Thomas McDevitt

realistically fake – can you sell it?

A huge part of immersive television/film is how well the roles are played by the actors. The variety of characters they can play is only limited by the writers’ imaginations; whether I can be convinced of what the writer has intended will depend on the skill of the actor themselves. That is precisely it — the actor is, quite plainly, an actor, but whether or not we can forget that when we’re watching them in a show is another thing. So what gives a performance maximum entertainment value?

making it immersive

I won’t claim to be any kind of expert on acting but when I do watch a movie or TV show, there are a few things I notice that I’ll broadly group into the following categories.

knowledge of the character

By this I’m not just alluding to knowing the backstory to the character; I also mean the mannerisms that make a character quirky, different or perhaps just plain believable (whether or not the character is a real person). An example is Benedict Cumberbatch‘s character in The Imitation Game — the portrayal of Alan Turing paints the very clear picture of a socially awkward yet somewhat indifferent character which is thoroughly entertaining to watch, despite it probably being a fictional interpretation of what Turing was like.

One of my favourite examples of capturing the image of a character is Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. This was a role where details as small as facial twitches were absolutely significant yet the journey of one man’s battle with ALS is portrayed fantastically.

knowledge of the character’s interaction

The way a character interacts with others is key to how we can get lost in dialogues that help add substance to them. A fantastic example of diversity here is the myriad of characters played by Matt Lucas in Little Britain — it’s not ‘immersive’ in that it’s easy to get carried away by the character’s believability (by design; the characters are meant to be very silly and fake) but there’s a huge range of different personalities that are all carried across very well to a funny, albeit bizarre, effect.

Of course, even in the best of shows, it’s possible for one actor to be simply outdone by another…

knowledge of what the character does

This specifically refers to the character’s skills and professions. Whilst I loved the film August Rush, Lyla’s haphazard fingering on the cello was plainly not convincing to me as a cellist which ended up breaking the immersion every time it was shown. A much better example is the main cast of House through pretty much its entire run; whilst Hugh Laurie received incredibly positive response to his role as the lead, I think the entire cast can be credited with giving stellar performances that helps make the show so immersive and entertaining. I can watch every episode from start to finish without regressing to seeing ‘actors being doctors’.

a few times the actor nailed it

All the above considered, here’s a brief list of actors who I believe can fit into pretty much any role and some instances of their roles that have ended up being incredibly immersive.

  • Forest Whitaker — Idi Amin: the performance of the lead role in The Last King of Scotland was reviewed excellently — and with good reason. Part of the preparation for the role included learning a new language and instrument, indicating how far the best actors are willing to go to excel at what they do.
  • Peter Capaldi — the Doctor: quirky, mysterious, often just plain silly and funny, need I say more?
  • Taraji P. Henson — Jocelyn Carter: Person of Interest gets off to a slow start — but later series show this character taking on some serious challenges with corrupt cops, even eclipsing the other main characters in the show bringing the badass-ness of Joss Carter to an entirely new level.
  • John C. McGinley — Perry Cox: whilst Zach Braff and Donald Faison brought excellent chemistry to Scrubs, I still find Dr. Cox one of the most interesting characters in the show. The actor can have me laughing hysterically one point and go to a much more serious scene later in the episode without ever breaking the immersion of it being the same, entirely believable character.
  • Alison Brie — Annie Edison: it’s difficult to believe that Alison Brie was about a decade older than her character in Community. Throughout the show she was entirely convincing as an insecure, overachieving young adult.

all in all

Great acting can obviously make or break a TV show but it’s clearly not the only thing that’s important. Excellent performances can still be let down by a lousy script but fortunately I don’t see this happen much — I’m often keen to go and see a movie because I know the cast in it is great. Let us know what you think!

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