The joy of watching our favorite series usually comes from the unique settings, gripping story lines and creative plot twists. But sometimes, there’s an unexpected bright spot that, for a moment or two, shifts your gaze and amps up the pleasure. Meet the Scene Stealer — the actor who so perfectly captures a tone, a look, a whole dang character, that the viewer can’t look away. Here, we salute eight performers whose mood changes, violent outbursts, sharp-tongued nastiness and otherworldly chaos add such rich flavor to an already favorite treat.
Lolly Adefope (Fran)
“Shrill,” the critically hailed new series based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, centers on Annie (Aidy Bryant), an overweight young woman bent into a seemingly permanent apology for simply existing. As the first season progresses, Annie begins rejecting that position, for good and ill — and great viewing.
Among “Shrill’s” many wonderful elements is Lolly Adefope as Annie’s roommate, Fran, a character who could have easily fallen into the Sassy Black Best Friend cliché, but instead comes off as something far more exciting: a real person.
“The whole idea of the show is to be as grounded and real as possible,” says Adefope, speaking by phone from her home in London. So while giving Fran “all the confidence that she has, and the chemistry with Annie, I tried to make her as similar to me as I could, so it wasn’t this caricature of a sassy, loud, mad person.” (Adefope is also in TBS’ “Miracle Workers” as Rosie, an assistant to God.)
Though a supporting role, Fran never seems secondary and her relationship with Annie feels thoroughly lived-in. While she calls Annie out on some of her more egregious behavior, Fran has plenty of flaws as well. It’s part of what makes her so authentic and what makes audiences relate.
— Lisa Rosen
Anthony Carrigan (NoHo Hank) | “Barry” (HBO)
“He’s a complicated sweetheart,” Anthony Carrigan says of NoHo Hank, the Chechen crime boss he plays on “Barry.” That he is. NoHo Hank can be menacing and scary, but also chill and considerate. He is a superb Russian folk dancer, devours Thomas Friedman’s globalization explainer “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” and dresses like he stepped out of an Urban Oufitters catalog, provided the model is covered in Russian prison tattoos.
NoHo Hank also has no qualms about killing people. It’s his job, after all, though you get the impression that he’d much rather be shopping for a new sun hat at the Glendale Galleria.
Bill Hader and Henry Winkler have already won Emmys for their work on “Barry” — and deservedly so — but if you had to pick one actor who embodies the show’s ability to shift tones seamlessly, Carrigan’s the man.
“NoHo Hank is this lovable, sweet guy — he’s also a mobster, yes — but he is very naïve and kind and polite.”
Fans have responded to NoHo Hank’s puppy dog joy and neediness in no uncertain terms. Hader says people stop him all the time — to tell him that they love “Barry,” yes, but also that they’ll stop watching if he dares to kill off Carrigan’s character.
Carrigan appreciates whatever job security he can get. After all, NoHo Hank was originally set to die in the show’s pilot.
“It’s HBO,” Carrigan says. “It’s not TV, it’s HBO. And if it’s HBO, it’s a slaughterhouse. Everybody dies.”
Not NoHo Hank. “We’d have to be crazy to kill him now,” Hader says.
— Glenn Whipp
Kieran Culkin (Roman Roy) | “Succession” (HBO)
Everybody cheats and lies in the Roy family, but Kieran Culkin’s sensationally rude corporate brat Roman Roy outdoes all rivals when it comes to oddly magnetic bad behavior. As he vies to take over the media empire from patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), Roman, imbued by Culkin with saucer-eyed faux innocence and a casually cruel sense of entitlement, slaps his sister (Sarah Snook) in the face, strips off his shirt in the middle of a business meeting, offers a boy $100,000 if he hits a home run and tears up the check when he fails.
Producers initially considered the 36-year old actor for a different role, but when he read the pilot script, Culkin recalls, “I knew I wasn’t right for Greg. Then Roman walks into the room,” all casual disrespect, “and I thought, ‘This guy looks like fun.’ ” Culkin lobbied for that role with a self-taped audition and landed the part. He says, “I actually consider myself to be a pretty good dude, so it’s very strange and freeing in a way, to play this sociopath who suffers no consequences no matter what he does and says. I would never want to get near Roman in real life, but man, is it fun to pretend.”
— Hugh Hart
Crispin Glover (Mr. World) | “American Gods” (Starz)
TV may be full of serial killers, terrorists and other horrible representations of humanity’s depravity, but for my money the bone-scariest character on the flat screen these days isn’t a human at all: He is the world.
Mr. World, that is, the leader of the New Gods and the personification of globalization on Starz’s “American Gods.”
The reason he’s so terrifying? Because he’s played by Crispin Glover. Unblinking and focused in his dark suit and perfectly arranged pocket handkerchief, Glover is chaos (barely) contained in a glass jar. One minute he’s crooning smooth cadences and expansive vocabulary to discuss the “useful heuristic” of branding; the next he seems aroused by the idea of overflowing ossuaries.
Those who recognize Glover only from his breakout 1980s role in “Back to the Future” don’t know what they’re missing; those who do understand how eccentrically out there he can be. The marriage of his intense personal weird with Mr. World’s reptilian delight in waging war is a perfect union that makes you wish they gave out Emmys for casting. Glover makes Mr. World go round — and we’re going round with him, screaming and tearing the stuffing out of our easy chairs.
