Why ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Has One of the Best Acting Ensembles of 2020

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Photo Source: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

As we look back at 2020, we at Backstage have pinpointed the year’s best big- and small-screen ensemble work for your SAG Awards consideration and beyond. For more voting guides and roundups, we’ve got you covered here.

Main Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Jeremy Strong
Casting by: Francine Maisler
Directed by: Aaron Sorkin
Written by: Aaron Sorkin
Distributed by: Netflix

Proverbial gun to my head, I could not tell you who is the lead (or leads) in Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” I couldn’t tell you who should qualify as supporting or lead, either. 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. (Fittingly, they’ll all be campaigning as supporting this year.)

That said, we have to start somewhere, and we might as well begin with what easily comes as the film’s most surprising performance—or rather, its most surprising performer: Sacha Baron Cohen. That’s right, the writer-actor behind “Borat” turns in one of the best film performances of the year as Abbie Hoffman. He’s the most raucous of the real-life seven who were charged with conspiracy by the federal government in 1969, in the wake of protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the year prior.

The film recounts not only a true story from the semi-recent past, but one that has particular relevance in a year when Black Lives Matter protests poured onto the streets across the country for months on end; it certainly adds pressure to both the cast and creative team to get it right. 

But like Baron Cohen, whose period-appropriate Afro and Worcester, Massachusetts, accent are just so, they each nail it. Among the film’s many other scene stealers is “Succession” star and recent Emmy Award winner Jeremy Strong. As activist Jerry Rubin, the actor leans so far into a particular style of ’60s hippie vocal fry that it would border on caricature if it weren’t so accurate—and he weren’t so committed. (It’s now well-documented that Strong requested that Sorkin actually tear gas him during the filming of a protest scene; if that’s not commitment, nothing is.) 

Also among the cast is Academy Award winner Mark Rylance, serving here as the misfit group’s lawyer, William Kunstler; with his air of genuine warmth, Rylance provides what is basically the film’s sturdy spine. Kunstler lived and died in New York City, a long way from home for the British-born Rylance, yet you’d never know it from his spot-on Big Apple intonation. The actor’s pitch-perfect accent work is unsurprising, given that he told Backstage last year that his way into a character almost always begins with finding their voice. 

The stellar ensemble additionally includes Eddie Redmayne, “Watchmen” star (and 2020 Emmy Award winner) Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Frank Langella, Michael Keaton, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Did I mention this cast is stacked?) Still, the real MVPs of “Trial of the Chicago Seven” are its many dialect coaches. There are four of them credited, and in case no one else does so this awards season, we’ll speak their names here. 

Michael Buster, Jerome Butler, Martin McKellan, and Tim Monich: You almost certainly helped a few actors on their way to winning some awards this season, and that in itself deserves a shining trophy.  

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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