Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
For a twisted 29: Meredith Hagner lends her eyes, lips, and mouth to “play” a spoiled, aging sex doll dead set on becoming BFFs with her owner’s girlfriend in the raunchy yet smart Dummy. (All 10 episodes of the snackable series are available on Quibi as of April 20, 2020.)
Rarely, if ever, do sex dolls have their day in the sun.
That streak ends today because if you haven’t devoured Dummy yet, starring Anna Kendrick and Meredith Hagner (as the voice of sex doll Barbara Himmelbaum Harmon), you’re missing out on one of the funnier and filthier series Quibi has put out during quarantine to date.
Barbara is a past-her-prime sex doll with a strong feminist streak and aspirations to live outside her confined world. It might be easy to chalk her up as a shallow, one-note, low-hanging-fruit-type character — but in reality, this mouthy figure actually runs much deeper than that.
There’s all kinds of Hollywood insider stuff happening here that you’ll appreciate from show creator Cody Heller (Deadbeat, Wilfred). I say “insider” because the story’s inspired by Heller’s real-life discovery of a sex doll at the hands of partner Dan Harmon (Community, Rick & Morty).
Though not one that talked per se.
In a nice, new installment in the chronicles of art imitating life, Dummy is inspired by that development and centers around Cody (Anna Kendrick) and her successful TV writer/boyfriend, Dan Harmon (Donal Logue), who cops to having a sex doll after a stray sequin is found by Cody.
Cody promises that she will not go looking for said sex doll. But said sex doll goes looking for her and the two launch into a rather unusual friendship that involves everything from a vaginal replacement surgery to a Thelma and Louise-type road trip designed to “topple the patriarchy.”
Along the way, lots of hilarious banter spills out of Barbara, proving that she’s actually no dummy, but rather, an unlikely source of wit and wisdom that makes Cody’s life better. Almost like a female Tyler Durden — given we’re not sure if she’s real or living inside Cody’s head.
There’s just one minor wrinkle: Barbara is in fact a sex doll. She can’t move her limbs — just her eyes and mouth. She is fully reliant on Cody to keep her around, which keeps Barbara on her toes when it comes to conjuring up creative ways to prevent her from being tossed aside.
These ploys amount to a high laugh-per-minute clip that keeps the 6-8 minute episodes going down smooth. The funniest part of it all? The repartee between Cody and Barbara. Kendrick is masterful at playing off Barbara’s barbs. And then there’s Hagner, whose performance is a blend of deft V.O. and motion-capture animation — with limited facial movements. But… don’t expect Serkis/Caesar/Planet of the Apes-level CGI magic here. The relatively lo-fi aesthetic is all part of the series’ bare-bones charm, with Hagner putting it all out there as Barbara — her fresh choices as a worn-out sex doll coming to grips with her disposable fate prove fertile ground for comedy.
Though you might not get a chance to place Hagner’s face in this role, the voice is unmistakable.
The 32-year-old actress has done the Hollywood rounds in her career — starting, as some do, in the world of soaps. More specifically, the CBS soap As the World Turns (2008-2010) — where she once confessed to Maxim that her character once had to deal with cancer, an abortion, and a dying parent — all within two weeks. “I basically just cried literally nonstop,” said Hagner.
Hagner eventually landed on the popular TBS comedy series Search Party (2016-2017) as the shallow, self-centered twentysomething hipster Portia Davenport. Her best-known role to date.
Along the way, Hagner’s also had noteworthy guest stars on shows like perennial Emmy-winner Veep (2016), Younger (2017), Royal Pains (2009-2016) and TBS’ Men at Work (2012-2014). She’s also in the 2020 Sundance sweetheart Palm Springs, starring alongside Andy Samberg.
Hagner was born in New York and raised in Houston, Texas, and North Carolina, so you might pick up a hint of Southern in some of her work. But despite moving around a bit, she eventually landed back in the big city – specifically at Boston Conservatory, where she studied acting briefly before moving back to New York.
That’s where she landed roles in TV and radio ads for brands such as 3M, Levi’s, and Radio Shack (amongst others).
About playing a sex doll, Hagner writes on Instagram, “My performance was CGI motion-captured and I couldn’t move my neck or face during any scene… If I did, our creator [Cody Heller] threatened to publicly humiliate me ‘in creative ways.’ Again anyway!”
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.