— Randee Dawn
Greta Lee (Maxine) | “Russian Doll” (Netflix)
Writing about Greta Lee’s excellence as salty friend Maxine in “Russian Doll” is a little like dancing about architecture. So much of what makes her performance memorable is in the jazz of it — the hipper-than-thou delivery, the hairpin mood changes, the deadly comic timing.
Maxine is the dear friend of “Russian Doll” protagonist Nadia (Natasha Lyonne). She throws the birthday party that launches Nadia’s “Groundhog Day”-like regenerations following her many deaths. Maxine is, of course, oblivious to Nadia’s time-looped plight. However, Lee entirely invests Maxine in the totally unrelated high stakes of any given moment. Depending on how Nadia behaves, Maxine ricochets off her in different directions.
“It’s touching on the authenticity of a close friendship; the nuances of mood and things that maybe aren’t said but that you would pick up on if you had such a close relationship,” Lee says. “Those are things we talked about on set.”
Having been friends with Lyonne since they worked together on the 2014 TV movie “Old Soul” was a secret weapon.
“She has a face I cannot lie to, both on set and off. It’s really helpful,” says Lee. “I tell her, ‘Maybe it’s your eyes. Your eyes are so big, you cannot lie to them.’ We have a special thing that comes from knowing each other for years.”
— Michael Ordoña
Patti Harrison (Ruthie) | “Shrill” (Hulu)
Let us now celebrate Ruthie, the scary office coordinator on “Shrill,” a half-hour comedy on Hulu. “Shrill,” which is inspired by the memoir “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman” by Lindy West, features many diverting performances — “SNL’s” Aidy Bryant’s career-changing star turn as a shy, aspiring alt-weekly journalist, John Cameron Mitchell as her pompous, hair-flipping editor. Yet wherever Ruthie is, she’s the center of the frame. As played by Patti Harrison (“Search Party,” “A Simple Favor,” a Trump-skewering appearance on “The Tonight Show” that went viral), Ruthie is blunt, noisy, sharp-tongued, clueless and jarringly out of sync with her co-worker’s rhythms. She’s unpredictable, always ready to bite, but only when you least expect it.
When Harrison, who is (in no particular order) a stand-up comic, trans and prolific on social media, first auditioned for the role, she didn’t know that Ruthie had been created with her comic voice in mind. But she was certain of other things. “I didn’t want to do just another sassy, bad assistant character,” says Harrison, 28, whose “nasty, kind of unhinged” dialogue is sometimes improvised. “I wanted to explode it and take it to the worst possible place. There was a lot of creative freedom there, a first in my acting career so far, which is, like, fledgling. Ruthie doesn’t realize that in her viciousness she’s making herself look ridiculous. That’s very funny to me.”
— Margy Rochlin
Tenoch Huerta (Rafael Caro Quintero) | “Narcos: Mexico” (Netflix)
Perhaps the most memorable real-life figure from Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” depiction of the beginning of the U.S.-Mexico drug war is Rafael “Rafa” Quintero, as played by Tenoch Huerta. Rafa goes from unassuming amateur botanist to a “Scarface”-like loose cannon.
“Everybody knows about him in Mexico. His story is linked with the history of the country, of the politics in Mexico,” says Huerta, whose research dug up as much legend as reality: “I tried to find a way to mix all those elements to find my own interpretation.”
Huerta’s Rafa bears no resemblance to the actor’s turns as a terrifying gang member in “Sin Nombre” or an honorable guerrilla leader in “Bel Canto.” His Rafa is increasingly unpredictable, especially after he begins a torrid romance with a socialite. The relationship empowers him, then destabilizes and wrecks him. But somehow, he’s always … him.
“Felix Gallardo [played by Diego Luna] tried to be part of the elite; he transformed himself. But Rafa kept being the person he was before the money, before all the power. ‘I’m still me, but I’m more of me; I’m a bigger me,’ ” says Huerta.
“That’s why people really link with the character. People know he’s a ‘one-piece guy.’ There’s just one piece of him, he’s a stone.”
— Michael Ordoña
Lidia Porto (Amara De Escalones) | “Get Shorty” (Epix)
Epix’s black-humored retooling of the Elmore Leonard crime story stars Chris O’Dowd as a hitman-turned-movie producer, but it’s his viciously understated boss Amara De Escalones, portrayed by Lidia Porto, who dominates the frame every time she makes an entrance. Dripping with jewelry and outfitted in fur coats, high heels, long fingernails, generously applied eye shadow and whooshing pompadour, Amara, loosely based on ’80s-era Miami cocaine kingpin Griselda Blanco, never raises her voice. Instead, Porto lends Amara reptilian authority by terrifying her underlings, including jittery boyfriend Ricky (Ray Romano), simply by narrowing her eyes or purring pithy broken-English pronouncements punctuated with deadly pauses.
Porto, who moved from Colombia to Texas at age 3, says, “Allen Coulter directed the pilot and one of the first things he said to me was that ‘Someone once told Amara that she was a queen.’ I come back to that often.” Porto also took “animalistic” as a cue from “Get Shorty” showrunner Davey Holmes and credits Season 1 costume designer Helen Huang with a key visual reference. “Helen’s concept board had photos of Tammy Faye Bakker, with all of that exaggerated makeup. I looked at that and said, ‘Well, everyone else may think Amara is Tammy Faye Bakker, but she thinks she’s Marilyn Monroe.’ ”
— Hugh Hart