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Performers Of The Month - Staff Choice Most Outstanding Performer of November - James Roday

30 Dec 2018

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The article was written by Ellys Cartin, Marko Pekic, Jessica Lerner, and Beth. Article edited by Donna Cromeans (@DJRiter). Article prepared for publication by Aimee Hicks.

The heart of ABC’s A Million Little Things is Gary Mendez. He’s the character who lifts everyone else up, as he is both the first to point out flaws and the first to forgive them. He uses sarcastic humor to cope with life’s less pleasant revelations. He is both confidant and comforter often literally wrapping his arms around his friends to help and protect them. But sometimes, the protector needs protection. Of course, he wouldn’t be a realistic character if he didn’t have jagged edges here and there. His flaws only make him a more lovable character because they make him more familiar. Gary relishes life. Gary sabotages his own happiness. Gary would give blood down to his last pint to help someone he loves. It’s almost guaranteed that viewers see a small part of themselves in him. This character has been a gift to viewers in the first season of this new drama. He has become a vital part of the show through the impassioned yet subtle performances of James Roday. Viewers most likely knew him from previous comedic work or his projects from the director’s chair, such as three adrenaline-pumping episodes of The Resident this spring. The character Gary Mendez is one of his finest creations to date, and the episode Fight or Flight (1x8) is an incredible dramatic showcase for his talents. His stellar work makes him more than worthy of recognition as SpoilerTV’s Staff Choice Performer of the Month for November.

Roday`s Gary is a survivor, of not only cancer but of life. He comes into this episode right after the break up with Maggie (Allison Miller). He has only one goal, get Maggie out of his mind. While looking at the apartment with Eddie (David Giunatoli) he is continuously making remarks about women online trying to cover his pain and take his mind off Maggie`s decision to discontinue treatment. The brave, nonchalant front Gary struggles to maintain during these moments with Eddie capture the nuances that Roday puts into creating his character. Eddie continuously presses Gary to call Maggie, repeatedly laying blame for the breakup on Gary's usual patterns of behavior towards women. There's an invitation that Roday puts into Gary's voice and body language. He wants Eddie to ask him a follow-up question. Eddie misses the cue, continuing to rib his friend. And the disappointment and irritation in Gary's demeanor are instantly readable. He drops a harsh verbal response, putting Eddie down with a mean-spirited observation. Eddie then unknowingly hits his friend right in the heart by snapping back. For a second, Gary is dumbstruck into silence, his face contorted with pain and vexation that must remain unspoken because of his promise to Maggie. Instead, he moves closer to his friend, his voice slowly getting louder until he is shouting. He reminds Eddie that he was the first to forgive him and take him in. And now he just needs him to have his back. Roday nails this scene with many nonverbal cues, as Gary asks for understanding a dozen different ways that the audience can read but Eddie can’t or doesn’t want to see. Knowing how much he needs to share this burden magnifies the emotional power of this scene.

Often, an actor will have the benefit of playing off their scene partner and that other person’s dialogue, and the power of the connection that comes from that can create some phenomenal scenes. But, then there are times where the writers really want to challenge the performers and they divide them in some way so the performers aren’t face-to-face. When this occurs, it is on the individual actor to bring their A game, and Roday does just that. Gary is having a one-way conversation through a wooden door trying to reach Maggie. This scene was James Roday laying everything on the table. He brought a wide range of feelings, from humor to desperation to anguish. His barely controlled emotion alone is enough to bring any viewer to tears. There's fear in Gary's voice, even as he sugar-coats it with humor when he asks her to knock three times to tell him if she's alive. As he tries to get Maggie to talk to him, it is the subtle non-verbal beats that Roday infuses that makes this moment even more impactful. In the hands of a lesser actor this scene could come across as disingenuous or needy, but what he does with the verbal and the non-verbal cues is something to marvel at. Roday just stands there outside this door, his hands in his pockets, pouring out his heart. He gradually gets closer until he is only inches away. In the last moment of trying and failing to get a response, it is one final move that involves no dialogue that he does that leaves a lasting impression. As he turns to go, Gary places his hand flat against the door, slowly pulling it away but never looking back. Anyone watching that scene could feel Gary's heartbreak. Being so emotionally open as a performer is the mark of an amazing performance, and Roday bared his soul in this scene.

After Maggie doesn’t answer at her apartment, Gary visits her office and learns she’s taken a job in another city. That reminds him of her ex-boyfriend, Tom (Sam Huntington) who came to see her. Going to the airport to talk to Tom is an outstanding example of the depth of Gary’s dedication. Roday plays this scene with a brisk manner but slows down a minute when Gary has to offer Tom reassurance. Tom naturally assumes Gary’s appearance means the worst has happened. As he just starts to panic, Roday has Gary extend out his arm, not quite touching Tom but making a gesture as if he would support him if he started to collapse. Or as if he doesn’t want him to keep speaking. “No, no, no, no. She’s alive.” He says it firmly, punctuating each denial as if Gary is subconsciously willing it to be so. Gary doesn’t want to associate death and Maggie. He asks Tom to talk with him. Once again displaying his character’s penchant of being the comforter and supporter for everyone, even a stranger.

