6. Evan Rachel Wood & Thandie Newton, Westworld
HBO’s biggest hit of 2016, Jonathan Nolan-created sci-fi series Westworld had not one, but two underestimated movie actresses reaffirming their abilities in TV roles.
The always-great Evan Rachel Wood might not be a surprise for indie fans – from her stunning breakout performance in Thirteen (2003) to her turn in HBO’s own miniseries Mildred Pierce (2011), she was on their radars for quite some time. In Westworld, however, she comes of age in a complicated role that she would never be handed so easily on the big screen – thanks God she did on TV.
The big surprise, however, might be Thandie Newton, an actress mostly remembered for bland performances in films like Mission: Impossible II, The Pursuit of Happyness and 2012. As brothel owner android Maeve, however, she turns in a beautifully subtle, tremendously revelatory performance, commanding every scene she’s in (even the ones where she’s naked in a room with people who are supposed to control her).
7. Kirsten Dunst, Fargo
Even though she won a Best Actress prize in Cannes for Melancholia (2011), Kirsten Dunst is usually underestimated by the average cinema-goer, probably because her most indelible images on mainstream films are as a little kid (Interview with the Vampire) or as a bland ingénue (the Spider-Man films).
Her best performances, however, become iconic for whomever watches them. Most recently, there was FX’s anthology series Fargo, of which Dunst became the standout in season 2, playing small-town beautician with big-city dreams Peggy Blumquist. It’s an unusual role for Duns, as she is more used to playing somewhat distant, dreamy types. Here, she proves her versatility and her emotional availability as an actress, becoming the spectator’s main point of contact with the plot.
8. Lena Headey, Game of Thrones
While British actress Lena Headey has been around since 1992, her big break in Hollywood came only with 300, in 2006, where she played Spartan queen Gorgo. That standout role didn’t lead to better ones on the movies, though, and the first time she recurred to TV (The Sarah Connor Chronicles) was not as successful as the second, when she became a different kind of queen, Cersei, in HBO’s Game of Thrones, starting in 2011.
As the Lannister matriarch, Headey has blossomed as an actress that can turn spite, anger and sheer intensity into a form of art. The script helps, of course, as Cersei is a very fleshed-out “villain” even for George R.R. Martin standards, but it’s Headey’s determined performance that truly makes her come alive onscreen. With Game of Thrones drawing to a close in 2018, here’s hoping to more amazing roles for such a talented actress.
9. Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Honorable Woman
Even though she has proved her worth in roles like Lee Holloway in Secretary, back in 2002, Maggie Gyllenhaal is often an afterthought for critics praising her more famous brother’s work. She took the spotlight, however, when she played Nessa Stein in BBC’s The Honorable Woman, an 8-episode miniseries with surprising insight into the world of Israeli-Palestine relations and foreign meddling.
As Stein, Gyllenhaal is an imposing presence onscreen, while also communicating the character’s emotional fragility and trauma. It’s a beautiful performance of hidden depths and deceits, and it anchors a spectacularly written, tremendously important work of art, that went criminally under seen. Gyllenhaal will be back on TV in 2017, with David Simon’s The Deuce, a look at the 70s and 80s New York porn and prostitution scene.
10. Joan Cusack, Shameless
A double Oscar nominee (for Working Girl, in 1989; and In & Out, in 1998), Joan Cusack still seems to struggle to get roles that truly explore her uncanny knack for mixing drama and comedy. She’s been great this year in a guest spot on Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but it’s with her recurring role as Sheila Jackson in Showtime’s Shameless that this New Yorker’s talent really shines through.
As a result, she received five Emmy nominations for the role, the latest of which (in 2015) she actually won. Not bad for the actress whose most mainstream role is, arguably, the voice of Jessie the Cowgirl in the Toy Story franchise.