Obviously drama-school training churns out an infinite array of diverse thespian types, but the latest from Lillis and Lieberher/Martell exemplify a common variety amongst the young that feels more akin to petri-dish products of rehearsal rooms than of life lived.
They oh-so-visibly commit to the stakes (a preferred buzzword in classrooms) of every scene, embodying the obvious emotions of each moment. We see the strings of the straightforward line they’re drawing to etch-a-sketch the relationship between how to externally convey the internal. They’re thinking about how to play the character, instead of thinking about how to make us think — which would be a form of playing with us — lacking the language gestures of the body and mouth that could suggest further meaning for us to unpack beyond surface interpretations.
As with an audition where the actors first see the script when they walk in the door, they bring the text to life without adding anything deeper than what’s already on the page and clearly asked for therein, more of a translation than an adaptation. They always seem controlled and in control, even when their characters are out of control. It’s all neat and tidy, contained within a mannered box.
Perhaps they cling to maintaining a sheen of naturalism to ground the unnatural supernaturalism surrounding them, but that’s no excuse for ultimately focusing on and thus communicating only one idea or feeling or emotion or vibe at a time. They’re all about intent and motivation (more classroom buzzwords!), opting for clarification over expansion, in that they clarify the simplification of truth instead of expanding its possible multiplicity. While this sort of clarity is ostensibly supposed to reveal, it ultimately serves as a form of reduction, not expansion.
Plus, it’s actually not more “naturalistic”. Though it may look “realistic”, everyday interactions and these things known as existence and life would be a helluva lot easier to navigate if exteriors were in fact sieves, unfettered filters keying us into what truths can be deduced from the outside. By contradistinction, their acting acts as a translucent window into what the characters are thinking and feeling, without compelling us to wonder what’s going on under their hoods through outward depictions that convey human experience in inspired and thought-inspiring fashions.
A master of this latter approach: Nicolas Cage, on the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum from them. He revels in out-there unexpected choices galore — from outrageous line deliveries to ludicrous facial expressions — a roulette of decisions over chameleonic naturalism, a far-cry from any recognizable realism. Let’s deem him reality-adjacent, a bizarro(er) Jack Nicholson (in other words, he’s aptly cast as a pseudo-alien in his newest, Color Out of Space). There’s entertainment in this outlandishness, and it’s up to us to figure out how these external manifestations relate to whatever the fuck’s happening on the inside.
His mocked reputation is a reflection more of what brand of performativity contemporary audiences value than of his talent, which establishes an ideal that up-and-comers like Lillas and he of two names strive to achieve.
AKA: we get what we deserve.