In Gary’s conversation with Tom, Roday has him be completely candid. He pleads with the ex of the woman he loves to help him save her. He admits his fear that he’s not enough to save her and begs her ex to help him. Once again, he’s showing even more of the character’s carefully guarded vulnerability. Tom says there is nothing they can do about that door. Roday looks at him with piercing cold fury, showing he can’t believe Tom is saying he won’t even try. This anger slowly fades away, replaced by exasperation as Tom explains that someone else is responsible for Maggie’s defenses. Roday presses his thumbs to the bridge of his nose, hinting at the weariness and potential jet lag his character is experiencing. Tom tries to offer some consolation, with a quote about how you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. The cracks appear through a faint huskiness that Roday lets into his voice. Gary tells Tom about how he lost a friend to suicide recently. "There's not a day that goes by when I don't wonder if there's something, I could have done to save him." This isn’t the first time he’s referenced Maggie’s decision to not do chemo as being self-harm, but it’s one of the rare times Gary has revealed feelings of guilt about his friend Jon’s death. Normally, he keeps his feeling close, but it’s evident he’s growing weary of having to be strong. When Gary asks Tom again to get on a plane, Roday lets his lower lip quiver. And this time when Tom gently refuses, Gary’s eyes aren’t angry but full of empathy for the other man’s pain. Roday lets his shoulders just barely drop here, in a crushing slow recognition of defeat.

After his swift round trip to Chicago, Gary enters the food testing party with an unsettled mind. There's a brief cold confrontation with Maggie on the way in. The slight tremble of yearning in his eyes was perfectly transferred by Roday, even as Gary otherwise pretended to drop the subject instantly. He begins an aggressively cheery circle through the party. He stops to forgive Eddie and offer him and his son a place to live. He munches on appetizers, pausing to hug another friend who is the chef. This behavior becomes a performance within a performance within a performance. Gary is again faking happiness so that his friends will believe him to be okay, but he's also deliberately trying to draw Maggie's attention to things she'll be losing. Namely the love and support of this friend group. And while a smile covered his face throughout the scene Roday gave away Gary's inner turmoil with a persistent twitch in his eyes. Gary is so disconnected and focused on not paying attention to Maggie while trying to get her attention that he isn't even keeping track of what is going on around him. When Maggie calls Gary from inside the room, he plays his last card, telling her that he knows his friends would side with him in this situation. There's an eager, if slightly smug, confidence to this declaration. Gary has been spinning out of control since he arrived at this party, and the only tether left is this trust in his friends. It's his last refuge. And it's pulled out from under him in the same breath.

Upon learning the rest of their friends know Maggie has decided to forgo treatment and support her decision, confusion spreads over Gary’s face, with Rodayexpertly balancing the breast cancer survivor’s disoriented state as he tries to process this new, incomprehensible piece of news. He couldn’t quite believe that his friends were betraying him like this. Needing somehow to make sense of all of this, Gary calls for a timeout and looks around at each of his cheerful friends, desperately trying to figure out how this could have happened. His confusion then seamlessly morphs to anger, with his voice growing louder with incredulity as he realizes his friends are willing to “stand by and watch this woman kill herself.” On the verge of yelling, Gary begins to gesture feverishly in a desperate plea for his friends to realize the severity of the situation. Roday then reaches the crescendo of his rant, and with the rest of the room in complete silence, he commands everyone’s attention. He spins around the room, searching for any hint of concession from his friends and finding none. He then masterfully redirects all of Gary’s rage and hurt onto Maggie, but in a way that it's not an attack but a last entreaty for her to reconsider her decision. He uncharacteristically ignores the effect his words have on her, telling the Chicago transplant she will bail on their friends like she bailed on her friends in the Windy City to mockingly mentioning “some loser named Chad” that broke her heart. The torrent of injury and bitterness that Roday funnels in this scene forms a vivid contrast to the compassion and longing he demonstrated in the scene at Maggie's door. Gary pauses when Maggie tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In that instance, Roday’s posture deflates as he lets Gary’s frustration drain away, and indifference washes across his face. Then, as he raises his hands in a placating gesture, Gary pointedly notes, “I don’t know you." There's sorrow in his tone and exhaustion in his frame. He quietly exits, leaving behind a vacuum so large it creates an ache in your own heart as you watch.

There isn’t a single moment of James Roday’s work in Fight or Flight that isn’t layered with hurt and hope. He allows viewers to see through Gary’s snarky facade to the man beneath that who is desperate to share his strength and love with someone he senses needs it. And he takes them a level deeper into the desperation and betrayal Gary can barely handle in this episode. The character has reached a breaking point, he’s been so strong for everyone else for so long he just doesn’t possess the strength to be strong for himself when he needs it most. Even when Gary is going too far or making a very questionable choice, Roday never lets us forget how beautiful the soul is under the brusque, burly mask Gary wears. His performance in this episode displays a raw authenticity that anyone who has experienced grief or denial, or desperation will certainly recognize. He holds everything in, not wanting to confide in anyone until he can’t do so anymore. He finally lashes out in a destructive rage that is simultaneously a cry for help. Roday ensures that your heart is aching with Mendez’s every step of the way. In a short time, only half a season, he has molded Gary Mendez into an incredible character that one can’t help but root for during his lows and his highs. His exceptional performance in this emotional episode, and for the detailed reasons outlined in this article are the factors that led to James Roday being selected SpoilerTV’s Staff Pick for Performer of the Month for November.

Share your thoughts on why you think James Roday deserves this honor in the comments below.