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The Silent Art of Expression
... and why actress Elisabeth Moss is one of the best at it.
As an author, I get asked from time to time what type of writing I enjoy the most. In the realm of fiction, it’s probably dialogue. I love laying out fictional conversations between characters, and I think I do a good job of making them sound genuine and believable; not canned or contrived like a snappy script from a sitcom. I enjoy infusing little quirks, mannerisms, and awkwardness with the characters, not just for the sake of developing them, but also because — more often than not — that’s just how people talk in the real world.
In short, I want readers to identify with my characters. And a great tool for achieving that is dialogue.
That said, when it comes to performance art (whether it be on a screen or stage), what often draws me into characters are the stories that the actors or actresses who portray them tell without saying a word. I’m talking about things like demeanor, body language, and facial expressions. Lots of actors and actresses are good at conveying the emotions felt by their characters, but exceptional ones draw audiences into actually feeling what their characters are going through.
This doesn’t necessarily require us to know exactly what’s going on in a character’s head, but rather feel the joy, or pain, or anxiety he or she is experiencing.
One actress who I think is particularly gifted at the silent art of expression is Elisabeth Moss. Though I’d seen her in a number of things earlier in her acting career, it was her role as Peggy Olson in Mad Men that really caught my attention.
It was such a complicated part to play, this a young, naive secretary working for a New York ad agency in the 1960s, who defies all odds to rise up through the ranks in an industry and era overflowing with chauvinism. The evolution of her character was something to behold, starting out as an eager, low-level people-pleaser, and ending up as a supremely confident, high-ranking copywriter.
And while the scripts were well-written, and she delivered her lines well, she also had an unmistakable, expressive aura about her that really brought something to the character.
These days, Moss is best known for her Emmy-winning role as June Osborne on the critically acclaimed Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale.
I came to the show late, in part because I was unfamiliar with the book, and mistakenly believed it to be a colonial-era drama (which I’m typically not into). But I’ve since become hooked, and emotionally invested in the show, and I’ve come to understand just how great of an actress Moss is.
This is in large part because of the nature of the story. The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in front of a dystopian, totalitarian backdrop in which women live under unspeakable oppression and slavery. Speaking out comes with terrible, torturous consequences. So, much of the acting, especially when it relates to the June character (or other “handmaids”), relies on expression… including the torment of having to hold back emotion (sometimes unsuccessfully).
It’s here where Moss really shines, as demonstrated in the below clip:
Oddly enough, it wasn’t The Handmaid’s Tale that inspired this week’s newsletter topic (though last week’s season finale was great). It came instead from the Instagram account of British music composer Max Richter, who I’ve been a fan of since first hearing his work in the HBO series, The Leftovers.
He posted last week because his music had just been used in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, specifically his piece, “On the Nature of Daylight” (which has turned up in a number of shows and movies over the years). Richter shared the official video for the song, which was made back in 2018. I’d never seen it before, and was surprised to discover that it actually features… Elisabeth Moss.
As it turns out, Moss is also a big fan of Richter’s, and she offered him her acting talents for the video. I watched the whole thing and was absolutely blown away by the emotional journey Moss puts viewers and listeners through… again without uttering a single word.
She really is one of the best at this:
A YouTube commenter summed it up well:
What a phenomenal actress… In this 6 minute music video it is a woman walking through an unremarkable landscape - but she looks like she's about to explode, or break down, at any moment. I paused the video just to note that I've been captivated by the most unremarkable footage but it's still amazing. Because of her face.
Indeed. And like much of Richter’s work, the song itself is heart-wrenching.
Is there an expressive actor or actress who you think stands out? Tell me who in an email, or in the comment section below.
Back in November, I wrote a piece about author (and former NFL football player) Tim Green, who first inspired me, years ago, to start writing fiction. Green was diagnosed with ALS in 2018 — a debilitating (to say the least), terminal disease. Still, he impressively continues to write with the help of technology.
His new novel is set to release in September, and its title and plot are unmistakably personal:
Benjamin Redd has football in his blood. His two older brothers were all-star, top-ranked college players, and his dad is a former defensive lineman for the Atlanta Falcons. It was only natural that sixth grade quarterback Ben follow in their huge footsteps.
Then his dad receives heartbreaking news. All those hard hits on the line and savage tackles he made back in his heyday led to a recent medical diagnosis of ALS, an incurable disease that slowly causes loss of muscle control. Ben’s mom is now more determined than ever to get Ben to quit football.
Ben isn’t playing just for himself though. This might be his dad’s last time to coach on a football field. And his teammates need a quarterback that can lead them to the championships. He can’t give up. But as Ben watches the heavy toll ALS takes on his dad’s body, he begins to question if this really should be his final season.
Authors bring a lot of who they are to their work, of course. But this story is effectively biographical of him and his family, even down to the sports team Green played for, the position he played, and his history of coaching youth football (including his kids’ teams). I can only imagine how difficult it was for him to write… especially knowing it could potentially be his last book.
Way back in 2012, shortly after I had signed the publishing contract for my first novel, I wrote a piece for my website explaining what had compelled me to write the book. Along with describing Green’s influence, I said this:
A great deal of motivation also came from the birth of my first child. When I became a new parent, I found an unexpected, almost instinctive urge to leave some kind of legacy behind for my children. I know that simply being a good father is the most important thing I could give them, but I also felt compelled to create something that would demonstrate to them that hard work and dedication does pay off. I suppose that’s a lesson I taught myself as well.
I’m guessing that it’s that same sense of legacy, and leaving a work behind for one’s children, that inspired Green to write such a book.
As I wrote in November, my thoughts and prayers are with the Green family. They having an amazing patriarch, and they assuredly know it.
Obligatory Dog Shot
The feared “reverse giddy-up.”
Obligatory Wife-with-hatchet Clip
I’m not sure if this is a widely known fact, but film director John Carpenter (who’s given us horror and science-fiction classics like Halloween, Escape from New York, and The Thing) also composes the music for his movies. He’s even gone on tour over the years, performing it on stage in front of crowds.
Some of it’s pretty quirky… but also iconic. I mean, who doesn’t remember the eerie, piano-driven theme from Halloween?
Anthology (Movie Themes 1974-1998) is a fun listen that includes the themes from 13 of Carpenter’s films. One that stands out for me is the bluesy, impoverished tune from the 1988 cult favorite, They Live.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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