Every so often one is lucky enough to see a real actor in action. On TV or in the movies what you are most likely to see are attractive pieces of meat. A few figure out how to distinguish themselves from the rest to become brand names, but they’re still a piece of meat — Oscar Mayer, say.
But real actors are not always the same, but always different, Not playing types, but persons. They are more likely to be stage actors in part because the stage doesn’t deal in franchises where the same story and cast are recycled unchanged. Movies: Fast and Furious 6. Stage: Hamlet, the one and only.
Women have been more likely to become actual actors on film, perhaps because their shelf life as attractive meat is deemed shorter and because, until lately, they were less likely to be cast in an action franchise like such esteemed thespians and Vin Diesel and Steven Seagal.
The real actress Jennifer Lawrence has now starred in two swashbucklers and runs the same risk as her male counterparts. The money is awfully good and the work steady. But the franchise player, like Christian Bale and Robert Downey Jr., can discover one day that once you don the empty Bat or Iron suit you may never get out again.
The range of a real actor is their calling card, just think of the disparate roles of a Streep or Blanchett. The epitome on the screen may have been the late Alec Guinness who could gleefully shift from a spooky Fagin in Dickens to a nondescript master spy in Le Carre. He was a noble soldier driven mad in Kwai and a brutal martinet in “Tunes of Glory,” an Arabian Prince in “Lawrence of Arabia,” a hapless crook in “The Lavender Hill Mob,” and Obi-Wan in space. Oh, did I mention eight doomed and hilarious D’Ascoynes in “Kind Hearts and Coronets?”
What fun! Real actors often have unmemorable looks like Guinness which allow them to dress up, make up and vanish into any role. Two new ones have arrived in the anteroom of the pantheon. Such folks get dismissed as character actors rather than stars. But that’s because they do what actors are supposed to do — play characters, not themselves.
Tom Hardy made no impression on me the first few times I saw him because he has in spades the actorly skill of being a chameleon. I never noticed he was acting. In RocknRolla he seemed like an actual cockney thug, as Ricky Tarr in ”Tinker,Tailor” a small time hustler turned underconver agent jumpy at being mistaken for a turncoat and grief stricken at the death of an informant. He really was a piece of meat and unintelligible behind the mask as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” As an appalachian bootlegger in “Lawless,” he seemed like some guy from Harlan County they’d found to put in the same frame with Hollywood people like Shia LaBeouf playing dress up.
Somewhere along here, however, the penny dropped and I realized it was the same guy. He’s acting! In “The Drop,” Hardy has the pigeon-toed shuffle, the cringing shrug and the inarticulate searching for words of a guy who has gone way too many rounds in the ring. Until the climax, when you suddenly realize he is someone else entirely. It’s a tour de force likely to be overlooked when they hand out statuettes because so subtly done.
And then there’s Carrie Coon who, like Sir Alec and Hardy, has the trick of vanishing into her parts. I’ve seen her only in one movie, “Gone Girl,” and one TV show, “The Leftovers,” because that’s about the sum total of her output in those media. But she was striking in both and it wasn’t clear at first it was the same person.
It turns out that those lucky enough to frequent Chicago’s rich theater scene have known about the 33-year-old actress for years. She’s done Shakespeare and Shaw, Wilder and Williams, O’Neill and Albee. Her Honey, in a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” was her first Broadway part and won her a Tony nomination.
As Nora Durst in “The Leftovers,” Coon in a one-hour episode managed to show anger, depression, fear, lust, grief, fury, loss, desperation and hope. Astounding. As Ben Afleck’s sister in “Gone Girl” she is a wisecracking sidekick who loves him, supports him, doubts him, despairs of him and steals the show. I will now remember her name and show up for whatever she does next, but I don’t expect to see the same face but a completely different one. She’ll be acting.