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ACTING UP – Episode #7

ACTING UP – Episode #7

Welcome to the seventh installment of ACTING UP, a regular Casting Networks feature designed to call attention to standout roles and performances in television/streaming and film. Each entry spotlights work in projects that have recently been released as well as work in projects being released that same week. The column also covers 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.

Seventh up: Rosa Salazar, who stars in the action-romance-sci-fi feature “Alita: Battle Angel” from director Robert Rodriguez and which hit theaters on Thursday; and Melvin Gregg, who costars in the Steven Soderbergh-director sports drama “High Flying Bird,” which premiered last week on Netflix.

THE PERFORMER: Rosa Salazar

THE FILM: “Alita: Battle Angel”

THE PERFORMANCE: In this theatrical, co-written by none other than James Cameron and directed by Rodriguez, you might say that all eyes are on Salazar (literally). Her peepers are gigantic pools of confusion and determination, thanks to some fancy CGI that essentially turns the actress into a living anime character.

Salazar turns in a savvy performance as the title heroine Alita, a female cyborg who journeys through a cyberpunk landscape to find answers to a past she can’t remember and a future world she doesn’t recognize. It’s based on the Japanese graphic novel series created by Yukito Kishiro.

Alita goes around asking things like: “Does it bother you that I’m not completely human?” and admitting things like, “I’m not your daughter. I don’t know what I am.” Fortunately, she’s primed to save the universe with an attitude that declares, “I do not stand by in the presence of evil.” That is, when she isn’t threatening the bad guys with, “You’ve made the biggest mistake of your life.”

While Salazar proves plenty adept at navigating the futuristic world of “Alita,” she has plenty of help, too – namely, three Oscar winners in Mahershala Ali (who seems to be in everything lately), Jennifer Connelly and Christoph Waltz. It makes rescuing mankind a considerably easier task.

THE CAREER: Salazar burst on the scene in 2011 by co-starring in a 13-episode seasonal arc on NBC’s “Parenthood” in 2011-12 as Zoe DeHaven, following it up with a four-episode stint in 2011 on FX’s “American Horror Story.” Then came a gig in the made-for-TV movie “Boomerang” (2013) in which she appeared with Felicity Huffman, Anthony LaPaglia, Jeffrey Ross and S. Epatha Merkerson in the tale of a family of government assassins.

More recently, she appeared in the acclaimed 2018 Netflix horror thriller “Bird Box” with Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich and Sarah Paulson as well as in the sci-fi thriller sequels “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” (2015) and “Maze Runner: The Death Cure” (2017). That’s not to mention the 2015 feature “Night Owl” co-starring Tony Hale and Peter Krause.

THE PERFORMER: Melvin Gregg

THE FILM: “High Flying Bird” on Netflix

THE PERFORMANCE: In this surprisingly well-written and spry Netflix entry, Gregg plays a would-be NBA rookie phenom named Erick Scott whose debut is delayed by a walkout stemming from a contractual snafu between players and owners. His performance is at once understated and cocky, a compelling piece of acting.

What gives Gregg’s work in “High Flying Bird” such fuel is his chemistry with Andre Holland, who turns in a tour de force as Erick’s jive-talking agent Ray Burke. The kid is naïve, but he seems to know it. He demands respect while, at the same time, he doesn’t yet really deserve any.

“You stop low-key stupid-ing me!” he fumes to Ray at one point.

The truth is that Erick’s linguistic skills can’t come close to matching his balling talents.

“Ima say it straight to a dude’s face,” he declares at one point while stressing his desire for honesty. To a fellow rookie with whom he’s trash-talking over Twitter, he notes, “I don’t need no tweets, I’m from the streets. Lesgo one-on-one, take the clock off, till 21, I’ll light your ass up any day. Tha fuck?”

Erick adds for good measure, “I’ll make the rim shake and move with my fury.”

Soderbergh does an impeccable job of keeping Gregg, Holland and their fellow actors (including Kyle MacLachlan) sharp and focused.

THE CAREER: The only brother to six sisters, Gregg has steadily built a successful (if relatively anonymous) career to date, including appearing in more than a dozen national commercials for everything from Nike to Sony, Google, Gatorade and others. He also co-starred in the Hulu series “Freakish” (2016-17), about a group of high schoolers struggling against a collection of predatory mutants.

Gregg also appeared in the 2016 feature “The Land,” about the world of professional skateboarding and a pair of series in 2018: the true-crime satire “American Vandal” and “unreal,” a comedy about the chaos surrounding a dating competition show, starring Shiri Appleby and Craig Bierko.