As more and more TV shows from both sides of the aisle find a home in the ever-broadening definition of “dramedy,” viewers are treated to actors giving some of the most raw and emotional performances we have seen in the medium, and often in shows labelled comedies.
This Emmy season alone, we have watched stand-out performances from such past nominees as William H. Macy as the softie shyster Frank Gallagher on Showtime’s “Shameless” and Anthony Anderson as Dre Johnson, a father realizing that his own marriage is fragile in ABC’s “Black-ish.” There are also newcomers, including Freddie Highmore as Shaun Murphy, the titular autistic savant in ABC’s “The Good Doctor” (a performance that won praise from the Autism Society in Los Angeles), and Jason Mitchell as Brandon Johnson, a promising chef from the streets of Chicago who is navigating old and new worlds in Showtime’s “The Chi.”
And while all this might be entertaining to those observing from their couches or bedrooms, pulling off the performances can be both emotionally and physically exhausting for these actors.
“I think a lot of times, what happens with me is I just allow myself to be,” says Mitchell, who is having a jam-packed year thanks to movies including awards darling “Mudbound” and this summer’s remake of “SuperFly.” He points to a scene in the pilot of “The Chi” in which his character has to attend the funeral of his kid brother, a gunshot victim due to mistaken identity. “If you allow yourself to actually be there, how can you not be hurt? It’s such a healing feeling to talk about.”
This is in contrast to a scene a few episodes later that involved a late-night brawl that ends with another bullet hole. “It was one of those nights where you get to work at 5 o’clock and you know you’re not going to leave until like 5 o’clock,” Mitchell says. If only he could have siphoned some of the energy from one of his co-stars in that scene, teenager Alex R. Hibbert.
But Mitchell, a New Orleans native who lost his best friend to this kind of violence, says these types of stories are important to show on screen because they cut down misconceptions and stereotypes.
Similarly, “This Is Us” star Milo Ventimiglia says he’s gotten much support from recovering addicts for the way his NBC family drama depicted Jack Pearson’s battle with alcoholism.
Ventimiglia says he likes that the wildly popular series handled “the affliction of alcoholism, the damage it creates and the impact of one’s actions” as well as “the hopeful nature of someone saying, I have a problem [and saying] I need to fix this. I need to show my family that I will remain the patriarch, the strong one, the great husband, the great father. And, hopefully, they’ll be understanding to support that I have a problem.”
He continues, “I know it sounds a little general, but what I really try to do is represent Jack as a real person, knowing that I have friends and colleagues who have dealt with alcoholism or drug abuse or things like that.
“I try and live Jack’s life in a way that is realistic to what friends have told me about their own existence.”
He’s proud of a small scene from this season in which Jack has to tell his teenage daughter, Kate (played here by Hannah Zeile), that the man she idolizes has a drinking problem. He knew he nailed it when similarly-afflicted friends called to thank him for showing an all-too-real moment of their lives. Ventimiglia’s other challenge with this scene? “I’m a much bigger softie than Jack Pearson is,” he admits.
“I would have a hard time reading that scene because I understood the weight that Jack is carrying having to admit having this problem to his child,” Ventimiglia says. “But Jack? Jack’s not an emotional man and he has to keep it buttoned up. I think that might have been the biggest challenge of that scene is to hold it together; keep it on that razor’s edge where tears aren’t falling, but this man is crumbling.”
Luckily for him, the “This Is Us” set does not skimp on Kleenex.