‘Roma,’ ‘Eighth Grade’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ actors break down their small — but key — roles

For actress Emily Rios, shooting “If Beale Street Could Talk” with director Barry Jenkins and scene partner Regina King was “night and day from anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”
(Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures)

Actors who take on small roles may have fewer lines to memorize, but they must create an entire life in just a few scenes. Their appearances may be brief, but their performances are crucial to the movies they’re in. As we do every awards season, it’s time once again for The Envelope to celebrate three of the people who supported three celebrated films so artfully.

Jorge Antonio Guerrero — Fermín, “Roma”

“Roma” centers squarely on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works as housekeeper and nanny to a middle-class family in Mexico City. Her fleeting moments free of work are spent with her suitor, Fermín. In the role, actor Jorge Antonio Guerrero forges a path from enthusiastic boyfriend and martial artist to something far more tragic, personally and politically. “Roma” was his first film role. At his first audition, he learned the role would involve martial arts, so before even landing the part, Guerrero trained for eight months. By the final callback, “I was working for about seven or eight hours per day.”

We get a few glimpses of Fermín applying these lessons, the most revealing of which is a nude baton-wielding performance in a hotel room to impress Cleo. Speaking by phone from Mexico, Guerrero recalls that after he got over his initial nervousness, he had so much fun with the scene that when director Alfonso Cuarón offered him a towel to cover up between takes, he refused. “I say no, I want to finish. Then I will cover myself.”


Much more difficult was acting out a moment of terrible cruelty toward Cleo. “It was tough for me, but the communication with Alfonso was very powerful and created inside of me the exact expressions for the scene.”

Emily Rios — Victoria Rogers, “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Emily Rios plays a ghost of sorts. Her character, Victoria Rogers, haunts the residents of “Beale Street” before we even meet her, holding them hostage with a critical decision. When she finally appears, facing off against matriarch Sharon (Regina King), all of our expectations are upended. Rios calls the filming “night and day from anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”

Working with director Barry Jenkins, “it’s not so much direction as, let’s open up the dialogue, and from there we can see if we meet at the middle or if we have completely different ideas, and try to branch out from there. So he let me go ahead and do my take on it, and from there he had subtle little directions, to expand on or minimize something in my performance.” When it came time for her to give a particularly raw reaction, “he put a hand on my shoulder very gently and said, ‘Take as much time as you need.’ He let me do whatever my body was doing and whatever I was feeling in the moment, which was phenomenal.”

She has an equal amount of praise for King, her scene partner. After the first take, “I thought, she’s bringing it up to a level that I didn’t even know I could reach as an actor. She made me feel so safe and comfortable, and she also challenged me in a way I hadn’t been challenged professionally.”

Jake Ryan — Gabe, “Eighth Grade”

“Eighth Grade” stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla, a middle-schooler possessed of a level of social anxiety matched only by her hope for connection. Mercifully, she finds occasional moments of relief, none sweeter than from young Gabe, played by Jake Ryan. Gabe might be just as awkward as Kayla, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. “I felt like he was more comfortable with who he was, and in himself, than Kayla,” says Ryan, who at 15 has been acting for 10 years.

“I try to put myself into every role that I play, but for Gabe it was easy. He’s a lot like myself. He’s a little bit shy, kind of nervous sometimes, but he still tends to be the one to start up the conversation with somebody else. He likes to make people feel good, make them laugh.”

Ryan adds that director Bo Burnham “was pretty laid-back, but it always felt like he had things under control. I felt like I wasn’t being rushed at all. He respected our opinions and ideas of how the characters should be. He gave me a lot of confidence, him and Elsie. They were just super-nice people.”

And for the record, Jake Ryan is well aware that he shares a name with a certain film’s dream date. “Throughout my entire life and career, people have asked me if my name came from ‘Sixteen Candles.’ I’ve never actually seen the movie yet.”

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