Drama Actors on ‘Legion,’ ‘Better Call Saul’ Look Behind the Mask

Legion Better Call Saul Lead Actor
Courtesy of FX/AMC

To paraphrase George Orwell, all actors wear a mask, but some wear more masks than others. Many lead actor drama contenders play people who have secret identities or are hiding something; look at last year’s Emmy winner for lead actor in a drama, Rami Malek in “Mr. Robot.” This year, he’s joined by newcomers Dan Stevens in “Legion,” Tom Hardy in “Taboo,” and Giovanni Ribisi in “Sneaky Pete.” There’s even Sterling K. Brown in “This Is Us,” whose seemingly together character suffers from panic attacks.

Matthew Rhys in “The Americans” arguably has more to hide than anyone, as a Welsh actor playing a Soviet mole masquerading as the all-American Philip Jennings. “It’s a dream role, equal parts terrifying and challenging, and a great work-out for an actor — like going to the gym every day,” he reports. “The biggest challenge is to present him in a credible way and to make the audience really believe you’re that multi-layered person.”

How does Rhys do that? “I’m not really sure,” he admits. “But [series creator] Joe Weisberg, who used to work for the CIA, told me that the intelligence community always said, ‘When you’re lying, you need to stay as close to the truth as possible,’ and that’s great advice for this character.”

After five seasons, Rhys says his hardest scene was “when we tell our children that we’re actually Soviet spies. We had to make it a very believable moment.”
Liev Schreiber, who was again Emmy-nominated last year for his titular role as Hollywood fixer — and devoted family man — on “Ray Donovan,” describes his character as “a man who’s full of contradictions, who’s struggling, and who has all this emotion and desire and angst inside him, but who manages to hide his inner life. On the surface he remains relatively stoic and seemingly calm.”

“It’s an internal journey more than an external one. … He’s shutting down emotionally as he makes the choice to become this mercenary front.”
Bob Odenkirk

Maintaining this mask “is tricky, because it’s all about ratcheting up the tension, but also never really expressing his true feelings,” he adds. “And like all multi-layered characters, he lives or dies by the language and great writing. So the hardest scenes for me are the ones without dialogue, the ones in silence where he’s stuck in his memories and in his pain.”

For “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk, playing Jimmy McGill who “plays” Saul Goodman “is such a fantastic role, so rich and interesting.” And with the show’s third season now airing, “the differences between the two are getting smaller and smaller,” he notes. “But it’s an internal journey more than an external one, as he becomes Saul. Essentially, he’s shutting down emotionally as he makes the choice to become this mercenary front that he calls Saul Goodman. It’s a mask, but it’s also a real reaction to the disappointments of his life. He gets angry and consciously uses his position as Saul for his own gain.”

By the end of the season, “he’s made a giant step internally into morphing into Saul — and it’s kind of a sad thing to watch and feel that progression, as I really grew to like Jimmy,” adds the star. “While he causes some damage, he’s unaware of much of that damage, while Saul is totally conscious of how he uses and hurts people. He just doesn’t care.”

Balancing the two “isn’t too hard” for Odenkirk, who reports that Saul “is easier to play as he has fewer sides to him. We’ve only seen him at work, so far. Maybe if we see him at home, or in a relationship, we’d see other aspects.”

Stevens, who stars as David Haller, “Legion’s” titular mutant, has to wear many more masks than most. “He’s hiding — and containing — not just many personalities, but entities in his psyche, some of which are quite dangerous,” he says. “And yes, he’s diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and medicine and psychiatry can account for some of his symptoms, but then it’s revealed that that’s not what’s causing all these symptoms. And his interior life is vast and fascinating, and at any given moment, under any different circumstance, there are different identities at the helm.”

So how does he pull off this balancing act? “Anything can happen, so you have to prepare for all eventualities,” he adds. “And it’s a very collaborative show, which also helps a lot. That’s the fun of it, and it’s the role of a lifetime.”

His most difficult scene so far? “Having to learn the banjo in 10 days. That was harder than anything.”