul. In today’s Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam War veterans Paul, Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Otis (Clarke Peters), plus Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) have gathered to recover the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, in one of his final screen performances). Director and co-writer Spike Lee’s complex story pulls back the curtain on these characters’ hidden fears, gifting us a talented ensemble with revelatory subtext.
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”
Taking place over a single day of recording at a studio in 1927 Chicago, this August Wilson screen adaptation is led by a tempestuous Viola Davis as the titular real-life musician. Her band is rounded out by Glynn Turman’s bleary-eyed Toledo; the always reliable Colman Domingo as Cutler; Michael Potts’ enveloping Slow Drag; newcomer Dusan Brown, who is wrenching as the stuttering Sylvester; and the late Chadwick Boseman as Levee, turning in what may be the finest performance of his career.
Korean American parents Jacob and Monica Yi, played by the magnetic Steven Yeun and Yeri Han, will feel relatable to any immigrants who have experienced the pitfalls and fleeting hopes of providing for one’s family. As son David (Alan S. Kim), daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and irreverent grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) adjust to life on an Arkansas farm, Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographically inspired story is a reminder that everyone measures life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness differently.
“One Night in Miami”
Regina King’s feature film directorial debut, adapted by Kemp Powers from his stage play, draws Black icons Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali (Eli Goree), Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) together for a tumultuous, illuminating evening in 1964 Miami. The film gets to the rich, human center of these very public figures, examining the threads of the tapestry that held them together as history-making contemporaries and peers.
“The Trial of the Chicago 7”
Every actor in this Aaron Sorkin historical drama plays such a pivotal role in the film’s success—and has carved out such a lived-in performance—that it’s impossible to rank one character as more instrumental to the storytelling than any other. Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II bring to life the true (and urgently relevant) story of the 1969 trial of a group of activists charged with conspiracy by the federal government.
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY AN ENSEMBLE IN A COMEDY SERIES
“Dead to Me”
Jen Harding, played by Christina Applegate in the performance of her career, is deep in the throes of grief following the sudden death of her husband; Judy Hale, played by the perpetually glassy-eyed Linda Cardellini, is grieving in a more metaphysical sense. Neither woman knows it yet, but the other will complete her, at times ruin her, and become her family. Joining them are James Marsden, Natalie Morales, Diana Maria Riva, and more, all right at home on Liz Feldman’s killer comedy.
“The Flight Attendant”
HBO Max’s first big hit, a comedy-thriller–character study about an alcoholic flight attendant entangled in a gruesome murder, is surprising for more than just its absurdly entertaining plot twists. Just when you think it’s too silly to feel substantial, producer-star Kaley Cuoco unveils another authentic, poignant layer to her Cassie, raising the emotional stakes amid all the mayhem. It’s the cast, including Michiel Huisman, Zosia Mamet, Michelle Gomez, and the fabulous Rosie Perez, that makes this series’ tonal whiplash work.
Long live Catherine the Great—Elle Fanning’s portrayal of the Russian empress, that is. Funny, complex, surprising, and entertaining, Tony McNamara’s Hulu dramedy works because of, not despite, its historically inaccurate flourishes. Fanning finds a formidable scene partner in Nicholas Hoult’s nasty (but, admittedly, hilarious) Emperor Peter III. Other members of the court, including Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Charity Wakefield, Gwilym Lee, Adam Godley, Douglas Hodge, and more, together weave a tonal tapestry of irreverent comedy and historical gravitas.
Father-son duo Dan and Eugene Levy’s sleeper hit of a series distinguished itself over six seasons with a sense of humor that was both arch and loving—biting but not bitter, sweet but not saccharine. From established legends (Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Elliott) to relative newcomers who knocked it out of the park (Dan Levy, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, Noah Reid), “Schitt’s” succeeded largely on the bonds that its ensemble forged along the way.
Jason Sudeikis puts his everyman aptitude and whip-fast comedy chops to glass-slipper use—or leather-cleat use—on this Apple TV+ comedy he co-created, playing an American college football coach hired by an English Premier League team to coach the other kind of football across the pond. Thanks to its ensemble (including Phil Dunster, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed, Jeremy Swift, Juno Temple, and Hannah Waddingham), “Ted Lasso” may be our favorite comfort binge of the pandemic era.
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE BY AN ENSEMBLE IN A DRAMA SERIES
“Better Call Saul”
Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan’s hit prequel to “Breaking Bad” uses the origin story of Bob Odenkirk’s fast-talking lawyer as its jumping-off point; before he was Saul, he was Jimmy McGill. Across the drama’s five seasons, Odenkirk’s chemistry opposite Rhea Seehorn as fellow attorney and love interest Kim Wexler remains unmatched. Supporting them are Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca, Michael Mando as Nacho Varga, and Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring, and they’re all superbly enthralling.
Shonda Rhimes was crowned Hollywood’s producing queen with her first Netflix hit, adapted by Chris Van Dusen from Julia Quinn’s pulpy tales of Regency-era London. The gorgeous period drama runs on the chemistry of its equally gorgeous cast: Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page sizzle as the buzziest couple of the 1813 social season, while Adjoa Andoh, Ruth Gemmell, Jonathan Bailey, Ruby Barker, Nicola Coughlan, Claudia Jessie, Golda Rosheuvel, Polly Walker, and the voice of Julie Andrews as the mysterious Lady Whistledown make this freshman series iconic.
Ever since Peter Morgan’s royal drama was announced back in 2014, fans have been waiting for Season 4’s introduction of Diana Spencer. Emma Corrin doesn’t disappoint; her portrayal of the princess’ public-private dichotomy steals her every scene. Equally compelling is Gillian Anderson as 1980s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who blends seamlessly with the ensemble of Windsors: Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, Erin Doherty as Princess Anne, and, of course, the magnificent Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II.
No expense was spared on Misha Green’s HBO adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel “Lovecraft Country,” a story of segregated 1950s America that both draws inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s world of literary horror and grapples with its creator’s racism. Led by Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett as the romantically entangled Tic and Leti, the ensemble (including Aunjanue Ellis, Jada Harris, Abbey Lee, Wunmi Mosaku, and Michael Kenneth Williams) believably swings between moments of painful intimacy, epic action, and hilarious B-movie jump scares.
While this Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams crime drama begins with Jason Bateman’s Marty as its protagonist, it gradually recenters on Laura Linney’s matriarch, Wendy. By Season 3, she’s calling the shots, and the cast is just along for the bumpy ride. Julia Garner is as surly as her hair is curly, but never unlovable; Janet McTeer is lithe like a cheetah and just as dangerous; and Tom Pelphrey stuns as Wendy’s agonizing brother.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 25 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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