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It’s not the size of the part that counts, it’s how the actor plays it — 3 to watch

Louis Cancelmi has a small but standout role in “The Irishman.”
Louis Cancelmi is a standout in a scene about a fish in “The Irishman.” “It’s a strange, comic scene that actually increases the tension,” says Cancelmi.
(Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

During this season of big, showy roles, The Envelope likes to spotlight a few actors whose appearances were too brief for awards contention but stood out in their films nonetheless. All are veteran actors who can be counted on to deliver the goods, even if this season they’re delivering only a few lines.

Alanna Ubach as Jeanine Pirro in “Bombshell”
Alanna Ubach understood what it would take to play Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro.
(Hilary B Gayle/Lionsgate)

Alanna Ubach
Jeanine Pirro, “Bombshell”

When Alanna Ubach was invited to audition for the role of controversial Fox News host Jeanine Pirro in “Bombshell,” the film about Roger Ailes’ downfall, the actress had no idea who Pirro was. After Googling her, Ubach thought two things: “First, ‘I hope Patricia Heaton is unavailable,’ and two, ‘I need a spray tan.’”

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Pirro was a staunch defender of Ailes even after news started to come out about his decades of sexual harassment. “Why was she sticking up for this predator?” Ubach wondered. That’s just the kind of role Ubach finds the juiciest. “It takes everything in you to try to figure out how to relate to this person and how to play them.”

First she had to prove that to director Jay Roach. After she auditioned in full spray-tan, fake-lash glory, he asked her to come back as the off-camera Pirro. “He said, ‘Otherwise, we’re going into SNL territory, and that can be dangerous.’” She asked a salesman at Banana Republic to suit her up as Pirro on her day off, “and he said, ‘Well, I’m sure she’s a golfer,’” and came up with an appropriate outfit.

After a number of callbacks, she finally emailed the filmmakers to plead her case. “I said, ‘I really do understand Jeanine Pirro. Maybe our politics are different, but I know what it’s like to be a petite brunette constantly trying to prove herself.’ I think maybe they were convinced by that.”

Ubach was on set for “2½ precious weeks. It was one bucket list check after another,” working with castmates Charlize Theron (as Megyn Kelly) and John Lithgow (Ailes). “We all knew we were doing something profound, because there was a sense of heightened professionalism on the set, and it was incredibly serious. That was different from every project I’ve ever worked on.”

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Leigh Gill stars in “Joker” with Joaquin Phoenix
Actor Leigh Gill says he’s seen his film “Joker” “three times in the cinema, and I loved listening to the crowd’s reaction” during his big scene.
(Christopher L Procter/For The Times)

Leigh Gill
Gary, “Joker”

Based in London, Leigh Gill got a call to put an audition on tape for an untitled Warner Bros. project. He knew from the script pages that it was something special, so after sending off the tape, he did some sleuthing. When he discovered the project was “Joker,” “I lost my mind,” he recalls, laughing.

The actor bought a one-way ticket to New York, where the film was casting, and lied that he just happened to be in town visiting friends. Director Todd Phillips met with him, and he won the role of Gary, a clown who is kind to Arthur Fleck before he spirals into Joker.

Gill had auditioned with an American accent, but on the first day of shooting, Phillips asked him to drop it. “He said, ‘Gary will stand out more if he’s the only English guy in the room. And that helps for later on; people will remember him more and care about him more.’” Phillips was right.

When Gary and another, more difficult colleague, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), visit Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) in his apartment, Arthur methodically stabs and beats Randall to death. Arthur then tells the horrified Gary that he can leave. But when Gary, a little person, hurries to get out, he can’t reach the door chain and must ask Arthur for help. “I’ve seen it three times in the cinema, and I loved listening to the crowd’s reaction at that moment,” Gill says. “Half find it funny, and half are so on edge and worried about me dying.”

He calls Joaquin “one of the most creative actors I’ve ever worked with. In the scene, when I’m trying to squeeze past the dead body on the floor, Joaquin sort of jumps at me and shouts. That’s not in the script,” and Gary reacts with the shock that Gill actually felt. “I loved seeing those moments up on screen as well.”

Louis Cancelmi is flanked by Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemmons in a scene from “The Irishman.”
Louis Cancelmi is flanked by Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemmons in a scene from “The Irishman.”
(Niko Tavernise/Netflix)
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Louis Cancelmi
Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio, “The Irishman”

With Coke-bottle glasses and a startled look behind them, Sally Bugs, a mobster in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” played by Louis Cancelmi, has a mien that doesn’t scream murderer. Until he sits behind a guy in a car and strangles him to death.

But an appearance in another car scene, with Chuckie (Jesse Plemons) and Frank (Robert De Niro), really stands out. Learning that Chuckie transported a fish that leaked juice all over the back seat, Sally interrogates Chuckie about the fish with an unnerving intensity.

“It’s a strange, comic scene that actually increases the tension,” says Cancelmi. The group is on their way to pick up Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), a fish on a different hook.

Cancelmi praises his three costars, “all very different actors, but also really playful actors. And Scorsese has so much trust in the actors, he kind of lets you do anything.” Their riffing in the fish scene went on longer than originally written. And an earlier confrontation between Sally and Frank over who gets the back seat was improvised entirely, “because De Niro wanted to be in the back seat.” Understandable, considering Sally’s history.

In preparation, Cancelmi read up on the real Sally, “a pretty unpleasant guy by all reports.” The actor also met a man whose family had been neighbors of the Briguglios. “He showed me a picture of his parents and Sally Bugs and his wife, and there was a look on his face, just a general look of contempt.”

Those thick glasses also helped his portrayal. In order to wear them, he had to put in contact lenses to reverse their effects. “Just walking was weird, because your depth perception gets a little messed up,” he notes. “What he’s paying attention to is a bit different than everyone else. And that makes him seem a little odd.”


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