Welcome to ACTING UP, the first in a weekly Casting Networks feature designed to call attention to standout roles and performances in television/streaming and film. It will spotlight work in projects that have recently been released as well as those being released that same week. The column will also tell you how those actors and actresses got to where you see them now. Read up and watch these performances as your weekly in-home acting class.
First up: Linda Cardellini in the Oscar contender “Green Book” and Sarah Baker in Netflix’s “The Kominsky Method.”
THE PERFORMER: Linda Cardellini
THE FILM: “Green Book”
THE PERFORMANCE: Cardellini turns in a splendid performance in what could have been a thankless role as Delores, the effervescent, patient and ever-so-Italian wife of the rough-edged (read: racist) Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). She brings heart and depth to her female lead work in what is ostensibly a mismatched-personalities road movie also stars Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley, the musician that Lip chauffeurs on a cross-country tour.
Delores calls her husband out on all his crap. She knows that he’s got street smarts but is utterly oblivious in other ways, and Cardellini’s steely, multi-layered performance makes clear that she gets and accepts both these attributes about Tony. She grounds the film in a familial dynamic that puts on display Cardellini’s Italian essence.
She behaves like a refugee from a “Mad Men” episode, with the same dutiful 1960s vibe. Watch her lovingly make sandwiches for her husband’s long road trip. You can tell that Cardellini did her homework, likely including gleaning notes from the real family of this fact-based tale.
THE CAREER: For two decades running, Cardellini has seemingly been on the cusp of breakout stardom going back to her standout role as Lindsay Weir on TV’s “Freaks & Geeks” (1999-2000) She also had a six-season Emmy-nominated run as a regular on NBC’s “ER” (2003-09) and a nine-episode guest arc on “Mad Men” as Sylvia Rosen, the married mistress of Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Her TV work also included the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries prequel “Comanche Moon” (2008) and starred in the 2015-17 Netflix thriller “Bloodline.”
Meanwhile, on the big screen, she had small roles in “Legally Blonde” (2001) and in the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” as Cassie, a waitress who gets jilted by Heath Ledger’s character. Cardellini also co-starred in the 2008 big screen thriller “The Lazarus Project” and stepped into studio franchise territory with a small part in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in 2015.
But “Green Book” serves as the launching pad for what promises to be a big 2019 for Cardellini.
On the small-screen side next year, she’ll be appearing opposite Christina Applegate in the 10-episode Netflix dark comedy “Dead to Me.” On the feature side, she stars as legendary mobster Al Capone’s wife Mae (alongside Tom Hardy) in the drama “Fonzo” and in the Warner Bros. horror flick “The Curse of La Llorona.”
THE PERFORMER: Sarah Baker
THE SERIES: “The Kominsky Method” on Netflix
THE PERFORMANCE: Baker sparkles in “Kominsky” as Mindy, the formerly estranged adult daughter of aging acting teacher Sandy Kominsky (Michael Douglas) who serves as his professional nag. She pesters her hapless dad to visit his sick friends and to get the toilets attached to his drama-class fixed. Yet despite this shrewish persona, Baker lights up the screen every time she’s on it.
What Baker provides this underrated dark comedy is a whimsical counterbalance to the oldster, more curmudgeonly chemistry between Douglas (age 74) and Alan Arkin (84). Mindy runs the acting school that her father presides over behind the scenes, in the dark about her dad’s humongous IRS bill.
She gets better—and gets more to do—as the series goes along. Take Episode 5, when Baker has the greatest monologue of the series. It comes while her Mindy is onstage before an acting-school audience, sucking down a cocktail and emoting. That’s when she says this: “The first time I saw my stepmother’s pussy was in the magazine. It was right in the crease. There was a staple on it. Sherilyn was a Penthouse Pet of the Month. And a heroin addict. My dad wanted me to call her Mommy.”
That’s simply delicious dialogue for any comedy actress. Baker also treats us to a great sequence in Episode 7, when she embarks on a frantic, tire-screeching drive to the offices of the IRS to drop off a $307,000 check for her father.
THE CAREER: Baker is one of those actresses who makes everything she’s in better, playing far more than just “the fat girl.” She was in six episodes of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and appeared in a four-episode guest arc on the CBS comedy spinoff “Young Sheldon.” She’s also guested in episodes of “Modern Family” and “Mike & Molly” and has also voiced a few characters on Fox’s “Bob’s Burgers.” Her bit part in the ensemble of the 2016 Christopher Guest comedy “Mascots” on Netflix also merits a mention.
But her breakthrough came in 2014 when Baker guest-starred on a memorable installment of the Louis CK comedy “Louis.” She portrayed the portly waitress Vanessa, who goes out on a date with Louie. When it becomes clear that he doesn’t view her as long-term dating material due to her weight, Vanessa lets loose with a brilliant monologue about the perils of being overweight, single, female and thirtysomething in New York City.
That guesting turn brought Baker spotlight attention from (among others) the New York Times. But she went back after that to being another working actress auditioning for roles. It might’ve turned out differently had she not been cut out of the Reese Witherspoon starrer “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002) and the 2011 comedy “Bridesmaids.”
Those hiccups aside, Baker’s biggest role to date is slated to land in Christmas 2019: a co-starring role opposite Melissa McCarthy (as well as Bobby Canavale and James Corden) in the action-comedy feature “Superintelligence.”